People

In conversation with Norman Shelley

Charles Maclean talks to 'The Perfect Collector', Norman Shelley
By Charles MacLean
CM When did you become involved with whisky?NS Although I was educated in England, I have lived abroad all my life. My father worked for Shell Petroleum and during my first 21 years on this planet we lived in 18 countries. My mother is part Italian, part Swiss. The only constant connection with ‘home’ was Scotch, my father was an avid devotee, so I began to enjoy it as soon as I began to drink alcohol. He ultimately settled in Cyprus and it was here that I began my drinks importing business in 1975, when I was 22. My pleasure became my business from that date. CM And Macallan?NS By 1984 I had moved my business to Istanbul and was distributing wines and spirits in Turkey. In the early days I held the agencies for Teachers, then Haig, Bells, VAT 69 and J&B. My first introduction to malt whisky was visiting a distillery, I think it was Aberlour, although my first malt whisky agency was for The Glenlivet which I held 1984-94. I first tasted Macallan about 1990 and never looked back: I was smitten and it immediately became my favourite. Around the same time, I was appointed to sell Highland Distilleries portfolio in Turkey and the old Soviet Union. You can imagine my pleasure when they took over The Macallan in 1996 and this joined my portfolio. CM What gave you the idea of buying a collection? NS On a trip to the distillery a couple of years ago, I tasted a 50-year-old. I so enjoyed it, I asked if I could buy some bottles to share with friends. Once we had drunk these, I thought ‘why stop here?’ and asked David Robertson [The Macallan’s Master Distiller] and Anacreon Barnard [Regional Export Director] about the feasibility of securing some old bottles for drinking. They put together a selection of bottles, some of them very old indeed. CM Tell me more about your collection. NS There are 76 bottles in all. The earliest is from 1856, with representatives from the 1860s, 70s and 90s. I have two 60-year-old bottlings (one from the edition of 12, bottled in 1986 with a label by Valerio Adami; the other to have a unique label) and two 50-year-old bottlings (filled in 1983 with whisky distilled in 1926-28). I also have quite a number of pre-war bottles and some more recent bottlings (30-year-old, 25-year-old, Gran Reserva, etc). The collection is currently valued at a fraction under £231,500. I will not tell you how much I paid for it, but I reckon I have a fair deal! CM And do you intend to drink your way through the collection? NS Not all of it. While the inspiration for the collection was to drink old Macallans, and you know how wonderful they are, it was clear that some of these bottles are extremely rare, even, perhaps, unique in a couple of cases. It would be a terrible sin to drink these. So I decided to leave the older bottles at Easter Elchies, to be displayed and enjoyed by visitors to the distillery. Everything under approximately 60 years old about 70% of the collection (30% by value) – I will dispatch to my cellar in Istanbul as drinking stock. I have no conscience about opening a bottle of 1946 Macallan with friends unless it is the last bottle of 1946 in my collection! CM What about the investment perspective?NS Obviously I hope the market for old Macallans will continue to grow but this is secondary to my enjoyment. The prognosis is good: Macallan holds 9 out of 10 of the top prices paid at auction for malt whiskies. Indeed, it is better than for many other kinds of investment: the 50-year-old bottled in 1983 originally retailed through Harrods for £125. It first came to auction in 1986 and fetched £1,100 – in 1999 a bottle was sold at Christies for £9,350. This is a compound growth of 16% per annum over 13 years better than any stock market index! But even if the bottom falls out of the old whisky market I know I can still enjoy drinking what I have bought, not something you can say with complete confidence about buying old wines, for example. CM What is your favourite drink, as well as The Macallan? NS I love Louis XIII cognac and among The Macallans I drink 18-year-old daily before dinner as well as after (as is the Turkish custom!) and for special occasions, the 1999 bottling of whisky distilled in 1948.