Collections

The unseen collection

Whisky royalty gathered in the Netherlands last year for the launch of what is likely to be the most comprehensive whisky book ever
By Thijs Klaverstijn
One thing immediately became clear upon entering the venue: this is not the launch of just any old whisky book. Many of the attendees had realised this as well, dressing up in full traditional Keepers of the Quaich attire. Notables had flown in from abroad and it almost felt as if at least someone should’ve been appointed designated survivor to safeguard the whisky industry in case disaster struck.

Instead, all of them had come together at Scotch Whisky International (SWI), the Dutch whisky investment company that bought Valentino Zagatti’s world famous whisky collection a few years back for an undisclosed but significant sum. The launch of The Unseen Valentino Zagatti Collection, an impressive and unparalleled book, is what had lured them to the headquarters of SWI in Sassenheim, a small Dutch city not far from Amsterdam. “I was so incredibly happy when we bought the collection,” says Michel Kappen, CEO of SWI. “The whisky industry knows many reputable people with funds at their disposal. I didn’t expect to end up owning this collection, but at some point it became clear that I would be able to get Zagatti’s collection to the Netherlands.”

The collection counts about 3,000 bottles and is currently proudly displayed in a museum in the Netherlands, built by SWI. Previously, the bottles lined the walls of the modest Italian home of Valentino Zagatti, who lost his eyesight at age 11 due to a stray landmine from World War II. Zagatti started collecting whisky in 1958 from the money he saved after he quit smoking. “In the decades after the war Italy became the most important market for malt whisky,” explains Charles MacLean. “The first whisky magazine in the world was published in Italy in 1986. An entire page was dedicated in the first issue to the oldest whisky in Zagatti’s collection.”

Nowadays, affluent collectors are prepared to pay more than a million pounds for a single bottle of whisky. But the main difference between modern collectors and the early Italian collectors is that they did not buy whisky for investment purposes.

Around the turn of the century, Zagatti released two books about his collection, both of which turned into collector’s items themselves. The books also found their way to Michel Kappen. “When it was still in Italy, I often visited the collection of Valentino,” says Kappen. “Comparing the collection to the books published by Zagatti, I wasn’t completely convinced that they were one hundred percent accurate. If we, as Scotch Whisky International, want to present one of the oldest whisky collections to the world, then it needs to be perfect. That’s why I’ve asked Hans and Becky Offringa to help. I wanted every bottle in the Zagatti collection documented in great detail.”

For Hans and Becky, it turned into the greatest challenge of their professional life. It took two years for The Unseen Valentino Zagatti Collection to come together, which consists of five volumes spanning 1,500 pages and weighing 15 kilos. Diageo’s Dr. Nicholas Morgan said: “The challenge to write a book like Hans and Becky have done is truly remarkable. My publisher has given me three and a half years for the book I’m currently working on, and even that feels like a short amount of time. It’s impressive for Hans and Becky to have done what they did in just two years.”

The Unseen Valentino Zagatti Collection is a chronological documentation of a stunning collection of whisky. The story begins in 1843 with the first and oldest bottle in the collection and Hans and Becky have set the scene of the time of this bottling with significant figures and events of that particular year. Each volume opens with an interesting essay relating to whisky bottles. Annabel Meikle, director of the Keepers of the Quaich added, “The detailed information in this reference work is invaluable. The books are illustrated with crisp images which showcase the myriad of colours within the spirit and the variety of bottle shapes over time. It is fascinating to see the developing styles with each brand, some familiar and some long forgotten. For this reason, the infinite value of this collection is evident. This is truly a labour of love for all of those involved, a celebration of whisky past and present.”

Working closely together as The Whisky Couple anyway, Hans and Becky lifted their professional relationship to a new level during the Zagatti project. “One of my personal highlights was working with my spouse on the biggest project we’ve ever done,” says Hans. Together they spent many days in the archives of Gordon & MacPhail, Diageo and Edrington, among others. “Becky and I have visited many archives for work, but I’ve seldom seen something like Gordon & MacPhail, who have kept an incredible library of labels. We could investigate many decades to find as much information as possible on Zagatti’s whiskies. It is a family company, just like Glenfarclas. We sent John Grant photographs of bottles and he himself went into his archives. The same goes for Diageo and the impressive archives in Menstrie, built by Nick Morgan. We never could’ve written this book without the cooperation of the distilleries.”

The first print run of The Unseens Valentino Zagatti Collection consists of 500 copies. Hans and Becky made a very conscious choice for print in favour of a digital version. Hans: “We see a transition from digital reading back to the reading of actual physical books. Stores are actually selling more books. We’ve made something you can touch and feel. While I’m a fan of using and combining different types of media, this just had to be a book in print and not something digital.” The Unseen Valentino Zagatti Collection is available at: whiskyboeken.nl.
The full collection
The full collection
Keepers galore at the launch
Keepers galore at the launch
Scotch Whisky International’s offices
Scotch Whisky International’s offices