The foundations of European affection for malt whisky were laid most prominently in Italy. The exploratory work of George Urquhart, director of Gordon & MacPhail, in the 1950s seems, through the lens of hindsight, to be both visionary and logical. In reality - as with so many such stories - the profound connections between the Italians and Scotch Whisky which would evolve between the 50s and 70s, were born out of a mix of circumstance, cultural quirk and commercial foresight
We can see the fortuitous nature of the fact that Gordon & MacPhail held remarkable stocks of Glen Grant whisky at many ages; that the petrolic, mineral Grappas esteemed by Italian palates matched so favourable to these youthful and affordable Glen Grants; and how these circumstances were astutely set upon by Mr Urquhart. Amidst the resulting ascendancy of Scottish single malts in Italy, which reached a peak with Samaroli et al in the 1980s, it’s often easy now to overlook, or even to forget, the name: Giaccone.
Eduardo ‘Baffo’ Giaccone opened his bar in 1958 in Salo. Perhaps it is the weight of accumulated time, or simply the deserved success of the 1980s Italian whisky merchants, but Giaccone’s early efforts in the 1960s are worth remembering. He was not an independent bottler in the contemporary sense. Rather, he was someone with a nuanced and intellectual passion for Single Malts long before this was a common pursuit - even in Italy. He used a nosing glass, assembled a mighty collection and, most importantly of all, was one of the first people outside Scotland, in the modern age, to have their own bespoke official bottlings done for his business.
Giaccone selected bottlings, both malt and blend, from Gordon & MacPhail as well as from cult distilleries such as Glenfarclas and Clynelish. He was specific about bottling strengths, often offering lower and full strength versions. He was a self-educated man in whisky who displayed a level of discernment and what today we’d call ‘geekery’ that was considerably ahead of his time.
Today many of his bottlings have passed into the lofty vortex of olfactory legend. Understandably expensive and tricky to acquire now, they are emblematic examples of what propelled thousands of people towards a lifelong love of Scottish whisky over the past four decades. In terms of today’s secondary market they are the epitome of bottles which sit at a meridian of influential factors. Primarily quality of liquid, scarcity and upward spiralling desire from trinity perspectives of collecting, investing and drinking.
A perfect example is the Dalmore 20 year old. An official bottling selected by Giaccone for the 20th anniversary of his business Whiskyteca. Like many of his releases, today it epitomises an older style of Scottish malt whisky, one predominantly associated with the highlands. You can find it exemplified even more extremely by his Clynelish and Glen Albyn bottlings. But the Dalmore, being bottled at 43%, also illustrated balance and elegance. Tasting it you can see the logic behind his thinking and decision making. By choosing to bottle it at 43% he made a statement about where pleasure lies in the drinking experience; what he wanted the whisky to communicate and how he wanted the drinker to feel when enjoying it. It’s another bottle which is often overlooked today - perhaps because only 600 were bottled and their supply is short. It is lighter and slightly more sherry-influenced than the black label Duncan Macbeth Dalmore 20 year olds from the 1960s, but it remains a singularly beautiful, humbly packaged and deeply evocative dram. Like so many of Giaccone’s bottlings, what it recalls primarily to mind all these years later, is the sheer pleasure and decadence of drinking amazing whisky.
The 1950s was a pretty sublime decade for Talisker. The examples bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for Giaccone such as the 1951, 1952 and 1953 exhibit the kind of structured, sinewed fusion of peat, sherry and peppery salinity which, when tasted, remind you why such a divide between modern and old style has arisen in Scotch Whisky. These bottlings open a window on a thoroughly extinct era of production methodology, ingredients and cask type. The fact of their flavour profiles makes them simultaneously relevant historical artefacts, illustrative benchmarks of quality and profoundly useful inspirations for what the future of Scotch Whisky should endeavour to reclaim. It feels sad to discuss such bottles in terms of ‘investment’, but whatever purpose drives their acquisition, they are as much an investment in pleasure as in value. They extend beyond simply being ‘amazing Taliskers’, to sit amongst some of the finest bottled historical examples of Scottish single malt.
Personally, the most iconic and emblematic whiskies that Giaccone selected, were unequivocally the Clynelish 12 year olds. He had bottled three different batches in official livery in 1969, 1971 and 1973. All at 56.3%. Of all the extant examples of pre-Brora Clynelish, there are others which often score higher with lovers of this style and distillery. However, for me, these Giaccone bottlings of Clynelish are the most pure, most thrilling and most powerful examples of this beautiful lost style. The 69 and 71 rotations in particular exhibit a level textural weight, waxy exuberance and mineral clout that, when first tasted, are simply breathtaking. It is hard to divorce yourself mentally from the fact these whiskies are now so expensive. But, as with so many of Giaccone’s bottlings, they stand as liquid artefacts of styles, flavours and textures that no longer really exist in whisky of any origin. These are humbling, thought provoking and profoundly memorable whiskies to taste. If you get a chance to try, or to posses them, I politely suggest you take it.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Giaccone’s bottles today is that they are rarely in outwardly good condition. Tatty labels, stains, tears, dust, light-fading, evaporation, handwriting. The accrued fingerprints of time that naturally come from being jostled from collection to collection over the decades. Handled, loved, peered at and jolted around festivals, homes, boxes, bars and cellars. They are dusty, mucky, raggedy old things. Yet still they command four figure sums. They are the epitome of value residing almost entirely in the liquid. Even those collectors who seek to fill the gaps in their shelves do so because it is the liquid itself which has lent these bottles so much of their historic heft and importance. They remind us that it is sad not to drink such things and yet, we would not have these bottles still today if they had not been loved, unopened upon so many shelves by past owners.
The influence of Giaccone’s endeavours in whisky live on through the remnant bottles which continue to pop up at auction and, on delicious occasion, get cracked open at a tasting or festival. He was undoubtedly ahead of his time and his whiskies have had an immeasurable influence. One which undoubtedly extends through the legendary Italian bottlers which were to follow him, past the surging enthusiasm of the 1990s and 2000s, all the way to the mainstream industry of today. He may have been, as reputation suggests, a difficult man in person, but he adored and cared deeply about the whiskies he had bottled. Just as they have been loved by almost all who encountered them since. Once again: if you get a chance to try one, do it!