"A new world record was set on 28th September with a bottle of Bowmore selling at auction for a remarkable £29,400. The bottle of single malt is the oldest Bowmore known to be in existence and is believed to have been bottled on Islay around 1850 by W & J Mutter." This story appeared in the Ileach a month ago and was published on this blog. In the meanwhile a story appeared on Andrew Jefford's Blog where serious doubts were raised regarding the real age of the bottle.
The following story, published in the Ileach, sheds some light on this "Ghost Bottle Affair" although a final conclusion cannot be made: Iain Russell, the archivist at the Scottish Brewing Archive based at Glasgow University is one of those who have pointed out anomalies that would date the bottle in the 1890's rather than the 1851 date claimed at the auction. This would of course dramatically alter the value of the bottle and it is most unlikely that it would have commanded a £29,400 world record price had the description reflected Russell's view. Russell questions a number of aspects of the description given at the auction including the following:
1) The fact that the bottle is claimed to be "hand blown". Certain features make it more likely to be machine made which would be most unusual in a bottle manufactured in 1851.
2) It would be highly unlikely to find a Scotch whisky bottled in relatively expensive clear glass circa 1850, but the bottle sold at the auction seems to be made of clear glass.
3) Russell has never previously seen mention of a "cardboard carton" accompanying a Scotch whisky bottle from the mid-19th century, and doesn't believe it likely that such a carton can be “original” to a bottle from circa 1850.
4) The level of the liquid appears to come up to the neck of the bottle, which seems remarkably high for a whisky purportedly bottled more than 150 years ago, and which has a damaged cork and capsule.
5) The “circa 1850” Bowmore carries a sophisticated and ornate 4-colour label, the likes of which only became common in the whisky trade in the late Victorian period with the development of a mass market for bottled whiskies. Paper conservator Doug Stone, who cites as his authority the timeline coming from Michael Twyman, Printing 1770-1970: claims that:‘[There is] not a possibility of having printed four-color labels for whisky in 1850.’
6) The bottle label also carries a trademark declaration, which seems an unlikely feature on a whisky bottled prior to the development of branded bottled whiskies in the 1870s.
7) The provenance of the bottle seems to have been established on the basis of family tradition, which is "a thin single thread on which to hang the date of a bottle" as family histories often become distorted and confused over the generations.
8) Professor Michael Moss, co-author of the respected history of the whisky industry, "The Making of Scotch Whisky" and of the potted history of Bowmore Distillery which is included by McTears in the catalogue entry does not believe it likely that the bottle is from the 1850s. Prof Moss has pointed out that, when W&J Mutter registered their trademark in 1876, the partners claimed that the firm had used the trademark since 1870.
The entry in McTears catalogue stated Lot, Description, Illustration, 152 W & J Mutter’s Bowmore-Circa 1850 Distilled and bottled by W & J Mutter, Bowmore Distillery, Islay. Hand blown pale green glass bottle. Driven cork, embossed lead capsule with the Mutter family crest and “Bowmore Islay Whisky”. The lead capsule has been punctured in the centre and centre right side of the top has a small section missing. The driven cork has dropped. The bottle is accompanied by the original cardboard carton in which it has been stored. Level: just into neck of bottle. Single malt 1 bottle. Provenance: The bottle was presented to William Mutter in 1851 at the time of him giving up his share of the distillery and has remained in the family for generations. It has been inherited by family descent until the present day. The successful buyer will receive a hand written provenanceThe distillery: Is said to have been founded 1779; John Simpson (also Simson) 1816-18; John Johnston 1825-6; John Simpson 1826-37 at least; operating 1851; William and James Mutter (twins) 1852; continued until early 1890’s, when Bowmore Distillery Co. Ltd. formed. Up for sale 1922. Purchased 1925 by Sherriff’s Bowmore Distillery Ltd which was acquired 1950 by William P. Grigor & Son Ltd, Inverness, and purchased by Stanley P. Morrison Ltd 1963. Licensed to Morrison’s Bowmore Distillery Ltd. Courtesy of The Scotch Whisky Industry Record £15,000 - 20,000