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A Dram Good Whisky Collection...

Who are the whisky collectors, what motivates them, what was their first whisky experience like, and why did they choose to collect their particular dram(s) of choice? Simply Whisky has taken a wee peak behind the licquor cabinet doors and into the minds of the collectors to explore the World's largest whisky collections.

Tomas Karlsson, World's largest collection of whisky from St Magdalene

Simon of Simply Whisky caught up with Sweden's own Tomas Karlsson, possessor of the World's largest collection of St Magdalene whisky. Bottle number 100 in his collection was delivered in person by Mr Michael Urquhart, Director of Gordon & MachPail. Now that is customer service! St Magdalene is a 'closed' distillery nestling in the Lowlands of Scotland in the royal burgh of Linlithgow, also the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. The distillery ceased operations in 1983 after almost two centuries of production. Some of the distillery buildings have now been converted into flats and I think Tomas would like to buy one in which to house his collection of around 138 bottles...!

“I had some friends, who said whisky was nice to drink, but I had to throw up, I didn’t like it at all.”—Tomas

Good evening Tomas. ‘Good evening Simon’.  How are you?  ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

Tell me about your first ever taste of whisky?

‘It was… it was awful.’ A bit stunned, I ask ‘Really?’ But Tomas is adamant, ‘I didn’t like it at all!’

What was the whisky, and was it the first bottle you bought?

‘I think it was some blend from somewhere, just a regular blend and I didn’t like it.’  Roughly what year would this have been? ‘Maybe the 80s, some year between the 80s and the 90s’.  Was this in Sweden? ‘Yeah.' And did a friend give it to you? ‘I bought it myself.’  So where did you buy it? ‘I bought it in just a regular store in Sweden and then I had to put Coke in it… Coca Cola.’  So you bought it from the System Bolaget? [a government owned chain of liquor stores in Sweden. It is the only retail store allowed to sell alcoholic beverages that contain more than 3.5% (by volume) alcohol]. ‘Yes.’  So what made you actually go into the System Bolaget to try that first bottle of whisky? ‘Because I had some friends who said whisky was nice to drink, but I had to throw up, I didn’t like it at all!’ he laughs. 'I think it was a very, very cheap blend I bought.'

Wanting to get to the bottom of this harrowing experience I question Tomas further: ‘Was it a Scottish blend?’  ‘In that time (the 80s and 90s) it was mostly Scottish blends in Sweden.  The other blends from, for example, Japan came later on.’  Was it an expensive bottle of whisky this one? ‘No, I don’t think so, maybe it cost about £15 - £20.’  Why did you buy this particular one, was it recommended? ‘Yeah, I think it was maybe the best selling at the time.’  Did you try it first in the pub? ‘No I tried it at home because in my small hometown there were no pubs.’  Ah, OK.  ‘You are in Sweden now’ Tomas reminds me chortling away.

So tell me again about your first taste, you put the glass to your mouth and what happened? ‘I almost threw up, it was so strong and it tasted awful.  It was burning my stomach and mouth, NO, I didn’t like it!’  Then you added Coke to it? ‘Yeah, I put Coke in it and maybe it was 10ml whisky and 90ml Coke so that was good. The whisky lasted a very long time, I think I actually had the bottle for 3 years…’  In stitches I admit to Tomas that I didn’t think this would be how his whisky affair began. ‘Yes, it was!  And then in the 90s, the good old 90s, then I had my second taste of whisky, that was better.’ So what was that? I enquire pensively. ‘I don’t remember at all.’  So what made you try whisky for a second time? ‘I had a neighbour who liked whisky, so he asked me if we should try some whisky?  I said of course, because I have always been a collector, the whole period of my life I have been a collector of spirits.’ Have you? ‘Yup.’  So what were you collecting at this point? ‘Every where I have travelled I bought a spirit, it could be vodka, it could be cognac, it could be anything…even whisky then, but the whisky was always put in the back of the cabinet, because I didn’t like whisky, but I bought some whisky bottles in the early to mid 90s.’  Ah, so you actually started off as a collector of spirits. ‘Then in 2000 we are starting to talk whisky!’ he adds, and so the adventure begins.

When did you decide to become a collector of whisky and why?

'We were talking about that yesterday when I was with a friend, the first trip he and I made…I arranged a trip to Scotland, I think it was 2004 and maybe around then I had 15 – 20 bottles of whisky at home, so a very small collection, but then in 2004 and 2005 my collection grew.  So it was only for about 7 – 8 years that I had been building the collection.’ Were you enjoying the taste of it by this point? ‘Yeah, I liked the taste. I didn’t drink so much, I just collected them…I had bottles in my cabinet, but I didn’t drink them very often’ he explains.  ‘In fact I have some Russian vodka left in my cabinet today, the bottle is not open, it is the Absolut.  It has a loose cap and a lot of the alcohol has evaporated, it is probably only a half bottle today, you should look at that bottle the next time you visit.’ So your first 15 bottles of whisky or so you picked up when you were travelling on holiday? ‘Yes, travelling on holidays’.  And what kind of whiskies did you have at that point? ‘Just regular whisky, I don’t remember it all, I don’t know.’  I wonder how many other ‘World’s Largest Collections’ have such ramshackle beginnings? 

What inspired you to collect whisky from the St Magdalene distillery?

‘I started my collection with the lost distilleries.  That was my collection idea.  Having one bottle from each distillery that was closed in modern times - we are talking about the 70s and 80s, and…well, I think I have them all!’ he laughs.

So what gave you the idea to collect lost distillery whiskies?

‘Because I think when you are building up a collection you must have an idea of something that is difficult to reach.  You must have the goal, and it must be a tough goal.’

I nod in agreement. ‘Yeah, and that was why I started to collect lost distilleries.  It is still just money, but my wallet is not so big, and so when I had collected one bottle from each lost distillery I asked myself, what should I do then, should I collect a second bottle from each distillery? No, then I started to taste them, and then I got very, very fond of St Magdalene and St Magdalene was one of the hardest to find, and it has a beautiful name, and so then I became a collector of St Magdalene.’ (a picture of the distillery today can be seen below)

So if you were to try and describe what the taste of St Magdalene is, and I know obviously that a lot of the bottles will be different, but what was it about the taste of that whisky that attracted you to it?

‘Because it is not the typical lowlander, it has a very old type of taste. You see, I was drinking the smokey Ardbeg Alligator today, but I am not so fond of the smokey whisky, I don’t like it so much.’ Is that to say you are a fan of the lowland whiskies then because they are known for being a little bit light and floral? ‘No, the other lowlanders I don’t like so much….  well, Rosebank, some bottles of the old Rosebank are very nice, but no, I’m not a lowlander fan.’

So are there a few words you can use to describe what the St Magdalene taste is, if it is different from the lowland, and you are not a fan of the lowland, then what is the St Magdalene taste?  ‘The smoke in St Magdalene, you don’t have smoke in any other lowland distillery, it is much more complex than other lowlanders.’

Which bottle started your collection?

Reflecting back over the years Tomas says ‘That was when I collected bottles from every lost distillery, it must have been an Old Malt Cask I think from Douglas Lang.  It could be that one.’ Do you remember roughly what age it would have been? ‘What year you mean?’ Yes, how long had it been in the cask and also what year was it distilled?  ‘It is typical of St Magdalene that almost 60%-70% of their whisky is from 1982 and the first [bottle I bought] was about 23 – 24 years old, so something like that.’ And would that have been quite an expensive bottle to start your collection with? ‘No, the whisky was not expensive around 2000, and in fact the price has gone up a lot in the last 5 years, I think it has tripled.’ So roughly what might you have bought that first bottle for? £20 - £30? ‘Maybe £40 - £50, I have the receipt in my safe’, Tomas adds laughing. ‘I can look it up for you.  In fact I know the bottle now that I think about it, it was a 19 year old Rare Malt (a now discontinued range from Diageo).  I bought it from a shop in Germany and it cost about 60 Euros I think. I will send you a copy of the receipt.’

BUY Linlithgow 1982 26 Year Old 63.7%
Recommended by Tomas as one to try. It is not often you find whisky from St Magdalene under £100

Dae ye ken?
Only nine out of nearly seventy malt distilleries licensed in the Lowlands before 1800 survived into the twentieth century, and most of those had gone by the end of World War 1

Refill Sherry

Fresh grass, apple blossom, honeyed porridge, oatmeal cookies - remarkably fresh for its age. After a while the oak appears but always remains polite and balanced

Noticeable oak, but the lighter honeyed, fruity touches fight their way through. With water the palate is tempered and sweeter with natural caramel and barley sugar

Slightly dusty oak as might be expected from an older malt

Distillery Info
St Magdalene is a 'closed' distillery nestling in the Lowlands of Scotland in the royal burgh of Linlithgow, also the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots

How many bottles of St Magdalene do you now have in your collection?

Smiling coyly Tomas answers ‘Different bottles or copies?’  He is a connoisseur after all and so I rephrase and ask about the different bottles. ‘138 I think it is.’ And including copies?  This question is met with guttural laughter.

Which is your most expensive bottle of St Magdalene?

Clear in his mind Tomas replies ‘That is the one from 1891.’  And is that a St Magdalene? ‘Yes!’ How much, and you don’t have to answer this question I add, roughly how much would that be worth today? ‘I don’t know the value today because I’m not sure if it is a fake or a real bottle, you don’t know that for this kind of bottle. Bottles of that value can be known to be fake, so you are not completely sure it is a true bottle.’ Hmmm, I have heard similar tales but cannot attest to the truth of them.  When did you buy this bottle? ‘I bought it from a collector about 2 years ago, I think.’ And roughly how much would you have spent on that bottle? (I’m not giving up just yet). ‘At that moment I paid about £3000.’ Gosh. Do you intend to drink that at any point?

‘You must find the right occasion to drink a bottle, and every bottle should be drunk.’

That should be your epitaph Tomas. ‘Laughing, yeah, we are sure going to find a good occasion to drink that together, don’t you think?’ again laughing.  Oh yes!  ‘Yeah!’

Do you have a favourite bottle of whisky (either within or outwith your collection), and if so why?

‘No, I don’t have a favourite bottle because every whisky tastes different every day.’  Fair enough. ‘You can’t have a favourite bottle, because when you say that is my favourite on a Wednesday and then you drink it again on a Friday it doesn’t taste the same at all.’ I agree with you actually.  Do you have a favourite time of day for drinking whisky? ‘No, you can drink every day, mornings, evenings, and nights; whenever you want, but it always tastes different.'

What advice would you give somebody just starting to collect whisky?

‘Don’t start!’ I laugh, but he is serious. Why not? ‘Because the price today is too high, it costs a fortune to build up a collection’…. Pausing he then suggests ‘if you want to start collecting something maybe you should go for’… tailing off he reflects that lost distilleries are always good to collect, but they are very expensive, and then concludes …'small editions, maybe it is a good idea to collect very small editions because you can sell them to other collectors later on and get money to buy better bottles.’ For clarity I query whether he means small editions of a particular whisky from a distillery? ‘Yeah, and small editions like the bottles from the Royal Wedding; that could be a good investment, you never know that. I bought a Glenfiddich from Prestwick Airport (in Scotland), I bought it for £200 and later on I sold it for £1000.’ And what was special about this bottle of Glenfiddich? ‘It was just a small edition made to celebrate the Queen Mary 2' [the transatlantic ocean liner built in 2003 that was at the time the longest, widest and tallest passenger ship ever built].  'And just to pay £200 for the bottle and about one year later sell it for £1000, that’s a good one!’ So where did you sell it, was it an auction in Germany? ‘No, I sold it to Italy, to another friend.  I have some more bottles here at home, but I don’t tell everyone.’ There’s that guttural laughter again.

As a collector where do you buy your whisky?  From friends, websites, shops, from different countries?

‘Yes, and auctions.  The best way to buy bottles today is on auctions.’ Why is that? ‘Because it is the easy way if you don’t have friends who are into whisky, but if you know friends who are sellers or collectors then that could be an easier option, but if you don’t know anyone then the best way is to buy on auctions.  The auction prices, however, have also been rising in the last few years.’

What changes in the whisky industry have you noticed since you started collecting?

‘The price, that is the main change in the whisky industry, the price has gone through the roof, very very quickly! Some distilleries want to get their whisky out to market too fast today, because they want to sell three year old whisky before it is three years old. They are selling 'new make spirit', which might be only two years old with names like 'first whisky'; they are thinking about making money.’ What about other changes? ‘I think that maybe the water used to be better, it was cleaner.’ Not knowing much about this particular subject yet I suggest that I would have to do a bit of research, adding that some whisky industry sources don’t think the water has anything to do with the taste of whisky, but that many different opinions abound. ‘Yes, but then you also have the wheat, that was also much better in the past.’ Fewer chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides you mean?  [At the risk of straying into an area that we can't do justice to in this interview the conversation moves on to production methods] ‘And then all production was done a little more slowly, it seems to have gotten faster today.’ And so maybe quality has suffered? ‘Yes, for sure.’ And you can taste the difference? ‘Of course you can taste the difference.  The Whisky Maniacs also speak about the bottle effect but I don’t think there is a bottle effect, I don’t think so. There could be a bottle effect when the whisky has been in the bottle for 40 – 50 years but I think whisky was made better in the past.’ What do you mean by the bottle effect? I didn’t think that whisky changed once it was in the bottle. ‘We often speak in whisky circles about the bottle effect, and about how much different the taste could be because the whisky has been in the bottle for 40 – 50 years.’ And so what are the general ideas? ‘Well, I don’t think there is an effect, I think they used to make better whisky!’  This is a conversation we shall no doubt have to continue over drams from each of the last six decades.

What other passions do you have in life other than whisky?

‘My daughter Ada, yeah! Travelling around the World, and my boys of course, and all my friends.’

Tomas, thank you, it has been a delight! And in Tomas' own words:

You can drink every day, mornings, evenings, and nights; whenever you want!