Production

Mini bottles, big obsession

Brian Hennigan investigates the murky world of the miniature collector and discovers that these hardened collectors will stop at nothing to achieve their goals
By Brian Hennigan
They’re difficult to find. There aren’t many. But take care: they’re fanatics. They will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. And they have the resources to do it.The Editor’s words rung in my ears as the wind swept me down the cobbled streets of Scotland’s capital. Word had been around for some time that there was a new fear stalking the streets of hard liquor. They hunted alone and took what they could, distance no object. Their trade was miniature bottles, mostly whisky, and their goal was to fill every shelf in their house and garage. At The Whisky Shop, Princes Mall, Edinburgh, they were familiar with the collectors. As the door closed silently a chill descended, the type of chill that can mean only one thing: air-conditioning.“They come in twice a month or so,” said Grant as if referring to the tides of the North Sea. “They look for any tiny difference,” continued his associate Carol. “Tiny things that I don’t even notice.” They mentioned the time that the sunset on the Highland Park miniature had been changed. Orders had been placed and money exchanged. It had got pretty hairy for a time. Didn’t those marketing boys know the trouble they caused with their so-called re-packaging? What about the whisky itself though? Does anybody actually buy the little whisky bottles for drinking? “Some people do it for tasting,” Carol noted, her eyes alive to the dark shadows at the back of the shop. Her tacit inference was clear. The Drinkers are a rare and not-to-be trusted group who spelled trouble with a capital T followed by ‘rouble’.What about the multiple-users? Carol and Grant nod. No less than two different female customers have bought 50, count them, 50 miniatures for their partner’s 50th birthday: the bottles being hidden around the house for a treasure hunt on the special morning. If the recipient is drinking them as they go along, it’s quite conceivable that some bottles may never be found. And they’ll be late for work. Grant finds the mere thought of such a task overly taxing: “That’d be a nightmare – you’d need a map.” Carol nods sagely, they have to cope with stocking some 200 miniatures of whisky with the most expensive being the Johnnie Walker Blue Label which, with each bottle individually numbered, comes in at a more-than-miniature £18.Then there are the jokers, for whom miniature editions offer scope for spots of devil-may-care, thigh-slapping japery. You know the type: tourists who will take home a tiddler size Glenmorangie for presentation to a friend, with the hilarious rejoinder of “I bought you a full bottle”. And would these people be mostly English? Carol and Grant are saying nothing. Indeed, they’ve said too much already. It’s closing time and they don’t want to miss their bus. Yet even as one leaves the small shop, there is the sense of having only brushed the tip of the barley. A call from the Editor’s office alerts me. “Try the world-wide web”, he shouts over the sound of the tannoy. Then his money ran out.
Sure enough it’s all there and it’s like nothing you’ve seen. This is where the hardcore stuff can be found. Before looking at the internet you would have found it difficult to believe that miniature bottle collectors account for 65% of all known web pages. With good reason – it’s not true. But there are lots of sites dedicated to the mini, as smaller bottles are often lovingly referred to. The strategic thought and planning behind this hobby is identified on the web page of a collector from Lexington, Kentucky, USA, whose name has been concealed to protect the indolent:“Miniature bottles, also known as ‘minis’, ‘samplers’ or ‘nips’, are small bottles of alcoholic beverages. These bottles are commonly used for two reasons:1) Serving drinks on planes, or in some areas, bars.
2) Sell as samples for people who want to try a beverage but don’t want a whole large bottle.I am part of a community who has found a third use for minis. Collecting them.”Then page after page scrolls down to reveal collectors standing in front of their straining shelves, small bottles running off into the horizon. The lists seem endless. They are. Consider the periodicals that service this so-called innocent hobby. One collector refers to “Bob Snyder’s Bottles in Miniature Volume III from 1972”. Don’t you think that such titles have about them the air of Soviet publications from the Brezhnev era? Neither do I.Not all sites are simple listings affairs. Chris, who classes himself as “a general collector” while nonetheless “specialising in Scotch whisky, older bottles (particularly liqueurs) with an interest in Japanese bottles (both whiskies and brandies)”, has a competition on his pages. This takes the form of a spot the difference affair, between two glaringly similar little bottles. Winners are rewarded with a trip to Disneyland, Florida, or a signed copy of the Magna Carta. I made that bit up. Winners actually get a 3/4 full (i.e. opened and a wee bit missing) miniature of Cadenhead’s 18-year-old Benrinnes. No, I didn’t make that bit up. There’s even a nice picture of it.When it comes to web sites for miniatures, there is one which tops them all: The Miniature Bottle Collector Online. Serving as a kind of meeting place for the world of mini collectors, its possible to trade, chat, butt into someone else’s on-line dicussion on the merits of cork closures on sub-100ml glass castings, or apologise and ask if anyone knows how to order a pizza. Then you can scan the postings, the daily updated messages from collectors, each one the exposed skin of someone’s crusade for completion.A typical message might be this one from Miguel, from Vizcaya, Spain. “I’m looking for a set of Aberlour 10, 15 and 18 y.o. that were made for the US market about a couple of years ago.” That is typical. Compare that with “a-treat lusious [sic] grapefruit coctail [sic] beverage 1954 a-treat bottling company with box / excelent [sic] condition / accepting reasonable offers.” This from someone called “hurdi inc”, of a place called “beanstation, tn”. One suspects that hurdi has been sampling a few of his miniatures prior to posting his notice. Maybe spellcheck is against the purist ethos of the hobby.
They do seem to take their mission with monk-like seriousness.The Hong Kong Miniature Liquor Club certainly takes its business seriously. Founded in 1993 by Mr Wai Man Chan, the aim of the club is “to bring together collectors of miniature bottles, which we hope to encourage interest in the hobby, also enable collectors to increase their collections.”Located in downtown Kowloon, the HKMLC does not just allow anyone in. The downloadable application form requires “photo in proof of the number of collective miniatures more than a hundred”, i.e. you need to prove that you have more than 100 little bottles to get in. And it has to be a photograph. Sketches, watercolours or line drawings are not accepted. Even when you’re in, the people in Hong Kong set about their business with a distinct air of aloofness: “Order [sic] less than HK$200 will not be accepted.” No, not even if it might take you past the crucial 100-bottle mark. Furthermore, they know full well that some unscrupulous members might be tempted to drink one or two of their collection, thus dropping the number of bottles through the psychologically unimportant 100 mark. The rules are clear on this. “Hong Kong Miniature Liquor Club reserve right clearly to conduct on spot intense examination of member house and demand showing of 100 bottle, not less.”Actually I made that up too.As with any pursuit, there are those who stand apart from the common herd. Within the world of miniature bottles, Tony Dobyns is a legend. A memorial website continues to this day to the man who passed away in 1998, having spent 28 years traveling the globe in search of miniatures and along the way amassing an astonishing 18,000. In an article written for Midwest Miniature Bottle Collector, Dobyns describes the “thrill of the hunt” which takes the few in search of so little. Dobyns describes the hardship of collecting minis: the evil that is the extra packing involved and the soul-destroying strain on your arms and back from the increased luggage weight. What drives grown men and women to endure such pains, to scour the globe apparently in search of nothing more than one more little bottle? The clandestine answer from an avid collector is truly terrifying: “The little guys are so cute.”
So the next time you’re at your local store stealing a bottle of your favourite, don’t stand too close to the rows of tiny bottles. Take my advice, for it is born of experience, you don’t really want to get in the way of these people. For the evidence is very clear: they move among us. Be warned.