I feel both lucky and unlucky to have caught the whisky bug in relatively recent years. I am lucky because there has never been a greater variety and availability of whisky than there is right now. Not just Scotch, but whiskies from other countries, too. However, many times I wish I was lucky enough to have been a drinker in the 80’s and 90’s, when great whisky (which is now way out of my reach) was selling for peanuts in comparison to today.
The Rare Malts range from Diageo is always one that often gets mentioned as a reference to how much whisky prices have exploded in recent times. Bottles of well-aged Brora, St. Magdalene, Port Ellen, Glenury Royal etc. which were available for under £100 around the turn of the millennium. Now you would need substantially bigger pockets to afford a bottle. When I say it’s great whisky, I am basing that on what I have read from reviewers fortunate enough to have access to these distilleries. Seemingly everything distilled before the 80’s whisky loch gets a 90+ score on the 0-100 scale, regardless of where it was produced! Of those listed above, I have tried a Brora once from a sample I purchased. It was nice, but not “£1,000+ a bottle” nice.
I wasn’t old enough to be into whisky in an era when these malts were affordable. Of course, even if I was, hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’m sure many of that generation wished they had a crystal ball to foresee the single malt explosion in more recent times, and that they had picked up a few more of those rare malts. Most of us would also like to have invested in Bitcoin a decade ago, or to know next week’s lottery numbers!
It’s not just the closed distilleries that command the big prices now; older bottlings from most distilleries are selling for a premium, with the majority going into people’s collections and quite possibly never being drunk. The longer they are held in collections, the less likely they are to be consumed.
What all this means is that trying older whiskies from the days before I was an enthusiast is tricky. Perhaps I can treat myself to the odd pricey dram in a whisky bar, but bottles are far too expensive, especially when you consider the potential for disappointment. If you spend £2,000 on a bottle of whisky, it is going to have to be pretty special to live up to the price tag. This is where my love of the miniature comes in, which actually has its roots in my childhood.
My grandmother was a miniature collector. Not on a big scale, and I suspect mostly for ornamental purposes, but some of my earliest memories are Sunday afternoons at her house. As soon as you entered the hallway, the miniatures were displayed on a row of narrow shelving that stretched right around the entrance to her home.
I didn’t know what was in them, but the different coloured bottles and labels attracted me. The one that stood out to me the most was a VAT 69 mini at the far end of the hallway. Something about the bottle shape and label stood out. When she passed away in the early 2000’s, my father held onto a box of these bottles.
I had no idea they still existed until he passed them on to me last year. Seeing them brought back some great memories, and that VAT 69 bottle I remember so vividly above all the others was there too. It’s empty, but that doesn’t matter. A few that were passed onto me did still contain whisky, as well as other spirits she collected from her travels around the world. Nothing rare or exceptional, but the memories mean so much more.
All of this helped re-ignite that interest in the miniature and has led to me picking up some more miniatures at auctions recently. The mini appears to still be a largely neglected area of whisky collecting. It has always had its fans, and interest seems to be building like in most things whisky, but most of the investors want full size bottles to maximise the profits they can make. As a drinker, I can pick up some out of reach whiskies for very little money by turning my attention to the smaller format.
It was recently announced that The Whisky Exchange co-founder, Sukhinder Singh, was auctioning off a proportion of his vast miniature collection in order to make room for more of his collecting. An auction of miniatures certainly interested me as an opportunity to add to my collection of older drams, albeit at the much lower end of the buying spectrum. A number of lots sold for more than £1,000, including a 1919 Springbank with a poor fill level, which broke the auction record for a miniature at £5,660. The figure was actually £6,440 once commission was added.
I picked up several lots in the end, including a couple from Mr Singh’s collection, and I didn’t spend more than a few pounds each on most of them. I acquired bottles from the 50’s and 60’s, right up to the 90’s. Maybe none are as exciting as that auction record-breaking Springbank, but at least mine have a chance of being drunk at some point.
To me as a whisky geek, they are affordable pieces of our spirit’s history. I think about how those old bottles have spent the past decades without being consumed. Were they simply unloved and forgotten in a cupboard, on display in a collection, or do they have a sentimental story behind them? In the case of the single malts, what was the distillery like back when it was distilled? Have their processes changed much since? I find it all fascinating. Even the most unassuming bottle will have a history behind it to be discovered if you enjoy digging into the past as much as I do.
After all this talk of old miniatures, I suppose I best crack one of my auction purchases open and see if we have a winner or not. Either way, it will be an interesting experience (I hope!)
What happened in 1984? Apple launched the Macintosh computer, together with the iconic Ridley Scott commercial , Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated, Band Aid had the Christmas number one with ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, in response to the catastrophic Ethiopian famine, the 23rd Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, and some folks at a distillery in Ballindalloch made the new make spirit which would eventually be matured into the liquid I am tasting today.
There is no age statement, but as I know it was bottled in 1998, it must be around 14 years old. It’s double matured, with the latter maturation being a ruby port pipe finish. It is bottled at 40% ABV, and has no doubt been chill filtered and possibly had some colour added, although with the port maturation, perhaps that wasn’t necessary. It was the first in a long line of Distillers Editions to be released from the distillery with a port wood finish. This is no longer available from any retailers as far as I can see; expect to pay in the region of £100 to £150 at auction for a 70cl bottle.
Cragganmore 1984 Distillers Edition – Review
Colour: Warm gold.
On the nose: Diesel smoke fumes, old leather and plasticine are what I first encounter on the nose, before the fruit notes begin to reveal themselves. Tangerine orange is the big player, with a little tropical mango and papaya coming through and a sharpness of grapefruit. The more you nose it, the more the fruit notes come to the fore, along with a floral note of sweet peas. There’s also vanilla, heather honey, ginger, and a hint of sawdust. I love this nose.
In the mouth: Quite soft, but nicely balanced. Initially it is sweet oranges and glacé cherries, but then we get a wood smoke that lingers throughout the rest of the development. There’s more old leather, coal tar, WD-40, bitter caramel, coffee, raisin, a light peppery spice, and salt. It’s actually got a surprisingly nice, oily mouth feel for a 40%, chill filtered whisky. In the drying finish we find malted milk (Horlick’s), hazelnut, almond, ginger, and salt. The wood smoke has never left us but begins to mellow into the background.
This is a fascinating and delicious whisky, with the dirty aromas and flavours along with those bright tropical fruit notes working very well together. Being honest, I kind of expected disappointment. With only 40% ABV and chill filtration, I thought this might be somewhat subdued and even a little dull. Perhaps that is a perception I shouldn’t have, as there are some good 40% whiskies out there, although they always leave me wondering just how good they could have been had they not been stripped of oils/flavours and bottled at a higher strength.
It’s a shame Cragganmore is hugely underutilised as a single malt. The only regular output from the distillery is a 12-year-old and the Distillers Edition, both at 40%, along with the occasional special release at cask strength. Independent bottlings are hard to come by these days, too. In fact, I can’t find a single one currently available from retailers, bar the odd extremely expensive vintage bottling. It is definitely a distillery I want to explore further. Come on Diageo, give us Craggan-more!