Collectors line up for world's rarest liquors
Old and rare bottles of spirits sell for incredible prices, writes Robin Lynam
In July, in his bar at London's new Playboy Club, celebrated bartender and collector of rare spirits Salvatore Calabrese was about to make a Guinness World Records certified attempt to mix the world's most expensive cocktail.
In his recipe, Calabrese - who keeps a collection of old bottles valued at about £1 million (HK$12.4 million) at the bar - had included a 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac from the cellar of the Paris restaurant La Tour d'Argent.
A friend and regular customer ordered a couple of glasses of the precious spirit - at £5,000 per measure - and while he and a friend consumed them, Calabrese left the bottle on their table.
When they rose, the customer knocked over the bottle, which shattered on the floor.
Calabrese was later quoted as saying: "We all just froze, then it sank in. I've been heartbroken - not because of the value of the bottle, but because it is a piece of history that has been lost."
The bottle, apparently because it had been opened, was uninsured, but it was probably the loss of the liquid history that hit him hardest.
"My greatest pleasure is to open a bottle of vintage cognac to see a golden liquid as lively as the day it was bottled," he says on his website salvatore-calabrese.co.uk "Uncorking a bottle is an emotional experience, especially if it is from a historic year."
It is that sense of making a direct sensory connection with the distant past that underpins the growing market worldwide for fine and rare spirits of great antiquity.
Calabrese recounts a story about Winston Churchill, who when given a glass of 1792 Madeira exclaimed: "Do you realise, gentlemen, that when this was made, Marie Antoinette was still alive?"
"It is this tremendous, tingling excitement that I try to pass on to a guest when I open a bottle," he says.
On December 13, some of Hong Kong's most serious collectors of fine spirits, also no doubt tingling with excitement, will gather in the office of Christie's in Alexandra House, where there will be a live link to the London auction rooms.
More antique bottles from the cellars of La Tour d'Argent are to be sold, led by two jeroboams of Grande Fine Champagne Cognac La Tour d'Argent 1805, bottled on site more than two centuries ago, and still in their original hand-blown glass bottles. Christie's estimates they will go for £10,000 to £15,000 each.
Interestingly although the publicity surrounding the smashed bottle of 1788 Clos de Griffier valued it at £50,000, another bottle of the same cognac is one of the top lots of this auction, with an estimate of £3,000 to £4,000 - which makes it possible that before Calabrese's customer broke the bottle he had already more than covered its cost.
That wouldn't have been the case had he knocked over, say, the one-of-a-kind Lalique Cire Perdue decanter containing a 64-year-old Macallan single malt, which sold at a Sotheby's charity auction in New York in November 2010 for US$460,000.
Spectacular sums are now being paid for rare single malts worldwide, and interest in the finest and rarest is growing in Hong Kong, according to auction house Bonhams' wine and spirits expert Daniel Lam.
"Most of the interest is in old editions of Macallan, and in ultra-premium whiskies in very limited bottlings and single cask bottlings," Lam says.
Bonhams started whisky auctions in Hong Kong in 2009, and cognac auctions earlier this year.
"We did our first cognac auction in May, and it went very well, with hammer prices of HK$30,000 to HK$35,000 per bottle," says Lam. "About 99 per cent of the whisky we sell is single malt. We rarely sell any blended whisky, except for some old editions of Johnnie Walker Black Label or Red Label going back to the 1960s or '70s. People have an interest in that. They are also interested in cognac from the '70s, which they think tastes better compared with recent releases."
Lam says collectors buy whiskies for a variety of reasons. There are the students of "liquid history", such as Calabrese, and people who have an interest in fine variations in the style of particular distilleries, often in the form of independent bottlings from companies that have bought the whisky at source and cask-matured it themselves.
"In the early 1960s, Macallan was independently bottled by people like Gordon & MacPhail, so there is an interest in that. For me Gordon & MacPhail always have good quality whiskies. Among the other smaller names, there is [Italian independent bottler] Silver Seal, popular in Singapore and Taiwan," Lam says.
Although having recently opened its own distillery for the first time in the company's 117-year history, Gordon & MacPhail operate somewhat like French wine negociants, buying from producers and ageing the spirits before bottling. The company buys single malts from virtually all of Scotland's 100 or so distilleries and ages them, meaning customers willing to pay the price can taste single malts that are normally destined for blends and not drunk as single malts. The company also buys and bottles rare casks of very old whiskies. It has a single cask of 70-year-old Glenlivet that associate director for exports Derek Hancock says is "very concentrated, with hints of ginger, lemon, spices and burned orange peel". The company has released two 100-bottle batches, retailing duty free in Vancouver for C$38,000 (HK$296,000) per 100ml bottle. The company is raising the rarity stakes with a two-bottle-per-year release of 55-year-old Benromach, acquired when the company bought the Benromach distillery, which now produces a 10-year-old Speyside single malt.
Some rare malts are bought as gifts, others for personal consumption, but while people buy vintage wines mostly because of the quality of a particular year, spirits with a specific year date - mostly single malts, armagnacs and more rarely cognacs - are often sought after because the year has a personal significance.
"People are interested in the vintage of their birth years, whether as gifts or for their own consumption," Calabrese says. "People also buy spirits for anniversary years."
Bonhams is holding an auction of rare wines and spirits at the Island Shangri-La on November 21, at which the star lot is a bottle of 55-year-old Glenfiddich Janet Roberts Reserve, which is being auctioned in aid of the Operation Smile China Medical Mission, which funds free surgery and post-operative care to needy children and young adults in China with a cleft lip or cleft palate. "There are only 11 bottles and we auctioned bottle Number One in Edinburgh a couple of years ago," says Lam. "It sold for about HK$600,000, also for charity. Other bottles have since been sold in New York, Canada and Taiwan, and the highest price achieved so far was in New York at US$94,000. This is bottle Number Eight and we're hoping that will raise something similar in funds for Operation Smile. It's tax deductible."
Fine spirits being auctioned for charitable causes loosen purse strings remarkably effectively, but times are tough at the moment, and there is, it seems, a limit - albeit at a higher level than Lam is aspiring to for this very rare Glenfiddich.
Last month two special decanters of Bowmore 1957 were auctioned by Bonhams, in Edinburgh and New York respectively, to benefit five Scottish charities. Both failed to meet their ambitious reserve price of £100,000.
Coming down the scale a bit, some very good Bowmore whiskies are available and affordable, although for the rare ones you might still want to stop and think before reaching for your credit card.
New on the market is Bowmore's Sea Dragon - a 30-year-old Islay single malt of which only 518 ornate ceramic bottles exist.
Of those just 54 have been allocated to Hong Kong, and are being sold in the duty free outlets at Hong Kong International Airport.
According to Celtic legend, a sea dragon once lived off the coast of Islay near the Bowmore distillery, and since the whisky is an Asia-only release, the dragon name was also chosen to strike a cultural chord.
"Matured in bourbon casks for 30 years, this special commemorative edition of Bowmore once again celebrates the Chinese Year of the Dragon and honours one of Islay's greatest legends," says Bowmore marketing manager Cara Laing.
The bottles, obviously, are highly collectable, although fine single malts sold in Asia - even the very old ones - tend to be consumed not long after purchase. It retails at HK$6,100 and speculators are already offering it at auction.
Sea Dragon occupies a niche between Bowmore's standard range of single malts and much higher priced collectibles such as the Black, White, and Gold Bowmore 1964 trilogy malts, which collectively or singly change hands for many thousands of pounds.
Seeking to establish that blends can command a similar price to Sea Dragon is Odyssey, a new blend developed by Master Blender Jim Beveridge for John Walker and Sons, available in the Hong Kong domestic market for a suggested retail price of HK$7,800 per bottle, and not expected to be significantly discounted in duty free.
It's a triple malt whisky which contains no grain whiskies, but Beveridge is keeping quiet about the exact constituents of the blend, expensively packaged in a nautically themed decanter. Beveridge says it was inspired by notes for a blend left to the company by Sir Alexander Walker (1869-1950) who was responsible for refining the house style. "I researched a number of distilleries in Scotland for the perfect three whiskies to blend," Beveridge says. "They needed to have the right provenance and pedigree to create the aromas, tastes and sensations that Sir Alexander was looking for when he created the original blend almost 100 years ago."
The result is a complex whisky with some of the smoothness associated with blends such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label, but more of the depth of character that is the heart of the appeal of a single malt.
If that price is still a little on the high side for you, a very satisfying new blend has been created by Master Blender Colin Scott, Beveridge's counterpart at Chivas Regal, also in tribute to the men who built the firm - in this case John and James Chivas who founded it.
Scott - the blender responsible for Royal Salute and for maintaining standards for all the Chivas Regal whiskies - calls The Chivas Brothers Blend, which is a rich, smooth, honeyed 12-year-old spirit, "the ultimate whisky to share".
It is available, in duty free only, for a modest HK$340, and to make it a really individual present to yourself or somebody else, from now until the end of November you can have the bottle engraved on the spot with the inscription of your choice.
Salvatore Calabrese probably wouldn't use The Chivas Brothers Blend, but having got over the shock of watching however many thousands of pounds worth of spirit it really was running over his barroom floor, he did get to make his Guinness World Record.
Last month, using another bottle of 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 1770 Kummel Liqueur, Dubb Orange Liqueur from circa 1860, and a small bottle of Angostura bitters dating from the early 1900s, he created Salvatore's Legacy. If you happen to be in London, swing by Salvatore's at the Playboy Club, 14 Old Park Lane, and order one. It's a snip at £5,500 a glass. Hell, why not have another?