SpiritsThe Collection

Old and rare whisky: top bottles for Scotch whisky collectors

Colin Hampden-White picks out some of the rarest, most jaw-dropping whiskies he's ever had the chance to enjoy – as sampled at a once-a-year London event for high-end collectors

Words by Colin Hampden-White, Charles MacLean and Lora Hemy

Photography by Colin Hampden-White, Charles MacLean and Lora Hemy

Rare whisky for whisky collectors
The Collection
Photo by Facundo Bustamante

Among the plethora of many good, even great, whisky shows and festivals around the world, there is one that stands out above all others. Nowhere on earth are whisky collectors likely to find as many treasures by the dram as at the annual Old & Rare Whisky Show. The event was the brainchild of private whisky consultant Angus MacRaild and Jonny McMillan of Berry Bros, and, with the financial backing of Sukhinder Singh (owner of The Whisky Exchange, Elixir Distillers and whisky.auction), Old & Rare was born. Hosted in Glasgow for its first three years, last year the show moved to London, in March – just prior to lockdown (in 2021, the show will go ahead but in virtual form, with a quartet of tastings hosted across three days – dates TBC).

The USP of Old & Rare is that it allows consumers the opportunity to taste the rarest whiskies the world has to offer, in one venue, without having to buy a bottle. Ticket price covers entry, and visitors then pay by the dram. The 10ml pours give sufficient volume to get a sense of the spirit – and to continue tasting a good number of different whiskies while remaining in control of one’s faculties. The quantity of liquid on offer also largely keeps the cost of each dram from being exorbitant – pours range in price from £3 to £300. While hardly inexpensive, this represents incredible value for money once you see the types of whisky being shown.

The Whisky Show Old & Rare
The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show: Old and Rare has been held in both Glasgow and London; the 2021 event will be run as a series of virtual tastings

Enthusiasts – both trade and consumers – come from all over the world for this event, bringing together great whisky collectors, auctioneers, producers and bartenders selling rare drams. Among them were Hideo Yamaoka from Japan, Joe Hyman of Skinner Auctioneers in the USA, Christian Dully from Switzerland, home-grown talent like Jon Beach, owner of Fiddler’s on Loch Ness, and Phil Thompson of the Dornoch Castle Hotel, and producers such as Gordon & MacPhail and Diageo-owned Justerini & Brooks. The latter has a unique proposition as the producer of its own single-cask whiskies made available for purchase through a cask ownership scheme called the Casks of Distinction. Special casks of rare whisky, known to be of the highest quality, are offered to private clients; they are subsequently bottled by Justerini & Brooks, which also then helps sell them, should the client wish to do so. In this category, a handful of very rare bottles found their way into the show, including a 40-year-old Port Ellen and a 50-year-old Glenury Royal.

Old Port Ellen
Port Ellen on Islay (above) which was closed by its owner in the 1980s, and (right) an aerial view of Lowland distillery Rosebank, which was mothballed in 1993
Old ariel view of Rosebank
Both distilleries had whiskies to taste at 2020's Old & Rare show, reviewed below

The drams are spectacular. The oldest Scotch we tasted on the day came from the US auction house Skinner. It was from 1885 and represented a special piece of history that demonstrated production methods from that era and a hint of how 19th-century whisky might have tasted. The oldest liquid of the day came through a good friend, Tim Forbes of WhiskyOnline Auctions, who had a bottle of poteen from the 1820s that still tasted wonderful. It had come from a hoard of around 100 bottles found buried in Ireland; as the builders dug them out, around 40% broke. Luckily, enough of them survived to provide attendees with a taste of something that is now around 200 years old.

There were many whiskies that had been more purposefully long-aged, including the superb 1968 50-year-old Glenury Royal on the Justerini & Brooks stand. Other highlights were a 1939 Longmorn from Gordon & MacPhail, and a 36-year-old Clynelish from Elixir Distillers. With such differing flavour profiles, it was quite impossible to choose a best-in-show. But if you find a retailer selling any of the old and rare whisky bottles below (prices are, in most cases, a guide), I’d suggest you make an enquiry.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue of Club Oenologique magazine. For more details, click here

The best old and rare whiskies to seek out