Whisky Maltdown and the Yamazaki 55

In 1972 when Bunny and I were in London for the first time, one of the main topics of conversation — apart from the latest episode of the Coronation Street soap, or what radio DJ Tony Blackburn would next feature on his morning music program — was Centrepoint.

Centrepoint, as its name suggested, was in the very center of London, in the heart of the West End, and was one of the first multi-storeyed office blocks in the city, which since then has suffered an eruption of these architectural monstrosities, steel- and-glass warts that have sprung up to blemish the skyline.

Centrepoint was an eyesore. But its ugliness was not what made it such a talking point. What was intriguing about it was who was going to occupy it, when, and how. The promoters kept jacking up the square-foot rental of the premises with the speed of a rocket ship. The moment a prospective tenant made a bid, the asking price would go up and be beyond the would-be renter’s budget.

Centrepoint had become a self-perpetuating mechanism of notional value. It had priced itself out of the market so that while on paper it represented a gold mine by way of potential rents, in actuality it had made itself an NPA, a Non-productive asset. I don’t know the ultimate fate of Centrepoint, but the building, and the economic paradox it embodied, came to mind when I heard about a single 750 ml bottle of a Suntory malt whisky going under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction for the equivalent of `65.2 crores. Called Yamazaki 55, it is the oldest, and most expensive,
whisky bottled in Japan.

The Yamazaki 55 is a blend of three single malts distilled in the 1960s, and aged for 55 years in Mizunara casks in a process initiated by Suntory founder, Shinjiro Torii. The blend was orchestrated by Suntory’s chief blender Shinji Fukuyo and master blender Shingo Torai.

“The Yamazaki 55 is like an old Buddhist statue. Calm and mysterious. It takes time to take in its inner beauty with the smell of Japanese incense”

A blend of three single malts, the Yamazaki 55 is aged at 55 years

Describing the creation of the sublime spirit in which he played a pivotal role, Fukuyo said on the company’s website, “Very old Scotch whiskies gave me the impression of them being perfect Greek sculptures with beautiful toned beauty. Instantly impressive as a piece of art. But the Yamazaki 55 is more like an old Buddhist statue. Calm and mysterious. It takes time to take in its inner beauty with the smell of Japanese incense and stripped old wood, like the Toshodaiji Temple in Nara.”

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While that elucidation might seem to some to be as beguiling as the Zen koan — What is the sound of one hand clapping? The Yamazaki 55 raises questions of a more down-to-earth nature pertaining to its purpose and its intended end-use. The purpose or end-use of a building – Centrepoint or any other — is to provide accommodation for people. The purpose of a whisky or any libation is to be imbibed.

But at an estimated `4.7 crore for a single wee dram, who would drink the Yamazaki 55, and when? It’s more than just a question of simple economics. An Elon Musk or an Adani or an Ambani might well offer a glassful to privileged guests and even induce them to have a refill.

No, the problem lies in the niceties of social protocol. Breaching the Yamazaki 55 for a special occasion — an anniversary, the signing of a major merger or business deal, or the visitation of a VVIP — will itself upstage the event it is supposed to commemorate; the day will be remembered more for the inauguration of the prized spirit than for the event it was meant to toast.

To compound matters, the Japanese distillate will follow the law of appreciating returns, whereby increasing antiquity will add to, rather than subtract, from its worth, as is the case with those legendary 100-year-old Cognacs or Burgundies, that are spoken of in hushed and reverential whispers. The more it matures, the more mythical will the Yamazaki 55 becomes. The more priceless it’s perceived to be, the more value-less will it become from any practical point of view, a fate it would share with the Centrepoint of yesteryear. A museum piece enshrined in sublime inutility.

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