Once upon a time there was a little boy in Lugo, Italy who had the misfortune of stepping on a landmine during World War II. Valentino Zagatti miraculously survived but lost sight in both eyes. At the tender age of 11 he was fully blind. Fortunately he did not lose his zest for life and would become one of Italy's more famous accordion players, a beloved and respected music teacher, winning many prizes at various music festivals.
Valentino Zagatti was also a smoker. 'Was' is the operative word. Early in 1960 he kicked this unhealthy habit, thus saving himself money. Money that he was planning to invest in a collection of distillates destined to be the largest in the world. On 19 January 1960 he bought his first bottle, a stock brandy. He continued to acquire grappa, brandy, cognac and whisky by the score. At the turn of the 1960s he realised it would be impossible to continue purchasing every kind of liquor he could lay his hands on and therefore decided to concentrate on single malt whisky. Over time that collection would grow into more than 3,000 bottles. To show the world his collection, Mr Zagatti published The Best Collection of Malt Whisky in 1999. He had broadened his horizon with collecting other types of whiskey, and in 2004 the sequel The Best Collection of Malt - Part Two - Whiskies and Whiskeys followed. Both huge coffee table style books became collector's items in themselves.
A remarkable story, even more remarkable when we realise that Mr Zagatti has never seen these bottles himself. However, he is blessed with an incredible memory and knows precisely when he purchased or was given which bottle, where and under what circumstances. Every day he has written in braille in a diary, thus documenting his life and his collection. When someone hands him a bottle, he can feel which one it is and tell the amazed visitor all the facts about it.
About eight years ago Mr Zagatti, who is now in his eighties, started thinking about how to save his unique collection with, among others, a whisky bottle from 1843 - as far as I know the oldest bottle of Scotch in the world - and brands like Parkmore, Ladyburn and other famous whiskies from long lost distilleries. He asked his friend Ronald Zwartepoorte, a Dutch independent drinks consultant, whisky expert and publisher, to help him sell the collection.
Zwartepoorte, fluent in both languages, partly due to his long term import agency of Italian wines and spirits, but mainly due to the fact his wife is Italian, had acquired both books and was so amazed by the story that he called Zagatti on the spot and paid him a visit. They instantly became friends, thus establishing an important whisky link between Italy and The Netherlands. Zwartepoorte started to investigate and contacted various collectors from all parts of the world to discuss a possible purchase. Most collectors were only interested in parts of the collection, concentrating on specific brands. (The Zagatti Collection is also famous for its impressive ranges of old Macallans, Glenlivets and Glenfarclases). But, Valentino Zagatti had three conditions for a possible sale. Firstly, the collection must not be split up, secondly the bottles were not to be opened and thirdly they should be displayed for the entire world to see.
Then, about five years ago, Mr Zwartepoorte read an interesting article about a new business trading in whisky. That's where Mr Michel Kappen enters this story, a Dutch investment banker who became interested in whisky when he noticed the rise in prices. In 2002 he left the Rabo Bank to fully concentrate on malt whisky. Slowly he built up an extensive network in Scotland. In 2008 Mr Kappen founded the World Whisky Index, an independent online trade platform for rare whiskies. He subsequently founded Scotch Whisky International (SWI) to assist people interested in investing in whisky. This company, situated in the city of Sassenheim, a mere 15 minute car drive from Schiphol Airport, currently carries a multi-investor portfolio of over 55,000 bottles - at the time of writing worth more than 18 million Euros.
Zwartepoorte approached Kappen, who immediately showed a genuine interest in the Zagatti collection. It took five years to complete a unique deal and the collection is today worth approximately 4.5 million Euros.
The twelve investors must have deep pockets, since Kappen and Zagatti agreed the collection has to be kept intact and on display for at least ten more years. SWI will furnish the building adjacent to their offices in Sassenheim. Mr Kappen expects to open the doors of the Zagatti International Whisky Museum in the course of 2016.
The old Italian gentleman from Lugo is very happy that his collection has been saved for posterity.
In a 2014 documentary, The Netherlands - Whisky Country, Mr Zagatti explains in an endearing and touching way why he decided his brainchild should go to Mr Kappen and to The Netherlands.
On YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yjTI-ivkYw) one can find a short interview with Mr Kappen. Although it is in Dutch, viewers who have not mastered that language (yet), might still enjoy the footage of rare and very old bottles, including the oldest one from 1843. For more information about SWI and the progress on the museum see: www.scotchwhiskyinternational.com