Treasures... Whiskey galore
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
There's something about collecting whiskey that goes against the grain. That stuff was made for drinking. But certain bottles of whiskey are more valuable as collectibles than consumables.
So, if you're clearing out the sideboard of an elderly teetotaller, check the labels carefully. There just might be a valuable bottle, forgotten at the back of the cupboard. Just don't be tempted to taste it! Once the seal is broken, the value is gone.
Some Irish whiskey was distilled to be collected. The Midleton Very Rare bottling was released in 1984 and a new vintage is released every year. It's an expensive whiskey to start with - a bottle of Midleton Very Rare 2016 retails for around €150 - but older bottles are much more valuable. Expect to pay around €500 for one from the mid-1990s and €1,100 for a 1985 vintage. This isn't because the older whiskey is any better to drink. Unlike wine, whiskey doesn't mature in the bottle, so the increase in value is entirely to do with rarity.
If you're not planning to drink it, the actual taste of the whiskey doesn't matter in the slightest. "The early vintages of Midleton Very Rare weren't very good," says Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop. A bottle of Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey, 1984, is coming up for auction in Whyte's Christmas sale on December 10 (est €1,400 to €1,600). This may be a popular one among international bidders. "The 1984 vintage was only released in Ireland and Irish people knew they were going to be collectible, so they kept them."
Where whiskey prices go nuts at auction, it's often because two collectors are vying for a bottle that will fill a gap in their collection. As collectors of everything from stamps to Pokemon cards will tell you, a complete collection is worth more than the sum of its parts. A full suite of Midleton Very Rare vintages (1984-2016) would be worth around €30,000. "Midleton is going to be the Macallan of Irish whiskeys," says Alpine, who hails from Glasgow. He's referring to Speyside's most collectible distillery. A bottle of Macallan 25-year-old 1963 anniversary malt could set you back €3,500.
Scotch whisky is famously collectible. Irish whiskey is niche by comparison but it's worth remembering that the predominance of Scotch malts is a comparatively recent thing. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Irish whiskey was far more popular than Scotch. Around 200 Irish distilleries (some more official than others) sprang up to meet the demand. By the 1960s only a handful of these remained. The American Prohibition Laws (1919 to 1933) wiped out most of the export market. Then came the War of Independence, Civil War, and a British embargo on Irish whiskey sales to the British Empire.
The Second World War bought further restrictions and, by the time it ended, American servicemen returning from Britain had developed a taste for Scotch. By this stage, the Irish whiskey industry was effectively scotched. The whiskeys made by these long-gone Irish distilleries are very collectible indeed. "They're the ones you'd love to see coming in the door," Alpine says. "There's a real history there."
Dunville's Three Crowns whiskey was distilled in Belfast from the 1870s until the 1930s, when the factory closed. At this time, the few remaining cases wouldn't have been worth much. They were left lying idle in a bonded warehouse in Belfast. About 10 years ago they were discovered, tested, found to be intact and auctioned. Most recently, two bottles from the cache sold at Whyte's for €620 each in 2014.
This March, a bottle of 100-year-old whiskey by Dublin Whiskey Distillery (DWD) sold at Whyte's for €15,000. The distillery was built in 1873 on Jones Road with a state-of-the-art turbine, possibly powered by a wheel in the River Tolka. The DWD produced more than 500,000 gallons of whiskey a year in the 1880s, and continued in production at the Tolka distillery until 1926.
The bottle that did so well at auction was distilled in 1916 and matured in cask until 1966, when it was bottled by P & F Mc Glade of Belfast. The seal on the bottle was broken, which usually excludes whiskey from the collector's market, but the 1916 date was sufficient to overcome this disadvantage. The bottle is now on display in the Irish Whiskey Museum. A second bottle, identical but with the seal intact, is included in Whyte's Christmas sale (€15,000 to €20,000).
Although whiskies by long-gone distilleries are especially collectible, so too are those made by companies that managed to survive. "As Irish whiskey brands get marketed internationally, the price of old whiskey from that distillery goes up," Alpine explains. In the early 20th century, whiskey distilled by John Jameson & Sons was sold to the wine merchant Mitchell & Son, who marketed it under their own brand. The casks were identified by a splash of coloured paint and sold under the name Blue Spot, Red Spot, Yellow Spot, and Green Spot. The practice continued until the 1960s.
"Jameson printed a standard label and left space for the merchant to overprint their name," Alpine says. "Some of them are disgusting! Jameson wasn't in control of what was in the bottle even though their name was on the bottle." One of the exceptions was Jameson Green Spot, which has lived on. "The older ones tend to be robust and oily, similar in style to Redbreast."
The Celtic Whiskey Shop currently has a rare bottle of Jameson Green Spot, probably from the 1950s, with a price tag of €3,000. Another is going under the hammer at Whyte's on 10 December (€2,500 to €3,500). Chances are, nobody's ever going to find out what it tastes like.
See celticwhiskeyshop.com and whytes.ie
In the salerooms
"Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes," wrote the poet Robert Burns in 1791. He was writing about the river, not the cigarette brand Sweet Afton. The brand was intended to celebrate the link between Burns and Dundalk, where his eldest sister had lived. A portrait (above) of Robert Burns (est €4,000 to €6,000), is coming up for auction at Sheppard's. It's the work of the Scottish artist John Ballantyne (1815-1897) and a version of the famous image of Burns, painted by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787. "I think that our one is better than the Nasmyth portrait," says Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. The sale is part of the Dublin & Provincial and Classical Art auction, which takes place from November 29 to December 1. Furniture in the sale includes an imposing pair of Dublin-carved mahogany and hide-upholstered wing armchairs (€14,000 to €18,000). See sheppards.ie.
Herman & Wilkinson
In 1882, Major J J Crooks, administrator of Liberia, was awarded the honour of Knight Commander of the Liberian Order of the African Redemption. Now, his dress uniform and personal effects are coming up for auction at Herman & Wilkinson as part of the Maurice and Beatrice O'Connor Collection. The sale also includes much in the way of Georgian antique furniture, ranging from a breakfront library bookcase and a rent table to a hunt table and grandfather clock. The auction will take place on November 29 at 10am. See hermanwilkinson.ie.
The At Home auction, takes place at Adam's on Sunday. Amid the antiques are some contemporary pieces including a pair of three-seater "Jamaica" sofas by Ralph Lauren, upholstered in light grey cashmere wool fabric (est €2,000 to €3,000). More eccentrically, the sale also includes a "large battery" of brass- mounted copper kitchen ware (est €500 to €800) and a timber-framed upholstered octagonal wardrobe, raised on bun feet with a removable domed top and a spiral finial (est €400 to €500). See adams.ie.
Anybody mislaid their OBE medal? There's a chance to buy it back at Weldon's next Fine Jewellery & Silver Auction on November 29 at 2pm. "There's no inscription on it, so we don't know to whom it was given, nor for what," says John Weldon. He does know that it's genuine, though. The medal (est €300 to €500) comes in its original fitted box, labelled Garrard's of London. The sale is geared towards the Christmas market and includes a number of lady's watches, including an 18ct gold diamond set Chopard wristwatch (est €4,000 to €5,000) and a two-tone Rolex wristwatch (est €1,500 to €2,500). For full details see jwa.ie.