A Trip in Search of the Finest Whiskies
By Noah May, Whisky Connoisseur, London
Though we are officially a “Fine and Rare Wine” department we do, internationally, sell spirits from time to time. In London on October 21 and in New York on November 13, the Christie’s wine department will be offering selections of rare spirits for your bidding pleasure. Comparatively, spirits is a small percentage of what we do. That being said, when we stumble upon something truly rare or valuable (as I did last March) it is our great pleasure to offer it to spirits connoisseurs the world over. Usually, we specialize in rare bottlings of the finest Scotch, and vintage brandies, specifically Cognac and Armagnac. It was Scotch, however, that brought me to Italy…Italy can be surprisingly cold in March. We walked out of Milan Linate Airport to find the skies grey and as we drove towards our client’s home, the mists fell heavy by the roadsides. When we finally arrived, it was a relief to be ushered into the warmth within. The house was magnificent, a treasure trove filled with fine sculpture and modern art; it was clear that there was hard work ahead, but with this knowledge came a sense of anticipation.
As soon as we were settled, our host was keen to focus our attention on a bookcase in the corner of the sitting room. Confused, we followed his lead, suddenly reminded that in this industry things are rarely quite as they seem. The bookcase slid back to expose a hidden metal door, six inches thick, and wrought from solid steel. A few deft workings around a combination lock and slowly, carefully, the door began to open, giving way to a sight that could make any whisky lover sob with joy.
This was my second proper packing trip with the Wine Department, and my first dealing with whisky, but at that moment, it was clear that this was nothing short of astonishing. In this elegant, wood-panelled room stood almost two thousand bottles of whisky and other spirits, some of which dated back to first decades of the twentieth century. As I stood there, silent, staring up at row after row of dark bottles, I knew that this was something that would stay with me for quite some time.
It was immediately apparent that the collector’s taste was impeccable and varied, allowing him, over a lifetime, to assemble a collection that was as broad as it was deep. What was also apparent was that we had been invited into someone’s private world; a microcosm where passion and connoisseurship met. Scotland and the great single malts were his first love. Looking along the meticulously ordered shelves, particular rarities stood out – The Macallan 1945, 1938 or 1946 – ancient whiskies that have endured, yet which are almost impossible to find today. As we moved around the room, checking, packing and moving boxes, we were taken on a journey across the moors of Scotland. From those Macallans of Speyside we move west towards the smoke-scented Islay malts: The Bowmore and wild, peaty Laphroaig. Morning gives way to afternoon, and we find ourselves reaching for highland malts and realise that we’ve covered most of the great distilleries of Scotland.
As mentioned, this collector’s tastes were broad, and this helps to introduce his cache of Prohibition-Era American whiskies that we discovered, seemingly frozen in time. Amid all the Laphroaigs and the Tamnavulins we came upon this assortment of pint-sized bottles that could transpire to be the most significant collection of Prohibition Era whiskey to ever be sold at auction. The bottles were dusty and irregular in shape, unlike anything I’d seen before. Some date back to the years of the First World War – ‘Old Granddad Whiskey 1916 – Unexcelled – For Medical Use Only’ or ‘St George Reserve –Eighteen Summers Old’ – even their names seem redolent of a very different time.
Eventually, we came to the end of our task and sat back, exhausted, looking around an empty room. With the excitement of packing such a superb ‘cellar’, came a faint feeling of melancholy as I looked around the bare rows – the next step would be finding these extraordinary whiskies an appropriate new home.
This magnificent collection represents the largest single-owner collection of whisky that Christie’s have ever offered and an almost unheard of opportunity for the world’s greatest connoisseurs to access an exceptional testament to one man’s lifelong passion.