In 1926 John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of television; Route 66 was established between Chicago and Los Angeles; and Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared for 11 days. Meanwhile, the whisky-makers at The Macallan Distillery on Speyside in Scotland filled cask no. 263 — which had begun its life in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain — with clear, ‘new make’ spirit from one of its famous ‘Curiously Small Stills’. Then they left it, and they waited for the Spanish oak — which had been ‘seasoned’ with Oloroso sherry — to work its magic.
Those whisky-makers may no longer be with us but, nearly a century later, the spirit remains. In 1986, after six decades of maturation, The Macallan’s master distiller decided that this particular elixir had reached its zenith, and it was bottled, with appropriate reverence, into 40 bottles. One of those bottles — uniquely hand-painted by the Irish artist Michael Dillon — sold for a world auction record price of £1.2 million on 29 November 2018 at Christie’s in London.
‘Of the original 40 bottles, 12 had labels designed by Peter Blake, who is best known for designing the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, and a further 12 individually numbered bottles were designed by the Italian painter Valerio Adami. These bottles are much better known among whisky collectors,’ explains Tim Triptree MW, international director of Christie’s Wine & Spirits department. ‘A few of them have come up for sale previously, and actually, in May 2018, a 1926 Macallan with a Valerio Adami label sold for $1.1 million — an auction record.’
The bottles with labels designed by Peter Blake were released in 1989, and the Valerio Adami bottles in 1993. The remaining bottles joined The Macallan’s Fine & Rare Collection.
‘In the past 11 years its value has increased 14-fold, which shows the strength of the whisky market, and how collectable these bottles have become’ — Tim Triptree
‘The Macallan were unsure that this bottle still existed — it was last seen at Fortnum & Mason in London in 1999 — and it is quite excited that the buyer has kept hold of it,’ says Triptree. ‘These whiskies rarely come up for sale. Prior to this year, the previous auction of a Macallan 60-year-old with an Adami label was in 2007. That sold for $75,000. In the 11 years since its value has increased 14-fold, which shows the strength of the whisky market, and how collectable these bottles have become.’
The new owner of this bottle — beautifully illustrated with Dillon’s depiction of The Macallan’s historic home, Easter Elchies House, built in 1700 — will therefore have a tough decision to make: bank on it as an investment, or drink it.
‘The Macallan produces just exceptional, really flavourful whiskies that last and last and last,’ says Triptree. ‘Their attention to detail is incredible, and they are obsessed with quality. They even go into the Spanish forests to select particular oak trees for felling, in order to get the very best for their casks. Because ultimately, the whisky could be in these casks for up to 60 years or even longer, and they are vital to the highly concentrated, rich, full-bodied flavours that are characteristic of The Macallan.’
How then might this single malt, first created almost a century ago, taste? ‘It’s going to be incredibly complex,’ ventures Triptree. ‘The flavours are going to be so concentrated, and it’s going to have so many aromas, that each time you get to the glass I’m sure you would be smelling and tasting something different.
‘Obviously, after spending 60 years in cask it’s going to be quite dark in colour — amber, a bit of mahogany in there. And then you’ll get some of the spices from the wood, little hints of vanilla, potentially some nutty characteristics, cinnamon, Christmas cake…. All sorts of different flavours. And then the length — how long the flavours persist in the mouth — is going to be exceptional, and just reinforce all the aromas that you’re smelling.’
And where does he imagine the bottle might end up? ‘The whisky market is a global market,’ says the specialist. ‘It could go to Asia. There’s a huge following of whisky in America. It could also go to Europe. Whatever the eventuality, it’s probably going to fetch a new record. This whisky is basically the finest and most collectable single malt produced in the 20th century.
‘I would like to think that someone will open it,’ he adds. ‘Whisky is produced to be drunk and enjoyed — although it’s fair to say that each “wee dram” of this particular whisky
is going to work out to be pretty expensive.’