By Pat Phipps
The original purpose of miniature bottles (“minis”) – be they a whisky, a rum, or even a liqueur – was to allow the customer the chance to try an inexpensive sample before buying the full-sized bottle.
Too often overlooked on the shelf in the bottle store, collecting whisky miniatures has been one of my passions for over 30 years.
During my big OE in 1989, among other countries my brother and I ventured to Scotland where we visited Glenturret, Scotland’s oldest working distillery.
A tour of the distillery and a tasting afterwards was the start of my love affair with whisky.
At the distillery shop I bought my first minis – the full range. I still have them, unopened.
At the time, I thought to myself that surely there can’t be many miniatures around.
How wrong can you be?
The great thing about collecting miniatures is that they don’t take up that much physical space. Unless of course, like me, you let them!
I recently found a Macallan 1824 series of four miniatures for a cool $2,000 – at $500 for a 50cl bottle, well past my tipping point!
Over time I have accumulated over 1,000 examples, laid out in display cases to show them off. Each case is complete with felt backing and a clear poly-carbonate front so that the contents won’t succumb to a passing earthquake.
When I first started collecting minis the price was about $2 – 3 each. But, like just about everything, inflation has got to that and now a mini price is generally north of $10 a unit. The price of some gems that I’ve bought, I admit, have made me wince and I’ve had to remind myself of their rarity – such as a 40-year-old Glenfarclas at $150.
These days, miniatures are not really provided as samples. They are aimed squarely at marketing and at collectors.
Minis come in widely varied shapes. Wild Turkey produce 50cl ceramic turkeys in different poses filled with Bourbon. St Andrews did ceramic golf bags clad in different tartans; some with gold-plated golf balls to celebrate famous players.
I recently found a Macallan 1824 series of four miniatures for a cool $2,000 – at $500 for a 50cl bottle, well past my tipping point! Obviously, some distilleries put out these sets purely to go straight for the collectors’ jugular, which I don’t think really meets the original purpose of the miniature.
In my collection I have golf balls, golf bags, barrels, stills and ceramic jugs. When times were not so Politically Correct, even cigarette companies had offerings made for them: I have a Dunhill Cigarette Company scotch whisky mini in a pot still-shaped bottle.
Another is a Balvenie whisky in a cognac bottle shape which I picked up on a Pacific Island trip. This bottling shape, sadly, is long gone.
I take great pleasure in finding a mini that comes with a tube or box. Putting the bottle next to the tube adds a delightful extra dimension to the display.
An entire distillery core bottling range of minis, displayed in line, really makes the labels stand out in a way that you might not notice if you only had one or two.
We know that distilleries change their core range labels from time to time. A selection of minis of the same bottlings, but with labels from different times, becomes an excellent reference library.
As time goes on and you add new bottlings to existing lines you get a history of how the marketers have tried to get their offerings to stand out. As miniatures usually don’t get opened and consumed, the result is acquiring historical significance as an archive
There is an amazing website for miniature collectors as well. The site has thousands of images from people who have sent in pictures of their unique collections and once you get past the wow factor – enjoy.
Believe it or not, another collecting line are fakes minis. These come from all sources.
The first two I purchased from Vanuatu about 20 years ago. One was a rum, the other a whisky in the loosest of terms. It was more like neutral spirit with flavouring and imaginative labels such as Captain Cooks No. 1 rum and McBrewsters fine old whisky.
Another source of fakes is Egypt. Whisky Magazine did an article on fake miniatures a few years ago with mainly Johnnie Walker bottlings being produced. The writer, possibly wisely, was not anxious at all to taste the products, but was very interested in collecting them.
The labels were badly misspelt so it was easy to spot them as fakes. Labelling such as John Warder, John Whler and Chefas Rijal were a big clue, although the bottle shapes and label quality were good judging by the photos.
Next time you are in your favourite spirits shop take a moment to look at the miniatures they have. There might be something to try for a fraction of the price of a full size one!