I’m standing on the roof terrace of the Penthouse Suite at Gleneagles, gazing out at a blaze of autumn colour and feeling excited, but also a little nervous. I’m about to create my own signature John Walker & Sons whisky blend with one of the great legends of the whisky industry, master blender of Johnnie Walker Jim Beveridge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I find myself thinking. I must not mess this up.
My nerves are not helped by the knowledge that I am about to embark on something that usually costs upwards of £100,000, a sum that sounds like insanity until one learns the degree of expertise and the rarity of some of the liquids involved – because blending whisky is an art form just as complex, nuanced and mercurial as painting, music composition or perfumery. Even with access to the finest materials (and in this instance that means many whiskies too scarce ever to make it to a commercial blend), there’s no guarantee you’ll emerge with a Mona Lisa.
Back downstairs in the Blue Tower Suite, Beveridge is quick to put me at my ease. “Once the whisky is poured, the anxiety goes very quickly,” he smiles, opening the oak cabinet beside him to reveal ranks of little sample bottles of amber liquid from distilleries all over Scotland. Assisted by fellow blender Stuart Morrison, he starts by making up a series of contrasting blends designed to establish where on the flavour map my tastes lie (he won’t say what goes into them until the end, however, to avoid prejudicing my tastebuds). The first is honeyed and light but a little dull. The second is smoky and rich, confirming my hunch that I’d like something with a good bit of peat to it. From here, we taste our way through a spectrum of blends ranging from toasty and spicy to flamboyantly fruity, to establish how we might flesh things out. It’s around blend number seven, which marries thick golden syrup with woodsmoke and a little coastal saltiness, that things start hotting up. “I like it!” I almost shout, and suddenly the mood switches from contemplative to excited as we start bearing down on the perfect recipe. “Now we can play some tunes. Dial up the smoke!” cries Beveridge, as Morrison busies himself with bottles, flasks and digital scales. “We’re in Talisker/Lagavulin territory – Lagavulin is full-on iodine, it’s maritime, tar, very bold. Talisker smoke is more bonfire, peat reek, seaside. The smoke is more wispy. Now we’re trying to find something between the two – this is the creative, intuitive bit.”
Before the afternoon is up we have arrived at a blend approaching perfection in my book, marrying the vibrant smoke of Lagavulin 15yo with fruity 23yo Rosebank, whiskies from Dufftown, Blair Athol and a more mature 20yo Talisker aged in sherry casks, underpinned by a vatting of 31yo grain whiskies. Given more time, says Beveridge, we might have punctuated it further with liquid from prized “silent” distilleries Convalmore and Port Ellen. I go home treasuring my prototype in a little glass flask, but those buying into the full experience will see their John Walker & Sons Signature Blend recreated in a minimum run of 50 bottles in a Johnnie Walker livery of their choosing, inscribed with whatever name or message they wish. Thereafter, the recipe is entered into the Johnnie Walker archives, where it will be kept for eternity alongside the specs for some of history’s most iconic blends.
I did my blending session in Scotland, but Johnnie Walker will arrange consultations anywhere in the world, be it a members’ club in Shanghai, an apartment in Manhattan or the rarely visited Caol Ila distillery on Islay, with its stunning waterside location. And as one would hope for such a price, there is an almost limitless number of ways to tailor the experience further to suit the individual or to serve as a showstopping gift.
Nothing can quite match this experience for exclusivity, but Johnnie Walker is not the only spirits company now offering epicures the chance to have a hand in the selection and creation of a spirit they love. At the picturesque Royal Lochnagar distillery in Balmoral, whisky aficionados can sign up to the Distillery Director’s membership scheme, a 12-month, distance-learning programme designed to take an individual “from whisky drinker to whisky maker”. Priced at £1,450, the course begins with the delivery of a toolkit and masterclass tasting notes, followed by a series of exclusive whisky releases for tasting throughout the year. By feeding back tasting notes to the master distiller, members can then play a part in shaping a special Director’s Edition release that is only available to members of the club. The annual membership fee also includes behind-the-scenes access to the distillery, the chance to taste rare cask malts and a concierge service for tailormade trips.
And gin lovers should not miss the opportunity to create their own mother’s ruin at the Cambridge Distillery, a boutique outfit that uses a new-wave vacuum still to produce gins of exceptional complexity and clarity of flavour. “We begin by looking at more classic gin botanicals like juniper, coriander and citrus, but if a client wants to introduce something to make it a bit more personal, like lavender from their garden or a favourite marmalade, we can do that too,” says master distiller Will Lowe, whose diverse client list ranges from Michelin restaurants and the House of Lords to Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, the pioneering institution set up by Noma head chef cognac with a personal touch, connoisseurs should seek out fine-wine merchant Bordeaux Index, which recently hand-selected a small number of rare, single-barrel, single-vineyard cognacs from Delamain, one of the last family-owned houses in the region. The “single vineyard” proposition is unusual because cognacs are typically made from a blend of eaux-de-vie from different terroirs – in this case, the cognac is supremely singular. It’s also unusual because, as anyone who’s tried to buy a single barrel of spirits will know, they are not something producers will part with readily. Which is where Bordeaux Index’s contacts and expertise come in. The third (and final) barrel in the Delamain series of single barrels is the rich, nutty Ambleville, which starts at £696 for six bottles under bond, or £42,000 for the entire cask (which equates to around 360 bottles). Bordeaux Index will then arrange for these to be bottled with bespoke labelling.
If cocktails are more your thing, then how about creating a signature drink under the guidance of one of the world’s best bartenders? At the Drink Factory in east London, where Tony Conigliaro conjures up dazzlingly inventive cocktail lists for 69 Colebrooke Row, Zetter Townhouse and Bar Termini, budding mixologists can make an appointment to spend an afternoon in the flavour lab, devising distillates and compounding aromas to create a drink that’s completely unique. Whether it’s a cocktail that tastes like a walk in a forest, a distillate that smells like your lover’s perfume or an inventive twist on a classic, the result can then be bottled to take home or scaled up for a special event (prices on request).
And following the opening of Barcelona’s Dry Martini bar at the Meliá White House in Regent’s Park, you now have the opportunity to devise your perfect martini with the help of guru Javier de las Muelas. As well as exploring the bar’s extensive range of rare, vintage and limited-edition gins under his guidance – and matching them with the perfect vermouth – martini fiends are also let loose in the lab to create their own brand of the “droplets” Dry Martini uses to season its own martinis. After selecting the perfect glass and enjoying a drink at the bar, the exhausted mixologist can then collapse into bed in the hotel’s Presidential Suite for the night – all for £7,000.