Whisky-Fair Limburg: Exclusive Interview with Whisky-Collector Diego Sandrin, Italy

Have you ever wondered about starting your own whisky collection? Then you might want to talk to Italian Singer and Song Writer Diego Sandrin. Besides being gifted with a beautiful voice, Diego has been collecting whisky bottles for more than three decades, and is well-known among  whisky-connoisseurs around the globe. Together with his friends Max Righi and Jens Drewitz he also launched a very special line of independent bottlings, bringing the old "Moon" Labels back to life again. At the recent Whisky Fair in Limburg, I had a chance to catch up with Diego and have a chat about his whisky collection, what whisky bloggers have to do with it and his new bottlings by ALOS.

Diego at the Whisky Fair Limburg 2017

MM: Diego, let's begin with your new bottlings. You are one of the three people behind ALOS, and you were responsible for these beautiful, stunning labels. These labels have an extraordinary history. Can you tell us about their origins?

Diego: We all love the Moon bird series, and I always wondered were they came from. It doesn't say it on the boxes.  I'm a big collector of Italian bottles, like Moon, Sestante, Samaroli or Intertrade. I've always tried to find out where Moon got those drawings from, because I really, really like them.

One day, I was at the beach with my kid, and there was an old prints shop. He loves birds, so he says: "Oh, look, do you see the birds there, can I have some of those birds". So I went to the shop, and there was the print which is on the label of the Ardbeg Bottle from the original Moon series. I recognized it right away. I almost died! There they were! They had about 150 of them! And I bought them all!

Birds,  by Gustav Ludwig Heinrich Mützel, Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (left), ca. 1885; Ardbeg Moon Birds (right)

MM: One hundred fifty! That's a lot.

Diego: Yes, I bought all of them. There are dogs, there are plants, butterflies... The next one we are going to do will be the butterflies. 

MM: Your son was surely quite happy! Where did the prints come from? 

Diego: They were inside a very old encyclopedia, from the late eighteen hundreds, and somebody took the pages off the encyclopedia. It was Meyer's Lexikon, from Germany. 

MM: When did you decide that you want to bring out a new whisky Edition with these old prints used by Moon? And how difficult was it  to convince Max and Jens, your partners with ALOS?

I had decided immediatley after I called my friend Max and told him that I found the plates. I was very excited, but at that point I didn't know yet that I was going to be involved in a personal bottling. I am not a bottler, but Max and Jens are. I called them and asked them if I could do my bottling through their companies, so I don't have to open up a line just for a few bottles. Both of them were thrilled and asked me to do something with them, so I finally did a three way thing!

MM: How difficult was it to reproduce these old images with modern technology? 

Diego: I had a hard time with these graphic experts, they were all about new technology. But I wanted the same old-fashioned colours as the originals. In the end, I think we did a good job, especially with the paper. When you touch the boxes, we used the same paper that Macallan used for their labels in the seventies. We did a research and were able to find out that it was an Italian paper, and it feels very nice on the hands when you touch the box, because it has very fine lines, almost like a velvet paper.

MM: How did you chose the whisky for your new ALOS Birds bottlings?

Diego: I left that to my two compagnions, to Max and Jens. I trusted them. I'm not a selector. I took care of the graphic part.

MM: Are you happy with their selection?

Diego: Oh my god, yes, it's great stuff.

Old birds on new bottles. Birds by ALOS

MM: Diego, you have been collecting bottles for a very long time. How old were you when you bought your first bottle? 

Diego: I started with empty bottles. I was sixteen, and I used to go in bars and loved the bottles with whisky. I didn't have much money, so I waited for the bottles to be empty and then the bar keepers would give them to me. I put them all in my room. One day, my mom threw them all away because she was tired of dusting them. My first collection ended up in the trash bin.

MM: Did you hate your mother that moment?

Diego: Oh my god, I was devastated. Then I started buying  Macallan bottles and stuff like that before I went to America. I stayed there for 15 years, but it had nothing to do with whisky. When I came back, I saw that the bottles I had bought before I left were ten times more worth than what I had paid for. I was looking for a job then, so I started again collecting whisky, selling and buying, and all that.

Amazing bottles

MM: How many bottles do you have now in your collection? Can you still count them?

Diego: I never counted them, no. It's probably around 20,000 bottles.

MM: Where do you store them? 20,000 bottles don't fit onto a shelf in your bedroom anymore...

Diego: (laughing) No, my family owns a plastic company, and I stole a big part of their warehouse. It's massive, room is not a problem. I also have a showroom upstairs, my office, with about 3,000 of the best ones, stored in nice furniture and illuminated.

MM: What are the criteria, that makes a bottle collectible for you?

Diego: The bottle has to be beautiful, and I have to like it esthetically. It has to have a good product, I either have tasted it or somebody who I trust is telling me that it is a good product. I don't buy all those new novelties that come out from the distilleries with whatever is in it. Only good whisky, beautiful looking, and hopefully with a vintage, so that I know how old it is or when it was distilled at least.

"I really like this bottle..."

MM: If we look at the market for collectible whisky bottles, some bottles have become extremely sought after while others haven't. Why?

Diego: Because of the bloggers. The bloggers have decided to start scoring whisky. This has never been done before. In 2005, 2006, there was no tasting notes, there was no scoring. So Serge from whiskyfun and other people started scoring them and adding whisky notes. A certain line of bottles, the Samaroli ones, and other Italian ones, were scoring really high, and from there, a certain line became sought after and others were less sought after. It's because of the scores.

MM: Do you think this is a reasonable development or do scores hurt the collectors' market?

Diego: I think it brings order. I like that there is order in the collection business. Otherwise it would be like the stock market, you know. Some people would get hurt, and end up with something they don't want to have, or don't want to drink or can't resell. If there is order, it's much more fun for everybody.

MM: So maybe we don't have to worry about a Black Friday. But prices have increased drastically recently!

Diego: Yes, it's crazy. It's not a bubble, but it's got to stop going up.

MM: How will prices develop in the future? Any predictions?

Diego:  Prices will stop climbing. They will settle to a certain amount. But the top bottles, the ones we were talking before, those which got the top scores, they will go up more, I think. They will raise to very high levels. But the market will not collapse, for sure. I think it is a good investment.

MM: Young people didn't have a chance to start a collection 20 years ago. If somebody wants to start a collection now, what advice would you give them?

Diego: First of all, collect what you like. You must like what you have. As far as dollars and sense go, I would suggest collecting first of all what is good to drink. Don't collect something that is just flashy or beautiful, just collect a good product. That will at least hold it's price. If you spent 60 Euros, it will stay at least at 60 Euros if it is good to drink. If it is bad to drink, it can go down. Second, make sure that it has a vintage or an age statement. Don't buy anything that doesn't have an age statement. Possibly at high strength alcohol, and stay on the true troopers, like Islay, the good Speyside, don't experiment with other stuff. Just buy all the 10 year old you can find, all the cask strength Laphroaigs, and then wait 20 years. It's pretty easy.

MM: Thank you very much for this interview, Diego.

Further reading:

New bottles in old garments: the return of the Moon birds


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