People

An unseen collection: in Italy we find one of the world's preeminent whisky aficionados

In the medieval town of Lugo we find the home of Valentino Zagatti, creator of the Unseen Collection
By Jacopo Mazzeo
The Este Castle, its porticoes and the 18th-century theatre lend Lugo, Italy, just enough charm to attract the occasional local tourist. Nearby Bologna is too succulent a destination for this little medieval town, a stone’s throw from the Italian Adriatic riviera, to ever feature on the international visitor’s map. And yet, over the past few decades, whisky pilgrims from all corners of the globe have been regularly congregating in one of the town’s little backstreets, which is home to one of the world’s preeminent whisky collectors.

Valentino Zagatti wasn’t born lucky. A few months after the end of World War Two, aged 11, he stepped on a mine. The blast cost him his sight. However, his disability didn’t stop him from becoming an accomplished accordion player. “I would take part in lots of competitions. They said I had a gift,” he says with pride. “I remember when I won the Italian Accordion Championship in 1956. One of the pieces I had to play was a Prelude and Fugue by Felice Fugazza, who was also present on the day. When the judges asked him about my performance, he replied, ‘Just like I would have played it myself.’ That’s how I won the title. I’ve always been the only blind person playing at competitions and yet still managed to give the others a run for their money.”
Valentino Zagatti sharing his collection with friends and fellow connoisseurs

With the same determination, on 19 January 1960, he gave his life a whole new direction: “I would smoke about 10 to 12 cigarettes a day and end up wasting ₤2,000 [Italian liras, about £25 in today’s money] every month. I decided I would invest my war pension on a more tangible and valuable good: spirits. I thought I’d collect grappa and brandy from Italy, vodka from Russia, Tequila from Mexico, and whisky from Scotland. So, I went to the local shop and got myself a bottle of Stock 84 Bollino Oro brandy for ₤1,400 [£17].” The world of spirits revealed itself too unrealistic a challenge for a lifetime of collecting; a decade later Valentino’s interest converged towards a more easily quantifiable category, Scotch whisky. “At the time there were 129 Scotch distilleries. All their expressions seemed like a doable number of bottles to collect. One of the first was a 1960s bottling of Gilbey’s Spey Royal, a blended whisky because that’s what we used to have in Italy at the time. The bottle had kind of an odd oval design,” he points out, disclosing a keen awareness of shape.

Valentino was committed to acquiring all expressions ever released from all Scotch distilleries. A missing bottle would drive him mad and he would do anything to get his hands on it, yet he was no wealthy man, so building up the collection meant sacrifices for the entire family: “Sometimes the ₤2,000 would become ₤3,000 so I would make debts or pay in instalments.” Valentino’s determination paid off. He managed to acquire what’s believed to be the oldest unopened bottle of whisky in the world, a unique piece that a father gifted his daughter for her wedding in 1843, as well as a bottle from Erwin Rommel’s own collection that the Nazi general stole from the British following the battle of El Alamein. “I acquired many from the 1800s and the 1930s, like a GlenDronach 23 Years Old ‘medicinal’ whisky that, in California, you could only find in pharmacies.”
1843 Museum bottling

Valentino would enquire regularly with the distilleries to find missing bottles. He recalls vividly the challenges of tracking down a Glenfiddich 25 Years Old released in 1977 for HM The Queen’s silver jubilee. “I wrote nine letters to them,” he stresses. “Eventually they replied saying it had all gone to Japan. ‘Will you give me your Japanese contact then?’ I said. I got the address and sent a letter to Japan. They got back to me saying that they had found the last bottle in their Tokyo warehouse. I spent ₤411,000 [£1,500] on that one.”

Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, Valentino published a meticulous two-volume catalogue of the 3,104 bottles he had acquired up to that point. The two tomes – the Green Book and the Red Book, as they’re known – contributed to amplify the popularity of this almost legendary Italian whisky connoisseur and his collection: “The Japanese and the Russians were constantly after me; they would tell me they usually drink whole bottles in one go with their guests. And I didn’t want my collection to end up this way.” Valentino can’t hide his disappointment as he recalls when the local council had, at some point, offered to display his entire collection in Lugo’s medieval fortress. “I was so happy,” he moans, “but then the mayor came to discuss the deal and asked for the whole thing to be donated. ‘I can’t just give it away,’ I said. ‘What am I supposed to tell my wife? I’ve made huge sacrifices, debts.’ I even offered to get paid over 30 years but they were not interested.”

While the local council failed to recognise the collection’s potential, a Dutch investor did. Michel Kappen of private investing firm Scotch Whisky International offered Valentino to leave the collection unscathed for at least 10 years and showcase it in a dedicated museum instead. “When they said they would have not touched the whisky my wife told me that it was time to sell.” Despite the reassurances, it took Kappen seven years to complete the deal. “It looks like he keeps finding excuses so he doesn’t have to part with the collection… He goes to his little kitchen again and returns with something new,” explains Kappen in ‘The Netherlands: Country of Whisky’, a documentary narrating the acquisition from the buyer’s perspective. Since the deal was signed in 2015, the collection has been on show as The Unseen Valentino Zagatti special exhibition in Sassenheim, halfway between The Hague and Amsterdam.

With the collection on display in Kappen’s shiny museum, one might wonder why the walls of Valentino’s rooms are still adorned with about 3,500 bottles of distillate. “Basically, now I’ve got another collection,” he giggles. “I recently acquired lots of limited releases: Port Ellen 40 Years Old, Singleton 38 Years Old, Rosebank 30 Years Old, Diageo’s Prima & Ultima, the Game of Thrones series.”
Valentino at the opening of The Unseen Collection

As he talks through his latest purchases, he reveals how a lifetime of collecting has been a mere excuse for old and new friends to come visit and share a few drams: “I have never had another job and this keeps me alive. We taste new whiskies together, people ask me for advice on potential investments. Especially younger collectors and bartenders, many in their 30s, want to hear from my experience.”

Aware that his new collection is once again on the radar of investors, he’s firm and straightforward in expressing his plans for the future: “Right now, I’m not giving anything away.” Valentino’s reluctance to sell isn’t motivated by the same fetishist attachment that defines hordes of fellow connoisseurs, rather by his whiskies’ strong social significance and the implications that letting them go would have on his life.

“They come to see me from all corners of the globe, from Australia to Vietnam... You know why I had stopped playing?” he asks. “Playing classical music meant a minimum of eight hours spent exercising my hands. Eight hours every day spent on my own. Whisky is the opposite, it gives me joy, keeps me company and fosters new friendships.” Valentino won’t be saying goodbye to his whiskies anytime soon.