Whisky to mark an occasion
We all know that whisky is an excellent drink to use for a celebration and in Scotland it is very commonly used as such. Events such as the birth of a child have a social celebration known as a ‘Head Wetting’ which is where the birth is celebrated by the father going out with friends for a night out to commemorate the new born. I wonder how many heads are sore the next day when a crying baby may be the last thing that you’d appreciate with a hangover!
An alternative route to celebrate an occasion is to perhaps seek out a special whisky and open the bottle and have a more restrained night (in or out). This was the route I initially took when my daughter was born. 10 years prior I had paid a visit to Glenmorangie distillery and bought two of the Truffle Oak finishes for £150 each. The partner I had at the time and myself were considering the possibility of a child and I thought one of the bottles would be appropriate for a head wetting. However, it was not to be, and the bottles went into the back of my drinks cabinet waiting for that special occasion.
Fast forward 10 years, and my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter and the subject of a head wetting came up. I thought about the Truffle Oak Glenmorangie bottles, and how I would love to try one. This was also about the time I had decided to start collecting bottles more seriously so I could perhaps have a little nest egg for the little one when she was older. A quick look on the internet for retail and auction prices for these bottles showed that I was not going to be opening the Glenmorangie, but instead picked a Bruichladdich Yellow Submarine instead. These were the days when you could pick up a retail one for under £200 and auction prices were even lower. It was my first time tasting this bottling, and I suppose the fact that I used it as my head wetting whisky makes it that little bit more special, and not just the fact that it has a tie in with my day job.
Now that we are thinking of picking a whisky to celebrate a pivotal moment in our lives such as a childbirth or a similar occasion, I have been looking for a decent bottle that marked my date or year of birth. I do have a couple from my year of birth, but the vintage bottlings for me just aren’t the same, so I am constantly on the look out for a whisky that was distilled or bottled on my actual day of birth, but this is like looking for a needle in a haystack. So, I have to make do with bottles that were either distilled or bottled on one of my birthdays, and I have been a little more successful in this endeavour.
It was a visit to the GlenDronach distillery in early summer last year that achieved my first bottle – I was driving and couldn’t drink, so had to sit out the end of the tour tasting, but the guide then pointed out that their hand filled bottle was distilled on what I quickly worked out to be my 19th Birthday. This 26 year old bottle was quickly snapped up and I even got a wee sample to try. Driving away from the distillery I had calculated that I had shot my bolt a bit early. My birthday was in 4 days time, the date the whisky turned 27 years old. I managed to sneak away to get another bottle which was bottled and distilled on my birthday. I would imagine there are very few bottles like that available and it joins the Glenmorangie Truffle Oaks in my remote storage where I can’t be tempted to open it.
It was a Facebook messenger conversation a couple of months ago that made me think of this once more. One of my former work colleagues had asked me about the possibility of getting a bottle of whisky that had the date of his son’s birthday on it. Now, I made him aware that the chances of me being able to find one were as likely as trying to find a drop of wine in the North Sea (not quite what I said, but a lot more acceptable for public consumption!) but I’d have a go. An initial search on the internet was unsuccessful, but I told him to leave it with me and I’d have a go. Challenge accepted!
I’m now going to be writing this article so you can see what I tried and how I was eventually successful. Just to warn you, it took a month and while I did achieve my aim, it was not without it’s frustrations.
A simple Google search will just throw up too many random results. You will easily find the vintage year, and you might even be lucky enough to get the correct month, but if this is going to be a momento of a birth, it isn’t close enough. The vast majority of vintage whisky just has a year on it, so to achieve the correct date we will have to look at three main types of bottlings to secure a victory – Hand Fills, Single Casks and Special Editions. Because most bottles are filled with whisky that is the result of a marriage of casks, you will never be able to achieve a date of distillation. I think that this is important, as the date of the birth will coincide with the date of the whisky creation, which for me gives a more powerful symbolism to the bottle.
To find hand fill bottles with a specific date, the easiest way to achieve this if you ever want to have a bottle of whisky bottled on the date of your offspring’s birth is to get a friend to visit a distillery and purchase a handfilled bottle on the day that your child is born. I would suggest it may not be polite for you to do this when your significant other is going through labour and may create considerable friction in your relationship. There is no way that I would try that, although I was close enough to a distillery on the date of my daughter’s birth!
With hand filled bottles, I would suggest that there is a slight drawback to know that somebody else bottled it, so loses it’s personal touch to the special event that you are trying to commemorate, but that all depends on how special you want this to be. By far the easiest bottles to find are those from single casks, where it is easier to find a larger availability of dates, and certainly easier to search for.
If you think a single cask bottle would be appropriate, then you have to ask yourself will it be drunk? Of course, it depends on whether or not you are giving it to somebody or keeping it for yourself. But to help you search I found it is easier to look at distilleries that are consistently producing good single cask produce. What you may find that if you can get a date that is within a couple of days of your requirements, it is a case of being patient. Sometimes distilleries go through a run of bottling single casks. I found this to be true of GlenAllachie as one of my early targets to source a bottle for my colleague, but could only get within 2 or three days and not the actual date – close but no cigar.
Since these bottles were unlikely to be found at retail, I decided to hit the auctions. The simplest way to search was to look for a particular vintage year. If there was too many results, I found I got mixed returns by using different date formats in the search boxes of the auctioneers. You have to be persistent in trying everything. You also need to be smart about filtering your search results – being Aberdonian I always search for the low prices first as why would you want to pay more than you had to?
To cut a long story short, eventually I got a hit on a bottle from the Arran Distillery. This took me about 3 weeks searching every now and again when I had a spare moment. Initially I found a bottling from the day before the required date, but when I realised the date I needed was a Friday, then I found other bottles of the same whisky from the following week so then I was certain there would likely be similar bottling on the date required. Some further persistence paid off and within a couple of hours found the bottle I needed.
Let’s just say I hadn’t found THE bottle, but only had identified the edition I needed to find in the auctions or rare whisky shops. But if you have been paying attention to what I write, you will know that if something has been in an auction once, then it will turn up eventually in the future. You hope that it is not an in-demand bottle or that you don’t get somebody else bidding against you which will possibly force the price up. And it is here you have to make a difficult decision – how much do you pay for the bottle you are searching for? How important is the significance of the date?
Well, I took the common sense approach – I looked closely at the bottle – it had condition warnings about the state of the outer packaging, and what wasn’t noted was slight damage to the front label. The next thing you have to consider is how many of them were produced?.l Because this was a wine cask finish in a single cask, just over three hundred were available on the date I required. Researching the prices of other auctions revealed a hammer price between £85 and £150, but I didn’t do a thorough search, as it was only to give me an idea. Using my usual auction strategies, I obtained the bottle for a hammer price of £65 which adding the usual fees and P&P came to £85.
Whilst this is not a whisky that was distilled on the date required, given that this was over 14 years ago and the amount of releases since then, it was going to be like searching the world for a specific grain of sand. We can choose to look at it from the sense that the bottled product was created on the same day, and hopefully that has enough significance for the recipient whether it gets opened or kept in a cupboard for a wee while longer.
Of course, when thinking of celebrating significant birthdays, if you are close enough to a distillery that does hand fill, I would suggest taking a trip there with the intended recipient to commemorate not only the day, but a proper day out making memories. In the case of my colleague, this is what I suggested happens for his child’s 18th and 21st birthdays. Will these bottles be worth anything financially? Only if somebody else wants the same date, Indeed my GlenDronach handfill is making about £60-£70 more than I paid for it at auction, but then factor in the fees, then no, it’s not making a lot more, but time will tell. There will be a demand for vintage whisky in the future, but whether or not sherried whiskies are popular in the future remains to be seen. Vintage GlenDronach frequently does well at auction so not too worried.
I haven’t mentioned much about the third type of bottle – special editions. These will be rarer and therefore harder to find, especially for a specific date. And we know what this is likely to do for prices but regardless we have to know what the prices are so we aren’t overpaying.
Lastly, sometimes it is just down to luck. You just need to keep your eyes open when looking around distilleries, especially for single cask releases. Independent bottlers are also often good for detailing dates such as Signatory vintage. It is just a case of looking around.
Of course, you could always have a cask filled on that very date, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish, and I’d advise you to look at my articles on cask purchase before proceeding down a very expensive route if you hope to taste it.
I hope this has given you a few pointers. Funnily enough as I was writing this article, somebody contacted me about this very issue, although they were looking for vintage Macallan. Talk about good timing! Cone time I will be looking for a vintage whisky for my daughters birth date, but as she’s not even four yet, there may be some time to go yet before anything is released.
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