By Ted McIntyre
It seems like a bit of a surreal juxtaposition, this Scottish oasis in the Sonoran desert. While Scottsdale’s Westin Kierland Resort features the usual assortment of all things Arizona, from the palm-studded entrance to the rugged, stoney backdrop of the McDowells, Camelback Mountain and Pinnacle Peak, the lack of a single cactus upon 27 lush holes of golf and the ritualistic drone of the bagpipes at sunset suggest otherwise.
Paying homage to the contributions made by Scottish immigrants in the development of Arizona’s railroads, mines and towns, the Westin has embraced its plaid kilted heritage. And with all due respect to its golf and the distinctive sounds from master piper Michael McClanathan, it’s the new Scotch Library inside that best exemplifies the resort’s Celtic commitment.
There are approximately 90 whisky distilleries covering six regions in Scotland, and around 35 of them (and 130 labels) are housed in that eight-foot-high glass cabinet, with plans to represent all 90 distilleries in time. Nearby is “The Big Book.” Essentially the Westin’s bible of scotch, it lays upon a lectern and contains everything you’d ever want to now about each of those whisky varieties. But on this evening we’re getting an education from Guy Sporbert, one of six scotch ambassadors at the Westin Keirland. Food and Beverage Manager Michael Winata, who is alongside, draws a huge Scottish claymore sword from a compartment at the bottom of the cabinet and we all take turns playing the role of William Wallace, posing with a blade the height of a adolescent child…in front of an open cabinet that probably contains $100,000 of precious liquid, much of which is extremely rare. Take the Glenfiddich 50 they uncapped during the grand opening in December—$26,000 Cdn, the last time the LCBO put one up for sale. One of just three such bottles in the United States, the Westin dispenses it for $1,000 an ounce; $1,800 for two ounces. If it’s hard to comprehend any bottle of liquor commanding such a price, consider that only 50 bottles are produced each year, and that when they began making the latest batch, Mary Poppins was just hitting the theatres.
There’s also a bottle of Macallan 62 in there, which will probably fetch even more on the open market. But the typical $45 three-scotch samplings at the Westin cover more accessible varieties.
Only 10% of scotches are single malts while 90% are blends, notes Sporbert. On this evening our group’s three flights will feature the most famous scotch blender of them all, Johnnie Walker. First up is the Green label, a now-discontinued 15-year-old vatted blend. (The year number identifies the age of youngest scotch used in its recipe.) Sporbert reminds us that we can add a few drops of water to open up the notes, which hint of espresso, wood smoke, oak and chocolate, but I’ve only ever felt that a touch of water was necessary for scotches of 100 proof or more to lessen the alcohol burn.
Next up is JW Gold ($80 in Canada). Its wide variety of blended scotches aged 18 years and up reveal a more rounded finish with touches of vanilla, honey and light smoke. Then it’s the crown jewel of Johnnie Walker, the Blue label ($400). A blend of 16 whiskys, there is no age minimum, so some of the contents could be as young as 10 years, while some could also be as old as 60. This highly lauded masterwork offers a floral nose with a palette of dried plum, cedar and toffee. To be honest, though, I actually preferred the balance and finish of the Gold.
When in Rome…
Perhaps I was just yearning for more drama than a refined scotch offered. And I found it just a scant seven-minute drive away. There I was, holding a rattlesnake by the head; its dripping fangs two inches from my face; a distinct rattling sound to my left. OK, it was actually a severed head that I’d plucked from my tequila tasting tray and the media wretch beside me was this one shaking the rattle part of the tail in my ear. We were seated at La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. When you’re in Arizona, it’s hard to avoid the native drink, and there’s no better place in the state to sample tequila than this trendy restaurant—home to between 240 and 250 varieties.
Real tequila is fermented from the cores of blue Weber agave cacti (harvested in their 12th year) from the Mexican state of Jalisco and doesn’t leave the head-pounding hangover of the artificially flavoured/coloured (usually caramel) tequilas of the traditional bar shots you’ve experienced. Always look for “100% Agave” on the label!
Our rattlesnake-adorned tasting tray contained a Don Julio trio. The Don Julio Blanco (meaning a 30-day barrel-ageing process) has always tasted a little too raw and peppery for my tongue. While many will use the Blanco in mixed drinks, I recommend you start sipping it like a liqueur once you get to the Reposado level. Aged for eight months, this is a straw-coloured gem. Of all the tequilas out there, most Mexicans I’ve encountered have cited Don Julio Reposado as their favourite. It’s a mellow blend with notes of dark chocolate, caramel, cinnamon and a hint of orange peel, with a little honey and pepper on the finish.
Wooden barrels provide both the colour and the oaky, brandy-style flavours to aged tequilas, but the American white oak barrels used by Don Julio max out those qualities at the Reposado level, so the Don Julio Anejo (old), although wonderfully smooth, is actually light amber in colour with more of a butterscotch and vanilla flavour on the palette.
Experts say that a shot of (real) tequila before lunch can stimulate the appetite, and one after dinner can aid with digestion. I know it acts as a great tranquilizer for me to calm the nerves just before sleep.
But there’s always a chance they forgot to lock the cabinet at the Westin’s Scotch Library