For a whisky lover like Adrian Ma, the gift from a much-loved uncle was indeed a very special one.

Passed into his grateful hands was liquid gold; gently laid down at The Glenlivet’s Speyside distillery in 1952 to mark the late Queen’s accession to the throne, it had slumbered for 25 years before being bottled on her Silver Jubilee.

The label might have been a little yellowed and the box showing its age, but the very limited edition 1977 bottle of single malt still bore its glittering seal and, crucially, its 75% proof contents were untouched.

Numbered 654, The Glenlivet Special Jubilee Reserve was worth ten times more than any bottle sitting in Adrian’s fairly average whisky collection.

But while it was a very nice gift to receive, it presented a rather difficult dilemma.   

For having realised it was worth around £1,500, he had to wonder if and when he could ever bring himself to open it.

What ‘special occasion’ in his life would possibly do it justice?

Perhaps - with rare whisky prices soaring - he should keep it unopened and let it rise in value. Or sell it?

Such a difficult dilemma will be familiar to anyone who has ever been presented with a ‘special’ whisky whether for a birthday, Christmas or, perhaps even more poignantly, finds one stashed among a dearly departed loved one’s belongings.

Often the simplest thing to do, is what Adrian did: “I couldn’t even bring myself to even keep it with my other bottles,” he recalls. “It didn’t feel right, it was such an outlier compared to the others, it stuck out like the sorest thumb.

“I ended up keeping it the bedroom closet next to my boxer shorts. I’d open a bottle of other whisky and think about it.”


The Herald: His journey took him to Speyside, and The Glenlivet distilleryHis journey took him to Speyside, and The Glenlivet distillery (Image: Adrian Ma)

Eventually, however, figuring out what to do with the most expensive whisky he’d probably ever own would set him off on a remarkable, life-affirming journey from his home in Canada to the very Speyside spot where it was laid down.

On the way, he travelled back in time to discover the master blender who created it and The Glenlivet's craftsmen who nurtured it all those years ago, and came to the realisation that the best thing to do to honour them, was just drink it.

And he discovered the true gift his uncle gave him was not the whisky itself – which turned out to taste not that much better than some of his own modest favourites - but the experiences it opened up, leading to a new deep love for Scotland, its landscape, people, distilling heritage and, of course, Scotch whisky itself.

The bottle of malt whisky was given to Adrian, 40,  by his Uncle George when he visited him at his home in Hong Kong.

“He’s not a huge drinker and he knew I loved whisky," says Adrian. “He had this bottle of whisky that he wasn’t going to do anything with, and he wanted me to have it.

“But when you’re given the most expensive bottle of whisky you have ever held, when is the right moment to open it? Was it my next big job promotion?

“My 50th or 60th birthday or 25th wedding anniversary? Should I save it until my kids get married and then it’s even more valuable?”

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As he pondered when - if any - might be the right occasion, the gift had ignited a burning curiosity about Scotch whisky.

When Covid struck, he found himself reflecting on how fragile life can be, and how easily precious moments and the kinds of celebrations that call for a fine dram with friends and relatives, can slip away.

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“This whisky was becoming a symbol of unfulfilled promise,” he adds.  “I thought, if we get through this, I’m either going to either sell it and put the money towards something, or open it.

“That got me through dark days of lockdown.

“Then I realised that if I was serious about potentially opening this bottle, how could I appreciate it if I had never been to Scotland to smell the air, taste the water, touch the land and meet the people?

“I’d never fully appreciate what I was tasting, without going.”

Adrian, who is of Chinese heritage, was raised in Hong Kong and now lives in Canada, made his first ever journey to Scotland in June, on a pilgrimage that saw him visit various distilleries, drink whisky and, eventually arrive at Speyside and The Glenlivet's distillery.The Herald: The Speyside countryside around The Glenlivet distilleryThe Speyside countryside around The Glenlivet distillery (Image: Adrian Ma)

There he discovered a side to whisky he hadn’t given much thought of before: the simplicity of the ingredients and distilling process - largely unchanged since the distillery was founded in 1824 - the characters behind its production both then and now, and the hard work, sweat and devotion that goes into preparing casks.

He witnessed the massive mash tuns, where the grains and water are mixed, at work, discovered the different stages of the distillation process and came to appreciate how every release of Scotch has the unique fingerprints on it from the people who nurtured its creation. 

A pivotal moment was discovering the identity of the master distiller, Robert Arthur, at the helm as general manager in 1952 when ‘his’ bottle was distilled. He was still there in 1977 when it was bottled.

“Before, I’d go to the store, pick up a bottle think it looked interesting, go home, drink and enjoy it," he adds.

“I never really thought about the place it came from, and more importantly the people that make it.

“But I met people who prepared casks by hand and who sweated like crazy doing it – it was June, the middle of a heatwave, it was like a  sauna in there.

“I came to appreciate the heritage, time and pride that goes into these bottles of whisky,” he says.

"I realised I have been drinking whisky for more than 20 years but am just scratching its surface.”

A moment of clarity came as he chatted to distillery workers about his expensive rare whisky.

“They said they understood about the economics of keeping whisky, but it was clear the people who make it want us to drink it."

He returned home and decided that, rather than wait for a ‘special’ occasion, he would instead open the precious bottle and savour its contents in good company, while reflecting on the people who made it, its journey from Speyside to Hong Kong and to Canada, and his own good fortune to have family and friends to share it with.

“As cliched as it might sound, when you have people in your life who love you, every moment is special. That alone is worth celebrating," he says.

He opened the bottle with close friends and poured each a dram.

As for the precious whisky itself, while certainly deliciously sweet, fruity, and smooth with a hint of smoke, was not particularly out of the ordinary.

But that, he adds, is a side issue. Instead, the true value of his £1,500 bottle of malt was the journey of discovery it took him on, and the unexpected experiences his uncle's gift had given him - far greater than any price tag.


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“Scotland has given the world many things, but Scotch whisky is possibly the greatest gift: it gives people something to celebrate with and commemorate milestones and events in their life," he says.

“But it’s not even necessarily what is in the glass, it’s about the people who around you."

Two drams are left, which he plans to take to Hong Kong to share with his uncle.

“My uncle’s incredibly generous gift sent me on the most life-affirming journey,” he adds.

“It gave me such a unique perspective on true value of things we have in our lives.”