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What does a $9,000 whisky taste—and sound—like?

For the April 1 release of its "Pride 1974" single-malt scotch whisky, Glenmorangie decided to tap a timeless concept: That music enhances the whisky-drinking experience.

(They're Scottish so they spell whisky without an E.)

Pride 1974 is the oldest, rarest and deepest expression ever released from the distillery — only 503 crystal decanters exist — and it will sell for $9,050 a bottle. To celebrate, they asked renowned jazz pianist Aaron Diehl to use the whisky as his muse and create a song about what this whisky might sound like.

What does a $9,000 whisky taste like and why is it $9,000?

First, a quick whisky-making lesson: As a whisky matures in a cask, layers of aromatic molecular wood compounds intermingle with the distilled spirit. This is why younger Scotch whiskies tend to express fruitier and more floral notes. Over time, wood deepens or even silences those delicate flavors, also adding notes such as vanillas, fig, raisin, caramel and tannins, the element that lends a structure to a fine spirit then finessed under the care of a talented whisky maker. Too much tannin and aged whisky tastes like biting into the side of a tree or an orange pith.

Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's head of distilling and whisky creation, admits that he normally doesn't like really old whisky.

"It's often too woody and dusty," he says.

However, he accepted the challenge from his team to make a rare whisky by exploring some of the oldest aging casks.

"I pushed the envelope as far as I could with this one, to see where the edge of a beautiful whisky could lie," Lumsden says.

The Pride 1974 is a vatting — or marrying — of whiskies matured in two different casks, one in American oak casks that formerly held bourbon, the other in ex-Spanish casks that used to hold Oloroso sherry. 41 years on, a union of liquid matured in these two types of casks became the rare bottling. Single-malt scotch distillers commonly fill their distillate in ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks, with each type contributing different attributes to the whisky over time.

"I was looking for individual old barrels that would harmonize nicely together and that fans would still recognize as a Glenmorangie, Lumsden says. "Of course, it should also be a reflection of Scotland."

After a nose and a sip, I interpret that to mean lush and wistful, with hints of orange, toffee and chocolate. A whiff of cedar wood — just enough to give it a slightly rugged and masculine character without overpowering the more perfumey attributes, rounds it out. It lingers. It's sublime.

What does a $9,000 whisky sound like?

Marketing creativity aside, the whole idea — whisky and music released together for an expanded consumer sensual experience — is rooted in science. The parts of the brain where we process sound, smell, taste and emotion all communicate with each other, "like a party," says Julian Hsieh, a scientist at the Vosshall Laboratories at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan.

The sound of music can either make something taste better or worse. What we taste influences how we perceive the world; how we might create art, write, or negotiate a deal.

Aaron Diehl wrote the whisky-inspired composition, titled "Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility," after meeting with Lumsden in November at the Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain, Scotland. He spent a few days with Lumsden, exploring the whisky-making process. Diehl began the composition there on a Steinway grand piano that was carefully hauled off a truck and into a whisky warehouse on the distillery grounds, surrounded by hundreds of old aging casks for inspiration. Diehl completed the composition in his apartment in Harlem over the past three months, drinking whisky and reminiscing about popping open dusty barrels with Dr. Lumsden to taste — and then later record — his impressions.

Glenmorangie’s Master Distiller Bill Lumsden and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl walking through the fields near the Glenmorangie Distillery in the Scottish Highlands.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
Glenmorangie’s Master Distiller Bill Lumsden and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl walking through the fields near the Glenmorangie Distillery in the Scottish Highlands.

Diehl's immediate reaction after running around with Lumsden among the stills and the casks was to document the evolution of a whisky by taking us on its journey. "Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility" celebrates the myriad of elements that come together to make a whisky over time, and the care taken to create them. He hopes whisky fans will spend some time to open their ears to his new work the way they do with their palates over a single-malt scotch.

"I tried to paint a tonal narrative of how the whisky casks came together by incorporating two folk musical traditions, one from Kentucky and the other from Scotland," he says. In "Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility," you hear Diehl's piano evoke both banjo picking, common in Kentucky bluegrass music, and bagpipes, a traditional wind instrument that is played in Scotland. His piece also weaves in traditional Spanish folk music, an homage to the ex-sherry casks used.

After all his years composing music and now appreciating whisky for the first time, Diehl says there's still something we'll never fully comprehend about their consumption. "A Phd could parse Thelonious Monk or Bach and still not ever fully comprehend what makes their music a masterpiece. You could study the components of a Steinway and yet each sounds slightly different. You could taste a dozen whiskies, each created with the same ingredients. But at the end of the day, there's simply an element of mystery to it all."

Diehl performed "Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility" on Thursday night at Steinway Hall for a small group of whisky collectors, restaurateurs, media and others, followed by a tasting of the rare Pride 1974 with Lumsden. (Click here to listen to it.)

The 1974 is the third release in the Glenmorangie Pride series (The first two were 1981 and 1978) and is for sale beginning April 1.

Only 503 bottles of this rare Glenmorangie Pride 1974 exist. If you can't get your hands on one of them, or a $9,000 whisky is out of your budget, I'd recommend a bottle of the Nectar'D'or, one of my personal favorites, which sells for about $65. You'll still detect elements of the Glenmorangie house style – elegant notes of floral, fresh green fields, and light fruits delivered with a silky creaminess across the palate.

Lumsden explaining the whisky-making process to Diehl.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
Lumsden explaining the whisky-making process to Diehl.


The Scottish highlands provide an inspiring backdrop for Diehl to learn about the whisky-making process.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
The Scottish highlands provide an inspiring backdrop for Diehl to learn about the whisky-making process.
Lumsden explaining the whisky-making process to Diehl. The Scottish highlands provide an inspiring backdrop for Diehl to learn about the whisky-making process.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
Lumsden explaining the whisky-making process to Diehl. The Scottish highlands provide an inspiring backdrop for Diehl to learn about the whisky-making process.


Diehl begins to compose what will become “Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility,” inspired by his time with Lumsden at Glenmorangie.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
Diehl begins to compose what will become “Echoes of the Glenn of Tranquility,” inspired by his time with Lumsden at Glenmorangie.
Diehl and Lumsden at the piano, surrounded by casks of whisky and a special bottle of Pride 1974.
Photo: Sarah Baumberger
Diehl and Lumsden at the piano, surrounded by casks of whisky and a special bottle of Pride 1974.

Commentary by Heather Greene, a whiskey sommelier and the author of "Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life." She is also a speaker and consultant who travels around the world teaching people about whiskey. She was the director of whiskey education and sommelier at The Flatiron Room in Manhattan from 2012 to 2014. She is also an accomplished musician. Her latest record, released in 2012, is Argon 40. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherMGreene.

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