The oldest bottles of Scotch whisky ever found, dating back almost 200 years to the early reign of Queen Victoria, are set to go under the hammer next week.
The 24 bottles, which are being sold through Whisky Auctioneer, were part of a collection of 40 discovered at Blair Castle in Highland Perthshire last year. Scientific and archival research has confirmed their provenance and quality ahead of the historic auction.
Bertie Troughton, resident trustee at Blair Castle, discovered the bottles while conducting a clear-up of some of the castle's back rooms in late 2022, after the property had shut to visitors for the year. “There was this intriguing door at the back of one of the cellars. It was actually a recess to a back cellar... right in the oldest part of the castle," he explained. “The door was off its hinges, and when I moved it to the side, on the shelves were a lot of dusty bottles. It looked like something from a Harry Potter cabinet.”
Behind some bottles of sloe gin (which had not lasted as well as the whisky), Troughton discovered the 40 bottles of whisky with a plaque detailing their date of production, 1833, and of bottling, 1841. He took a bottle home and opened it with his family – who were all astounded by its contents. “The two amateur take-aways were that it was delicious, and quite strong,” he says, referencing its high ABV (about 60% ABV).
Joe Wilson, head curator and spirits specialist at Whisky Auctioneer, said there was a danger that degradation of the bottles' corks or wax seals could have compromised the quality of the whisky, but fortunately this had not been the case. “To find a cache of this many is what has made this so incredible,” he says. “It is only right that a certain number of the bottles stay with Blair Castle, but to have found so many has given the opportunity to share these with the wider whisky community.”
After speaking with the estate's archivists to begin confirming the whisky's provenance and age, Troughton and family shared the whisky with Whisky Auctioneer founder Ian McClune, who was impressed by what was presented and agreed to support efforts to find out more about the whisky, including the use of scientific tests to determine its age and quality. These tests have included carbon dating, and research currently being undertaken at the University of Edinburgh to determine where the water used to make the whisky was sourced and its peat profile. If successful, these tests could indicate where the whisky was distilled. (Wilson says there is enough evidence to suggest a “high probability” of the whisky having been distilled at Blair Castle – archival evidence points to distilling activities at the castle in the 19th century, and items including hydrostatic balls and copper stills are among the castle's inventory.)
Congener analysis has also revealed that the whisky was stored in oak casks – not unusual at the time, but also not required by Scottish law in the 1830s.
Part of the research into the Blair Castle and Atholl Estates archives has included analysing 'bin books' from the castle's cellars, which detailing the movement of liquids in and out and have revealed that the whisky was re-bottled in 1932. Employment books also record a member of staff at the castle at around the time the whisky dates from who could have undertaken distilling alongside other household occupations – supporting the theory that the whisky was distilled on-site.
In addition to the scientific testing, samples of the spirit were sent to whisky experts including Angus MacRaild and Charles MacLean to get their opinions on its taste and character.
“This is a profoundly historic whisky and a remarkable artefact of Scottish distilling that is unlikely ever to be equalled in provenance and preservation,” MacRaild said. “To taste it myself has been a great privilege. It is very much a distillate-driven malt whisky, with minimal wood inﬂuence and one of a style which could have been produced any time in Scotland up until the 1950s. What I ﬁnd most interesting is that this proﬁle existed already as far back as the 1830s.
“It possesses clear textural weight in the mouth, along with a ﬂavour proﬁle that strongly involves medicinal characteristics without any notable or pronounced peat smoke.”
Finding one bottle of such an age would be rare enough, finding a collection of this size is incredible, but for them to have been stored with details of their distillation and bottling date almost beggars belief. While caveating that there are few certainties on the world of whisky, Wilson says it's “highly unlikely” that another bottle of whisky this old will be found where its age can be so precisely pinpointed. “To have something like this come to sale is pretty unprecedented,” he said.
Some of the remaining bottles will form the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Blair Castle, the Sixth Duke's Study, in homage to the sixth Duke of Atholl George Murray. A friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, he hosted them at Blair Castle and household records show that the royal couple partook of Scotch whisky during their stays.
Troughton believes that the whisky will “put Highland Perthshire back on the map for whisky making”. He added that the fact that Blair Castle is also the seat of the Keepers of the Quaich gives extra poignancy to it being the home of Scotland's oldest whisky.