November 08, 2018
It was one of the oldest and most expensive unopened bottle of Scotch. Or at least that’s what they were thinking.
One of the highest paid online writers from China, Zhang Wei was on vacation at the Waldhaus Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland last July 2017 with his grandmother when he sojourned the hotel’s bar, the Devil’s Place Whiskey Bar. It isn’t your regular hotel pub. The bar boasts a collection of over 2,500 whiskies, the priciest of which is a bottle of The 1878 Macallan vintage single malt Scotch.
The pinnacle among the bar’s collection of 47 The Macallan bottles, the century-and-a-half-old whisky, is valued at US$300, 000, meaning a single shot could burn a hefty US$10,000 on someone’s pocket. Not to mention, it wasn’t even for sale.
But Zhang, 36 years old, would not be dissuaded. The author, which has a number of financially successful fantasy novels on his belt is living a lucrative career. Last 2015, he reportedly earned a colossal US$16.8 million in revenue. Getting a sip of the Scotch made on the same year when Thomas Edison patented the phonograph (the turntable’s primordial ancestor) is an experience very few people can have access to, let alone afford.
Sandro Bernasconi, the Waldhaus hotelier, sent a phone call to his father, the hotel’s previous owner, regarding Zhang’s request. The two never expected that a customer would be willing to splurge a sizable amount of money for the bottle, to which the elder Bernasconi acceded.
The whisky is so old, the hotel manager and owner thought that the cork would disintegrate into the bottle when it was opened. Bernasconi poured a dram for and himself and Zhang, and together downed a shot of one of the oldest unopened Scotch in the world.
Zhang then posted about the rare experience on the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo. In Mandarin, he said: "When I came across a fine spirit from over 100 years ago, there wasn't much struggle inside.
"My grandma who accompanied me on this trip was only 82, yet the alcohol was 139 years old - same age as my grandma's grandma.
"To answer you all, it had a good taste. It's not just the taste, but also history."
When the news of the purchase spread like liquor-fueled wildfire among whiskey experts, collectors, and historians, a lot of eyebrows were raised. It did not help that the images of the bottle from online and newspaper articles showed discrepancies.
The cork looked artificially-aged. The bottle design was too modern and very similar to the ones purchased by The Macallan around the 2000s. And the label was riffed with inaccuracies. On it was written “guaranteed absolutely pure by Roderick Kemp, proprietor, Macallan and Talisker Distilleries Ltd’. Roderick Kemp once owned Talisker and then Macallan, but never at the same time. Also, the two companies never became a single entity at any point in time.
With the prestigious hotel’s name on the line, Waldhaus sent a sample to Rare Whisky 101, a Dunfermline-based company that supervises the trade and auction of rare and expensive whiskies, to determine its true value.
With the cooperation whisky specialists Tatlock and Thomson, laboratory tests were conducted and revealed that The 1878 Macallan is 60% malt and 40% grain, making it a blended Scotch, contrary to what the label is suggesting.
But the second and final nail in this vintage spirit coffin reeking of a fraud came in the form of carbon-dating test performed by the University of Oxford indicating that the liquor was made somewhere between 1970 and 1972. This confirmed everybody’s conjecture that the bottle indeed is a hoax.
Bernasconi however, defended that they have no idea that the bottle was fake. His father bought the bottle 25 years ago, also oblivious to the fact that it was fake. He flew to China to personally break the unfortunate news to Zhang and reimburse him.
Despite what happened, Zhang welcomed Bernasconi’s efforts of goodwill with admiration. The Chinese author said he was very glad and thankful of the hotel’s honesty.
David Robertson, the cofounder of Rare Whisky 101, complimented Waldhaus for doing “exactly the right thing by trying to authenticate this whisky.” They also urged “that others in the market do what they can to identify any rogue bottles.”
Likewise, a spokesman for Macallan advised that consumers and collectors alike purchase only from "reputable sources at all times."
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