One of the greatest joys of being in the auction business is the unexpected finds that crop up along the way, often when you least expect them. These experiences are something that can never be taken for granted, which makes them all the sweeter when they arrive. The possibility always exists that the next stop we make on the road will deliver something extraordinary, and these unexpected moments are what keep auctioneering fun and make all our hard work worthwhile.
In the past few years we’ve had the privilege of being part of some amazing finds, from the huge stash of Irish moonshine uncovered in 2019 to last year’s discovery of the oldest ever official bottle of Banff. And sure enough, when we least expected it, a routine pickup last week turned into another one of those special moments.
Every month our owners Wayne and Harrison travel up and down the country picking up large whisky collections and high value bottles for our auction. It’s the unglamorous side of the auctioneering business and it’s hard work, with hundreds of man hours and thousands of miles on the road every year. We could get someone else to do it for us, but our customers appreciate the personal touch when parting with their precious bottles or big collections that took years to build.
Sometimes, however, the bottles we collect are from people who have lost a family member, and the vendor knows little about the whisky that they have. Such was the case last week, when we went down to Oxfordshire to pick up several hundred unlabelled bottles that had been sitting in the cellar at the family home of the vendor since before the death of his father in 1985.
The main bulk of this large collection of over 500 bottles were dozens of cases of unlabelled Ben Nevis and Cragganmore, both 15 years old and believed to be from private casks owned by the vendor’s father, who had had them bottled (but not labelled) a short time before passing away. The collection also included almost 200 bottles of unlabelled blended whisky.
Examining the outer cases later, we found rotation numbers indicating that both single malts had been bottled in 1981, meaning that these whiskies must have been distilled no later than 1966. The blends, meanwhile, were bottled in 1964 and 1965 – so this was already a good day’s work, with several hundred great bottles (though sadly unlabelled) for our auction.
As we finished loading the last of the unlabelled whiskies onto the van, we got chatting with the vendor about the mis-spelling of Cragganmore on the outer cases, which are stamped ‘Cragamore 15-year-old’. We explained how some big companies forbid the use of their distillery names on non-official bottlings – like Leapfrog, the famous Murray McDavid bottlings of Laphroaig.
The vendor’s eyes suddenly lit up – he thought he might have a bottle of Laphroaig that his father had left in a case of port. Back to the cellar we went, and discovered not one but four amazing old bottles of 1950s Laphroaig stashed among the remains of a case of 1930s port. The vendor was bowled over when we told him how much they could be worth.
The fun wasn’t over yet though – we’d spotted an old bottle of what turned out to be 1950s Green Chartreuse on a stack of shelves at the back of the cellar. And as we were inspecting that lovely old bottle, our eyes fell on a neighbouring wine rack – and nestled among various old wines and liqueurs there were another FIVE bottles of 1950s Laphroaig! Everyone was absolutely stunned and of course the vendor was delighted to add them to our list for the auction.
It was only after we got everything back to Blackpool and inspected all the bottles at Whisky-Online HQ that we realised that this find was even more special than we’d realised at the time.
Of the nine Laphroaigs that were found, all were bottled at 80 proof (46%), and are sealed with a large screwcap and lead capsule consistent with the 1940s-1950s, and all were showing cellar damage to the labels. We’ve aged these bottles conservatively as 1950s, but it’s possible that they’re a bit older.
The levels for most of the bottles are good, but only three had retained even part of their neck labels – and these threw up yet another surprise.
One of the damaged neck labels was the standard ‘Strength 20 Under Proof’ label common among Laphroaigs from around the 1930s-1950s. The other two, however, were rather different: one of them had only a tantalising fragment: ‘…isky Is… rs Old’. The other was also damaged but clearly readable: ‘This Whisky Is 12 Years Old’.
We scoured whiskybase for this bottle – nothing. We checked laphroaigcollector, the website of Laphroaig’s most famous aficionado, Marcel van Gils – nada. We believe that this is the first official Laphroaig 12-year-old from this timeframe that’s ever been found in the wild, and we honestly couldn’t be happier.
Further research seems to indicate that the Laphroaig bottles are from both the late 1940s and the early 1950s. This narrowing of dates was possible because in late December 1950 Laphroaig’s owner Ian Hunter, who had previously been the sole partner in D Johnston & Co., registered the distillery business as a limited company: D Johnston & Co. (Laphroaig) Ltd.
Of the various beautiful Laphroaig bottles in the sale, the standout Laphroaig 12-year-old was bottled by ‘D Johnston & Co. (Laphroaig) Ltd’, and can be assumed to be from the early 1950s, while most of the other bottles just have ‘D Johnston & Co.’ on the label, and are therefore believed to have been bottled prior to December 1950.
It’s incredible that despite the worldwide interest in single malt whisky – and Laphroaig in particular – that there are still previously unknown bottlings from Scotland’s greatest distilleries out there waiting to be discovered. It’s this possibility that keeps us hunting up and down the country every month for the chance at discovering beautiful old treasures like this 1950s Laphroaig, most likely a pre-war distillate bottled at 46%…. These bottles are all for sale in our auction this week and the lucky new owners and eventual drinkers of these historic Laphroaigs are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s these moments that make whisky auctioneering so special.
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