Price No Object
There was a time when I had a modest collection of Scotches, the result of a lot of international flights and duty free shops and a little bit of reading. I wasn’t intense about it, I just took opportunities to try whisky that I couldn’t obtain or afford at home. And when offered a drink, I’d usually have Scotch, so I guess I was a Scotch drinker.
Settled in Pittsburgh, for several summers I played the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado. Along with my clarinets and fishing gear, I’d take a dozen rough-shaped pipes and finish them there, working on the condo balcony. Every year the festival would have a fund-raising event with a blind auction, to which I would donate a copy of The Lovely Reed, my bamboo fly rod building book, with an accompanying fly tying session. As I wrote on the IOU, “I’m not an expert, but the flies I tie are good enough for the fish I catch. We’ll spend an evening tying flies and talking about whatever suits you. I’ll provide materials and tools, you provide the Scotch.”
The book always sold, probably because the opening bid was down in the ah-what-the-hell range, but nobody ever took me up on the fly tying session until the last year I played the festival. The phone rang and a man explained that he’d purchased my item the previous year and he was calling to collect. We agreed on a time, I got directions. It turned out to be over an hour’s drive, which could be 30 miles back east, but in Colorado was a far piece. I drove south to Gunnison then headed west, turning several times onto smaller roads. The last road passed through a substantial, open electric gate — as I watched the gate close in my rear-view mirror and noticed that I had no cell service it occurred to me that I hadn't told anyone where I was going.
The road climbed and twisted until I came around a bend and saw what looked like a ski lodge nestled into the mountainside. My destination. In addition to the immense main house there was a guest (caretaker’s?) house as well as a detached garage with five or six doors. The broad, rough-cut native stone front steps led to a long porch with pole-fence railings, you know, the kind where they draw-knife the bark off and varnish the logs. There is a difference between shoddy McMansion ostentatiousness and unique work done by master craftsmen, and this crib was dripping with the latter. Utterly impossible to stumble upon, nobody could see it except from the air without an invitation. My host met me at the door and led the way into an enormous living room with a vaulted ceiling. Massive exposed timbers, dark leather couches, walk-in fireplace, lots of art — a Western Baskerville Hall.
Tucked back into the side of the living room was a bar that would have done credit to an upscale steakhouse. Backlit glass shelves held many, many bottles: any distilled spirit you could think of, really, but leaning heavily toward Scotch whisky, more than a few of which were unfamiliar to me. The whole thing seemed surreal, especially since my host could have passed for a rancher or a fishing guide. He was fit and tan, not flashy, maybe in his late fifties or early sixties.
He took in six ten-foot-long shelves of ranked bottles with a wave of his arm. “What’ll you have?” I replied that I was overwhelmed by his selection, and instead of flock shooting I’d just have what he was having. Which was mostly true, but I had noticed a couple of old Macallans that I was pretty sure went deep into, maybe past, four figures and it would have been poor manners to point to one of those (or something even more expensive by accident). He said, “Well, this isn’t my most expensive Scotch, and it isn’t my highest-ranked Scotch, but it’s my favorite.” Which may have been true, or maybe, understandably, he had no intention of wasting 40-year-old Macallan on a clarinet player. Anyway, he took down a bottle of Highland Park and two glasses and we went to his study. A lovely, well-worn rosewood Bourgeois dreadnought guitar sat on a stand in the corner; there was a suitable table with lights and chairs for tying. He had tools and a few materials; it didn‘t seem like he tied very much, but he fished. There was a trout stream somewhere on his property. Naturally.
Over next couple of hours I got his biography, more or less. “I was lucky,” he said. Thirty years prior he had been a struggling attorney in New York City and didn’t have a pot to piss in. He had been approached by a group of investors who were forming a gold prospecting and mining company, and was taken on as the legal partner. Their first mine struck it rich. And the next one. And the next one. “We couldn’t miss,” he said. He had just retired; the company currently held at least some interest in 80 percent of the gold mines in the free world, and was the sole owner of the richest mine in North America. “This is my vacation home,” he said. “My main place is in Tucson.” The vacation home was one of five on a vast piece of property, and the owners had made some arrangement whereby the land was deeded to the National Park and no other houses could be built on it. Ever. I tied a couple dozen flies for him and gave him a few tying pointers. He didn’t ask me about being a musician or anything. I didn’t ask about his Scotch collection in Tucson. He seemed like a regular guy, no tipoff like a handmade watch or shoes. Except for the house I’d never have guessed that he was, presumably, a multimillionaire. There really wasn’t a takeaway other than the importance of being in the right place at the right time, but it was an interesting experience. The gate was open as I drove back down the mountain and shut behind me, and that was that.
There wasn’t much international travel for some years and my taste (and budget) switched to Bourbon so I stopped buying, and my Scotch collection gradually disappeared down the hatch. However, I still have a fraction of a bottle of Highland Park in the cabinet in case a guest asks for Scotch or I get a hankering for it. And if I’m buying Scotch as a gift, I buy Highland Park, even though being lucky and rich doesn’t necessarily equate to having the best palate. Whether Mr. Midas was telling the truth about it being his favorite or not, it's certainly good enough and it’s a Scotch that comes with a story.