Meet the Man Behind the Most Expensive Whisky in the World

Christopher Old
Macallan Cire Perdu

It was January 2014 and the tension in the air was palpable. As the bids continued, palms in the room were becoming sweatier still – despite the typically efficient Hong Kong air conditioning. Within minutes, The Macallan ‘M’ had sold for the grand sum of $628,205, breaking the record for the most expensive whisky in the world.

No matter that the record had previously belonged to another Macallan, the 64 Year Old in Lalique – The Macallan’s director, Ken Grier, was simply delighted to see the hard work invested in the meticulous preparation of the incredible ‘M’ bottling rewarded aptly.

Though the dust has settled on the sensational events in the Sotheby’s auction room nine months ago, as I sat down over a glass of, naturally, the finest scotch with Grier recently, his memories of the event were as fresh as ever.

Grier attributed much of the success to the multi-talented team of collaborators who worked on the project, including French crystal makers, Lalique, who created the decanter. “We have had a wonderfully rich and mutually beneficial partnership with Lalique for many years. Silvo Denz, the owner of Lalique is an extremely creative, charming and astute brand builder who loves The Macallan.

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Macallan M

The Macallan ‘M’ sold for more than $600,000, making it the most expensive whisky in the world

“Silvio worked with us on the initial springboard, which was the Cire Perdue decanter that set a world record of $460,000 [the 64 Year Old in Lalique that ‘M’ replaced as the world’s most expensive whisky]. We then were fortunate to partner with Fabien Baron, the world famous creative director, and Lalique to work on the 6 litre ‘M’ decanter.”

As with Cire Perdue, the ‘M’ decanter was made with painstaking attention to detail. 40 crystal decanters were created before being destroyed due to imperfections. The finished product was made by 17 talented artisans over a period of more than 50 hours.

Of course, not all of the credit can be directed away from The Macallan. The unique flavours of their scotch comes from the distinct methods they use to mature their whisky in the oak cask. This is something Grier deems to be crucial in producing top-notch whisky. “60% of the flavour of a single malt whisky comes from the quality of the cask it is matured in,” he tells me.

Uniquely, The Macallan mature their spirit in sherry seasoned oak casks from the woods of northern Spain. “We buy 95% of the sherry oak casks used in the Scotch whisky industry and pay anything up to 10 times the price of the bourbon casks that others use. That is the critical point that makes The Macallan better.”

Grier has overseen the sale of the two most expensive scotches on the planet, meantime spearheading the acclaimed launch of The Macallan’s Fine Oak range – which now accounts for a quarter of what the company sell. Yet he tells me that the most rewarding achievement in the job is seeing a customer with a glass or bottle of The Macallan. “It still gives me the same thrill now as when I started out,” he beams.

Macallan Ultimate Dinner

The Macallan & El Celler de Can Roca have teamed up to present the ‘Ultimate Dinner’

And Grier is now most excited to share both of the two most expensive scotches, as well as the oldest scotch in the world, as part of The Macallan’s forthcoming ‘Ultimate Dinner’, with El Celler de Can Roca, a Spanish restaurant that matches the pedigree of The Macallan. Named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant Magazine in 2013, El Celler have been in possession of the maximum three Michelin stars since 2009.

The restaurant’s chef-patrons, brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, travelled to The Macallan’s distillery in Craigellachie, Scotland, where they met up with The Macallan’s Master Whisky Maker, Bob Dalgarno. Picking out the finest whiskies, the trio dreamt up a scintillating menu to match each whisky. The result is a 14 course tasting menu – with each course expertly paired with a select Macallan. Net proceeds from the event will go to charity:water, who are striving to provide clean water in developing countries.

Grier was complimentary of the Roca brothers’ efforts in helping to create this bespoke event. “The Roca brothers are an incredible creative force. They have astonishing capability for creativity and are some of the most charming men it has been my pleasure ever to work with.” It was indeed something of an honour for Grier to work with the trio, having dined at El Celler de Can Roca four times previously. “The food there is absolutely sublime – it always feels like a once in a lifetime experience.”

The ‘Ultimate Dinner’ is something Grier is particularly looking forward to. “This will be a pantheon in the epicurean world, with a menu by, in my opinion, the best chefs in the world and with a once ever time pairing with Macallans that will never be experienced again. It is an event truly not to be missed.”

The Macallan expect that guests for the event may come from all over the world, since the customer base for scotch brands has spread monumentally in recent years. Emerging markets have displayed a keen interest in fine whiskies, with Asia and Russia now accounting for an important number of sales for The Macallan.

Ultimate Dinner Corn and Vanilla Wanton Ravioli

 Corn and Vanilla Wanton Ravioli is one of the dishes on the menu at El Celler de Can Roca’s 

Grier tells me that the way people consume the scotch in different markets varies greatly. “Some markets are about on the rocks, others, such as China, ganbei – bottoms up – whilst yet more markets are about drinking with no water and savouring. The bottom line is that it is fantastic whisky and you should drink it how you like.”

Since scotch is so often associated with the sphere of luxury, I was intrigued to learn how he defined luxury. “It’s something that takes you to a different space, it gives you an intrinsic and extrinsic pleasure,” he told me.

And how does The Macallan fit into the sphere? “To me, The Macallan is remarkable. It is a fusion of strong emotional benefits – when I drink it I feel like a billion dollars – and a powerful rational benefit – rich and indulgent due to its sherry cask backbone. It has been built on supreme product quality with a price to justify this.”

As the sun sets over Craigellachie, there is only one question that remains. Until recent years, ‘The Macallan’ was simply ‘Macallan’. Why the return of the definite article? “In Victorian times the definite article denoted an assumptive position in the category. It is legendary; the brand with this kudos simply has to be The Macallan.”

 
 

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  • Robin

    Grier is certainly a driven man and has done a stirling job at Macallan. Great to hear so closely from him.