At 16 years old, Diego Sandrin's interest in empty whisky bottles transformed into a lifelong passion for collecting whisky. Today, his collection boasts over 30,000 bottles and features some of the world's most coveted bottles from names such as Samaroli, The Macallan and Port Ellen.
Diego lives in Venice and growing up in Italy has greatly influenced the direction and themes of his whisky collection today. In 2006, he started an online webshop called 'goodwhisky' before setting up Lion's Whisky in 2012. He has also independently bottled some special whiskies, including an entire series of Vatted bottles to raise money for charity.
We talked to Diego about his journey in whisky collecting, covering things he wish he knew when he started out (spoiler: buy more Karuizawa!), new distilleries on his radar and the one bottle he'd take to a desert island.
To kick-off, how and when did you start building your collection?
I started collecting when I was 16 years old, and I just fell in love with whisky bottles for some reason. I remember I used to go around Italian bars asking for empty bottles so that I could start my collection.
I remember one day, I had sixteen bottles and my mum threw them away because she was tired of cleaning the dust off of them - I was very upset that day. But then, I started drinking Macallan when I was 18 or 19 because my father began to give Macallan as a Christmas present to important clients (Macallan was very popular here at the time). I fell in love with the taste of this velvety whisky (I remember it was the 25 year old). And then, I decided to start my full bottles collection.
How do you think growing up in Italy has shaped your whisky interests and collecting?
Growing up in Italy was paramount for collecting whisky, because there was so much of it here. There was a lot of whiskytecs. It was a fad in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and you could find them everywhere. In fact I’m pretty sure that at least 60 – 70% of vintage whisky that you see in the auctions comes from Italian imports, so it really was everywhere.
The fact that it was everywhere, and that there were so many different bottles – it made you want to collect. Because if you only have access to ten or so bottles, like it was in America at the time, then your collection is short-lived. But when you see that there are always new bottles, it inspires you. And even though the value was low in the '80s and '90s, it was still going up 10% a year.
In fact, back then people started collecting stamps, watches, whisky, coins – all kinds of things, because there was a big crisis here in Italy in the late ‘70s and people started investing in other things rather than put their money in the bank.
Photograph of bottles from Diego Sandrin's whisky collection.
Can you talk us through some of the whiskies in your collection? Bottles that are particularly meaningful to you, or have been important to your growth as a collector?
Well, I now have about 30,000 bottles in my collection. I think the most important ones are the Springbank 1919, the Port Ellen Queen’s Visit and The Macallan 50 Year Old.
The most particularly meaningful bottle to me, is just the JB 30 year old decanter which my father gave to me as the first bottle in my collection when I said I wanted to start collecting. It didn’t go up much in value, but it’s a beautiful bottle and it’s No.1 in my collection so it’s the most important.
Other important bottles are the cask finished Laphroaig cask strength bottles I selected, sometimes you see them at auction, and they are very important to me as it was an experiment that I did and was very successful.
You have one of the world’s most complete collection of Italian independent bottlings, what draws you to these?
Yes, I probably have the most complete Italian independent bottlers collection - because they are Italian and I think they were the best selectors back then.
Although, all the casks were ‘60s and ‘70s whisky and it’s hard to find a bad 1960s Laphroaig! But nevertheless they did go to Scotland and choose from a lot of casks.
And I must admit that I was attracted to Samaroli, Sestante, Silver Seal and Intertrade's labels. And all of the Moon bottles are beautiful of course, such as the Animals and The Birds, they are gorgeous. It was an aesthetical thing to begin with, coupled with the taste. Samaroli is just unbeatable to me.
A selection of Italian independent bottlings in Diego's collection, including the Bowmore 1966 Samaroli Bouquet and Laphroaig 1967 Samaroli Sherry Wood.
It’s no secret that Scotland’s whisky industry is booming, with a wave of new distilleries set up and iconic old distilleries being revived. Which distillers are on your radar? Who excites you by what they are doing?
Well I like Thompson Brothers [Dornoch distillery], because those guys are doing things well. I know they have researched for years how whisky is made and bought all the old books they could find. They went into very extensive research into how to make whisky as it used to be made, so I'm sure that they will come up with a really good distillate.
The other is a distillery is yet to start but the people involved assure me that it will be a hit, it is the Kythe distillery with Jonny McMillan and Angus MacRaild. I think that is going to be a very very successful distillery too.
I have to admit that I visited Daftmill years ago and I was impressed that they weren't searching to capitalise on whisky immediately. They used to prioritise their farming, work in the fields and whenever they had time would distil their Daftmill whisky - it was really beautiful to see.
Who are some of the people who’ve inspired your whisky journey? Other collectors, mentors or friends who have helped you?
I was definitely inspired very much by Serge Valentin’s blog [WhiskyFun.com], the auction by Kruger in Germany as it was probably the first auction that existed back then and in Italy of course, Nadi Fiori, Giuseppe Begnoni, Bar Metro [Giorgio d'Ambrosio] and all those people, for sure have helped me gain the knowledge that I have.
You enjoy drinking the whisky you collect. Could you describe your ideal style of whisky for drinking?
The kind of whisky I enjoy the most is peated and sherry together. The Laphroaig 1967 Samaroli for example, or there is a very rare sherried Longrow, or the old Ardbeg casks in the brown and black boxes. Sherry and peat for me, when it’s done well, is my favourite.
Although, I think if I have to choose some bottles to drink right now it would be the old sherried Springbanks, the 10 year old cask strength and also the sherried Local Barleys – the first series in 75cls. Springbank is one of my favourites. And of course, Macallan stays in the top three for me.
Distilled in 1960 and aged in sherry casks for 32 years, only 80 bottles of this Rosebank were released by Signatory Vintage. A 1965 vintage and 1067 vintage we also released.
Is there one bottle that you plan to drink but have been saving for a special occasion? If so, what is it?
A bottle that I have been saving is the Rosebank 1960 Signatory Vintage, which is very rare as there was only 80 bottles made. I’m a sucker for all the Rosebank and it’s a sherried one, so I can’t wait to taste that one.
Can you tell us about your retail venture, Lion’s Whisky, and how this has helped shape your whisky journey?
When my collection started becoming too big, and the exchanging of bottles started to become important, I had to open a company so I created Lion’s Whisky. It was very successful immediately. In the first, second and third year, we were runners up for the best online shop in Europe by Whisky Magazine.
Right now, it’s very hard to find vintage bottles to sell, but whenever we are able to get our hands on something we put them up at decent prices… one thing about Lions Whisky, and I think all clients can agree to this, is that the prices are always affordable.
With Lion’s Whisky you have also independently bottled some of your own whiskies, can you tell us more about these?
Yes, we bottled three series with Jens Drewitz (Sansibar) and Max Righi (Whisky Antique) called Antique Lions of whisky. We did the Butterfly series, the Birds series and the Savannah series. There were 18 casks, a lot of them from the 1970s and ‘80s – great whisky. We worked very hard on the labels and the presentation, I think its beautiful, we used the same place that Pepi Mongiardino from Moon Import did and we did it as an homage to him.
Then, I also bottled a series of vatted bottles for charity, which I am very happy about because the prices that we reached are decent and we have already purchased a small football field for kids, we have saved around 99 dogs from lager kennels, we have donated around 20,000 euros to Diabetes research and have purchased about 25 memberships for children who cannot afford football school. So if you see some of these bottles around, make sure you bid on them because the product is just spectacular and you’re also doing a good deed.
A series of Lion's Whisky vatted bottles for charity [photographed by Whisky Auctioneer].
As a composer you also have a great passion for music. So, we have to ask:
Three tracks, a book and one bottle of whisky – what would you take to a desert island?
Music has always been my passion, I had the privilege of writing for Lisa Marie Presley. One of the songs that I wrote with her was on her first album, we sold about a million copies and was called "Gone". She is gone now and that is very sad for me. But, music is still my passion, I just bought a new guitar and I’ll probably start writing songs again soon.
Three tracks… Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones, The Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young and Angeles by Elliott Smith.
A book… in Italian it is called Elogio alla Follia (In Paraise of Folly in English)
And whisky… the 12 Year Old Samaroli Springbank with a yellow label.
How would you advise a new collector to begin? Is there something that you wish you knew when you started collecting whisky?
Well of course, something I wish I knew when I started collecting whisky was that I should have bought more Karuizawa... and Velier rum... and Samaroli... and Macallan, because you can’t find it now and whatever I like to drink, or collect, isn’t available anymore.
But anyway, I would advise a collector that it depends on what they want. If they want to create a great collection so that they can drink it, well they should buy good whisky and look at WhiskyFun.com because I think those guys are pretty accurate in what they say about bottles. As an investment, they should buy bottles that are probably cask-strength, with an age statement and from a decent distillery - or from new up and coming distilleries like first editions.
Finally, what’s been your best whisky moment?
Well this is a story that I’ve told before in another interview, but I don’t think many people know it so I'll go for it again.
One day I was at Lion’s Whisky and I get a phone call from a lady with a thick Tuscan accent asking if I would be interested in buying her bottles that she found in the garage because she wanted to re-paint her house. The bottles were originally her husbands that he bought to gift his clients in 1980. So I said, '"sure what is it?", and she replied: "well, I can send photos if you send me your address", so I sent my address and then forgot about it.
Around a month later, I received actual photographs in the mail printed from the roll and my gosh, I see Bowmore Bicentenary in clear glass with personalised labels made especially for Federico Minneti (her husband). She had 24 of them and I said: "This is really nice stuff, come up here and we’ll work something out".
A week later, she arrives with her husband to the shop and they give me a bottle. She says, "this is a present to you because you have been so nice on the telephone" and they handed me a 8 year old pear-shaped Bowmore that they just had hanging around at home! I nearly fell and I said: "this is a very nice bottle – are you sure?'" and they replied, "yes, please take it".
We opened the boxes and she had some amazing bottles. I bring in two full 12-bottle cases of the Bicentenary Bowmore and she had some other old cask-strength Bowmores and rum, plus all kinds of things. So I ask, "how much do you want for this?" And she says, "Well, we want to paint the house, and we need 4,000 euros to do this, so if you can give me this then I will be happy".
I saw in her eye the need for this money, and I replied, "I absolutely cannot give you 4000 euro for this stuff". They looked at me and said: "ah I thought so – well how much can you give me?". I told them that I could only give them 40,000 euros because what they had was so special. She started jumping up and down, and he started crying. I had left margin for myself and we would both part ways very happy.
That's a story I always remember, because I made someone happy and I was very happy too.