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Whiskies of yore – resurfaced hidden treasures

Whiskies of yore – resurfaced hidden treasures

It’s the stuff of fairytales or big blockbuster movies – ‘buried treasure discovered and sold for a fortune.’ Except these are no fairytales, and the fortunes are, in fact very real, if not always particularly sizeable. But fortune can be measured in more than just money.


The Queen, the Castle and the forgotten drams

Blair Castle, Perthshire, Scotland – a vision of baronial architecture. Originally dating from 1269, the castle, like so many others, has seen expansions and improvements made over the centuries, transforming both its interior space and its stunning façade. And, like many ancient properties, those periods of change have resulted in secrets being contained.

One such secret was unearthed, quite by accident when a trustee of the castle entered a cellar through a hidden door.  There he found a treasure trove of approximately 40 bottles of whisky at the back of a dusty shelf. Accompanying them was a plaque, which stated a distillation year of 1833, a bottling year of 1841 and a further rebottling year of 1932. It was indeed fortunate to have stumbled upon such delights in a castle well documented for its history of whisky production and for having such well kept inventories, known as ‘bin books’. Once such ‘bin book’ is dated 1834, one year after the whisky bottling, in which it references;

 ‘Bin 65 – Store Whiskey – 72 bottles = 40 Gallons in wood’. 

This inventory is, in fact, one of the earliest known documentations of whisky being matured in wood.

What of the whisky itself?

Documentary evidence of the whisky’s age has been further corroborated by Whisky Auctioneer who, with the help of carbon dating carried out by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, have supported the age claim.  This means that the whisky is the oldest known (by vintage that is) whisky in existence.

Of course, if you want to be pedantic, you could argue that it’s only an 8 year old whisky which, technically speaking it is, but it’s been kept in a dark, cool cellar for around 190 years, providing optimum conditions for preservation

As for the contents of the bottles,  Angus MacRaild, a local whisky historian who specialises in old and rare whiskies, was given a sample of the liquid, of which he stated that ‘the whisky had maintained its weight and freshness, featured medicinal qualities, minus the presence of peat’. 

Of course, no one will know if the whisky is blended, single malt, single grain, but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter – it’s a piece of history, who wouldn’t want to own a bottle?!

And what of the Queen?

Blair Castle is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Atholl and thus the host of many distinguished guests during its formative years.

A whilst there is absolutely no definitive proof, it is extremely likely that when visiting the castle with her beloved Prince Albert in 1844, Queen Victoria would have sampled this whisky. One could refer to this as the whiskies ‘crowning glory!’

Image of Joe Wilson, Head Curator and Spirits Specialist courtesy of News NE&T

How much is this whisky selling for?

Only 24 of the 40 bottles have been released for auction.  Whisky Auctioneer opened bidding to run for 11days, from 24 November to 4 December. At the time of writing this, one quarter had already achieved the reserve price of £10,000 with bottle NO.01 at £14,000. With several more days of bidding left, it will be interesting to see the final results.

Sunken Scotch

A diver’s dream – buried treasure hidden in the depths of the ocean and revealed in the belly of the sunken ship decades later.  All sorts have been found in shipwrecks, from ancient pottery, gold coins and chests of jewellery. But what about whisky?

Well, two significant finds in recent years have cropped up.

The first was the SS Wallachia, a cargo steamer ship bought by Glaswegian company William Burrell & Son.  On 29 September 1895 the steamer set sail from Glasgow, bound for Trinidad and Demerara (now Gyana), laden with among other things valuable whisky, gin and beer.  Sadly, as a result of dense fog, a Norwegian ship collided with them and the SS Wallachia sank to the depths of the Firth of Clyde. 

It wasn’t until 1977 that the divers from Sub-Aqua Club re-discovered the wreck (the masts had been removed in 1895 by divers from a salvage ship) and the remains of its precious cargo recovered.

Why are we reporting on this now?

It wasn’t until this year, 128 years after being placed on the SS.Wallachia, that some of that whisky found itself up for sale.

In April 2023, 7 bottles of whisky containing a historic blend known as Robert Brown’s Four Crown, which had received a Royal Warrant from Edward VII and an incredibly rare Wilkinson’s Decanter, containing Charles Wilkinson whisky (one of only two recovered) were auctioned at McTear’s Auction house, with the lot, fetching £2,500.

The second shipwreck to house untold whisky treasures of years gone by, is the American passenger steamer, The Westmoreland, which went down on the shores of Lake Michigan in December of 1854. Apart from the passengers, the ship was also carrying 280 barrels of whiskey.

It wasn’t until 2010 that this precious cargo was discovered, 200 feet below the surface of Platte Bay, Michigan.  Sadly almost 170 years later, the whiskey remains encapsulated in its watery tomb.

It’s not known in what condition this ancient whiskey resides; especially given it’s contained in barrels rather than bottles. However, according to the diving team who discovered it, the calmness of the water and the cold temperatures may well have preserved the liquid in the barrels.

And assuming that each of the 280 barrels still contain their full quota, we could be looking at a potential 56,000 bottles of very old whiskey, which could be worth millions of dollars!

And it’s not just whiskey collectors and consumers who are showing an interest. Reports suggest that a regional distillery is keen to obtain some of the whiskey for scientific research, as the genetic make up of corn in 1854 would have produced a completely different taste to today’s crop, but they’ll all just have to sit tight just a few more years until permits are granted for their removal from the wreck.

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