As The Scotch Malt Whisky Society prepares to try and set a Guinness World Record for the largest online whisky tasting on 30 September, Gavin D Smith takes a look at other record breakers from across the wider whisky world
The last recorded words of poet Dylan Thomas were “I've had 18 straight whiskies – I think that's a record!”
Celebrating high levels of alcohol consumption does not fit well alongside the industry’s responsible drinking philosophy, but in any case, Thomas was lying. Bar records show the most ‘straight whiskies’ he could have consumed in New York’s White Horse Tavern that evening in 1953 was eight.
Another fallacy is that knocking back those whiskies led directly to the Welshman’s death. It can’t have helped, but he actually died of undiagnosed bronchitis and pneumonia, with a fair amount of medical negligence thrown in.
Perhaps we prefer the ‘18 straight whiskies’ story, and we do love a good record. For example, which is Scotland’s smallest distillery? In terms of potential output, that’s between Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis with a capacity of around 20,000 litres and Toulvaddie near Tain in Ross & Cromarty, with a capacity of 25,000. And Scotland’s largest distillery? Between Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, both listed in this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook as having a capacity of 21.5m litres per annum.
And what about Scotland’s oldest continuously working distillery? Now that really does open a can of whisky worms, as it were. Several distilleries offer establishment dates in the 18th century without being able to provide any proof, and all things considered, Strathisla probably has the strongest claim, backed up by documentation, with distillery construction commencing on 22nd June 1786.
Then there are the glamorous whisky records as acknowledged by the phenomenon that is Guinness World Records. The first one most people want to know about is the world’s most expensive bottle of whisky, and inevitably the holder of that accolade changes quite regularly, though the current owner of the record has seen off all comers for the past four years. Unsurprisingly, the whisky in question is the perennially collectable Macallan, and the record-breaking expression was a 1926 Fine and Rare 60-year-old. Sold at Sotheby’s in London on 24th October 2019 this bottle was purchased for a remarkable £1,452,000 (US$1,811,250). The previous record-holder was also a Macallan.
ABOVE: Dylan Thomas
ABOVE: Macallan’s record-breaking 1926 expression
ABOVE: Strathisla is (probably) the oldest continuously working distillery in Scotland
The same Speyside single malt – albeit offered by an independent bottler – was the subject of an attempt to land the above record, having already set a new one of its own. That was for the world’s largest bottle of whisky, named The Intrepid and containing 311 litres. It was created by investment firm Fah Mai Holdings Group and alternative assets firm Rosewin Holdings while the record was verified at Duncan Taylor Scotch Whisky in Huntly, Aberdeenshire on 9th September 2021. The Macallan contained in The Intrepid is 32-years old, having been distilled in 1989, and the contents is equal to 444 ‘standard’ bottles.
In May 2022, The Intrepid challenged for the title of world’s most expensive bottle of whisky when auctioned by Lyon & Turnbull, but it sold for a ‘mere’ £1,105,000, failing to beat the £1,452,000 previously achieved by the same brand.
So much for the largest, but what about the smallest bottle of whisky? That record is held by Cumbrae Supply co of Linwood in Renfrewshire, courtesy of its bottles of White Horse, which stand just over 5cm high and contain 1.3ml of whisky.
We have explored the most expensive bottles of whisky sold at auction, but the world’s ‘most valuable’ bottle is a different proposition. It was verified as worth £1,959,817 (US$2,565,597) on 31st October 2022, and no, it isn’t a Macallan. The bottle in question is owned by The Grande Whisky Museum in Singapore, which boasts a vault holding more than 7,000 bottles of rare and vintage whiskies, and is a 40-year-old Laphroaig. The bottle was signed by the then Prince Charles and Camilla, during their visit to the Islay distillery in June 2008.
After the most valuable bottle comes the most valuable collection, owned by Viet Nguyen Dinh Tuan, of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He is in possession of 535 old and rare Scotch whiskies which are considered to be worth £10,770,635, or US$13.9m.
With a 21 per cent buyer’s premium that would be added if the collection were sold through a mainstream auctioneer, Guinness officially valued the collection at £13,032,468 or US$16.7m in November 2019. Among the Vietnamese businessman’s treasures are three bottles of 1926 Macallan Fine and Rare, and a bottle of the oldest Bowmore ever released, a 1957-distilled 54-year-old.
ABOVE: Macallan’s The Intrepid
ABOVE: whisky collector Viet Nguyen Dinh Tuan
Which brings us to the oldest bottle of whisky in existence. Writing in the mid-1930s, Neil M Gunn described sampling whisky from a bottle stamped with ‘Scrabster 1830.’ He wrote in Whisky and Scotland that the contents were “…without a shadow of a doubt over 104 years old.” He described it as having “…an attractively objectionable flavour, somewhere between rum and tar, on our palates”.
However, the official record for the ‘oldest bottle of whisky’ belongs to Glenavon Special Liqueur Whisky, believed to have been distilled at Ballindalloch on Speyside and bottled between 1851 and 1858. Containing just 400ml of whisky, the green bottle was owned by an Irish family for several generations before selling for £14,850 at Bonham’s London auction house in 2006.
In terms of the age of the liquid in the bottle however, Gordon & MacPhail held the record for ‘oldest’ for some years, courtesy of a 70 and 75-year-old Mortlach, and an 80-year-old Glenlivet in the company’s 'Generations' collection.
But guess what came along to snatch the record last year? Yes, you’ve guessed, it was a Macallan. The release of The Reach amounted to 228 decanters, aged in a single sherry butt for 81 years, having been distilled in 1940. Those decanters sold for around £92,000 (US$125,000) but one went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London a few months after launch and fetched £300,000 (US$332,266), meaning a very pleasing profit for the lucky/shrewd original owner. But what are the odds on us seeing an 82-year-old from Gordon & MacPhail before too long? That’s the thing with records. They keep getting broken.
ABOVE: Abhainn Dearg distillery
ABOVE: Macallan’s The Reach