Whisky is a piece of history. Like any artwork or artefact that owns a place in prominent museums, the spirit of life has been moulded by artisans and becomes an expression of a moment in time and space. This is why museums dedicated to the malted liquor exist. You see them in Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and now, in Singapore too. Navigate through the carpark on the fifth storey of Ion Orchard, and you will find your way to The Grande Whisky Collection, a comprehensive vault of 4,500 old and rare whiskies that is now open to the public for tours.
A tour of the 3,600 square feet museum begins in front of the vault door, parked next to a map of Scotland. All the major whisky-producing regions in the Hebridean canvas are labelled, forming a route from the Lowlands to the Islands, connecting everything in between. Pay attention to this, because once you are past the steel doors, the path you walk and the bottles you meet mirror that very route.
You begin with Auchentoshan, and not just the expressions you are familiar with, but single malts that date back 50 years and are near impossible to find now. The journey continues as your guide moves you to Islay and beyond, where the Scotches displayed on the shelves are a mirror image of the archives you’d find in the distilleries themselves.
Any whisky lover will be arrested in sheer awe during the half an hour trail. Bottles of lore, those only read about on auction lists or in books, materialise before you on the black lacquer rows. There are Laphroaig bottles that bear the British royal warrant, bestowed by Prince Charles who declared the peated single malt one of his favourites. Some of these Laphroaigs even bear the monarch’s signature.
There are independently-bottled single malts from Strathisla, a very established distillery in Speyside that has been around since the 1700s. For those familiar with whisky production, much of Strathisla’s production goes to being used in Chivas blends. You barely, if ever come across bottles with Strathisla’s name, which gives these the status of myth.
And so it goes. Produce from the ghost distilleries like Port Ellen, Brora, and Rosebank finish the Scotland section of The Grande Whisky Collection, quickly followed by a broad selection from Japan. Old whiskies from flagship distilleries like Nikka, Hibiki, and Chita stand next to those from more obscure producers, including bottles from Saburomaru and Yoichi. The former is the name behind the only whisky makers in the Hokuriku region, and they only make the brown spirit for two weeks each year, so you can imagine how difficult these are to purchase.
Standing out at the heart of it all are three bottles of the Yamazaki 50-Year-Old single malt. In light of the Japanese whisky shortage and the fact that the 50-Year-Old fetched the highest price ever auctioned for a Japanese single malt at Sotheby’s this January — HK$2,337,000 (S$410,879) for those interested — looking at multiple bottles of the intricate vials seems almost unreal.
Whiskies from regions outside Scotland and Japan are not highlighted just yet, but there are plans in the works to eventually introduce these contemporary names to the vault.
Fawning over expensive bottles is a part of the thrill at The Grande Whisky Collection, but that should not deter the less initiated from paying the venue a visit. All tours are catered to the crowd and designed to be educational. Even whisky novices will walk away enlightened with new nuggets of information.
All tours are closed with a tasting flight, though the whiskies served rotate regularly.
To commemorate your time there, head over to the gift shop before leaving. Glasses and bottles of whiskies purchased can be engraved with names and a personalised message, which the manager jokes are a far better souvenir than an “I heart Singapore” T-shirt. We have to agree.
While Singapore can now declare it has an experiential whisky tour, this is not the final point for the founders behind the museum. There are eventual plans to expand into a similar concept for bourbon. These small tides in the local liquor scene just display how we, as a nation of ardent drinkers, have moved beyond the call for just bars where we can consume, and into the realm of craving experience and education along with the glass.
Tours are currently available at The Grande Whisky Collection via walk-ins or calls, priced at S$55 per person. Photography in the vault is strictly not allowed.