The Alex Barclay Miniature Collection: Interview

We’re delighted to announce that we’ll soon be auctioning the largest and most significant collection of whisky miniatures we’ve ever encountered and you could argue in the World.  The collection belongs to the president of the Mini Bottle Club, Alex Barclay, and it’s so large that we’ll be splitting the sale over more than one auction.  Alex was kind enough to take some time to talk to us about his extraordinary collection:

Whisky-Online Auctions: Hi Alex, thanks for speaking to us and congratulations on building up such an amazing collection. How did you get started in the first place? 

Alex Barclay: In 1974, after I had moved to Birmingham, my father sent me a small book by John Wilson on the Malt Whiskies of Scotland. I wanted to taste some of those whiskies, so the next time I was back in North East Scotland I went to the Gordon & MacPhail shop and bought a few minis of single malts to taste. I liked the look of the miniatures, so I decided to buy duplicates – one to drink and one to keep. My original plan was to get one from each distillery but after joining the Mini Bottle Club I expanded my range of collecting. A business trip to Japan in 1984 got me into collecting Japanese Whiskies. I went from there to collecting old blended Scotch, Irish Whiskey and some American and World whisky miniatures.

WOA: How many minis did you collect in the end?

AB: At its peak my collection numbered over 6,000 minis. I have disposed of a few over the years but it is probably still around 6,000 minis.

A snippet of Alex’s collection on display

WOA: Was there a moment when you realised it had changed from being a casual hobby to a full-on passion?

AB: I think moving to it being a passion was a gradual thing, but the Mini Bottle Club put me in contact with UK and overseas collectors, many of whom became friends and the compulsion to collect old and rare stuff and the desire to be first to get a new mini kicked in sometime after that.

The infamous Malt Mill bottled by Alex himself

WOA: The Malt Mill miniature got everyone very excited earlier this year.  Which other of your minis do you think there’ll be most interest in?

AB: I hope that my Malt Mill generates similar interest. I would also like to think that a distillery bottled CARDOW, a MACALLAN 1937 from G&M, a couple of old cork and / or foil-sealed LAPHROAIGS and an ISLAY MIST mini will generate some interest. I also have virtually all the James MacArthur minis ever bottled, plus some rare minis from other independent bottlers and almost every PORT ELLEN mini ever bottled (although I plan to keep a few PE minis).

WOA: Any quirky bottles in there or personal favourites that have special sentimental value? Is there anything you’re hanging on to or are you selling everything?

AB: I am not selling everything. Where possible I am keeping two from each Scotch Malt and Grain distillery, a few old Irish including a pre-1920 Nun’s Island Pot Still (a real personal favourite), a few that I bought in Japan in the 1980s and all my Signatory Silent Stills minis. As far as I know I am the only person with the full set and that took a lot of collecting, so I have decided to keep them for the time being. I will also hang on to a few minis that I bought in the past couple of years as I would probably get less than I paid for them. Other favourites being kept are a White Horse Label Lagavulin and the old brown Distillery label Tamdhu.

WOA: How did you keep track of everything as the collection grew?  Did you ever buy something thinking it was missing from your collection and then discover you already had it?

AB: For years I kept a list but that became too hard so I photographed everything. I stopped photographing new bottles about 4 or 5 years ago and then I lost touch a bit with what I had  – so yes, I did buy stuff that I already had and I still have a few duplicates.

WOA: Did you ever start collecting full-size bottles as well or were you only ever into minis? What is it about miniature bottles that really inspired you?

AB: I started collecting full sized bottles about 30 years ago when distilleries started to close. I had about 450 full sized bottles, including one from each Malt Distillery. I sold some of those privately and auctioned the others two or three years ago. At one point it was cheaper to buy some full-sized bottles than the equivalent mini! Minis take up less space and you can have far greater variety than with a collection of full sized bottles.

WOA: Aside from collecting what was your favourite whisky to drink?

AB: I would never choose one whisky as my favourite. I have always had a preference for peated whisky and, perhaps surprisingly, I have found peated Bunnahabhain to be amongst my favourites. I usually have a bottle of Laphroaig and a bottle of Lagavulin in the house. I have had a couple of superb bottles of Aberlour and Glen Moray, the latter matured in virgin American Oak. I have a preference for an oak vanilla flavour to a heavily sherried flavour but a good Aberlour or Glenfarclas will always tempt me. One of my favourite drinking whiskies isn’t a Scotch Whisky but is Red Breast Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey! I always have a bottle of it in the house! I also usually have a bottle of Glen Deveron as Macduff was my local distillery.

WOA: Over the years you’ve built up an extraordinary collection, but were there any ‘ones that got away’? Anything that you’d definitely still buy if you found it tomorrow?

AB: There were many that got away! I always set price limits, so I missed out at times: on an old 1930’s Glendronach and an old Tomatin amongst others, when the price went too high. Perhaps my biggest frustration was in not managing to get a MacKinlays and Birnie Glen Mhor that I could be absolutely sure was genuine. I have two Glen Mhor minis with the appropriate label but I have significant doubts about one and questions about the other. I will still buy minis if any of the new Scottish distilleries like Wolfburn, Daftmill etc ever produce them, as I would still like to have at least one mini from each distillery.

WOA: What advice would you give to anyone just starting a mini collection?

AB: Decide what you want to collect, start with a small range then expand it in a direction that interests you, keep your eyes open for fakes and set a price limit and stick to it. Try to trade with overseas collectors, although that has been largely ruined by our ridiculous postage restrictions in shipping minis. The latter point was a big factor in slowing down and finally virtually ending my collecting drive!

WOA: It’s probably fair to assume you’re going to have rather more free time (and room in the house!) after this sale, so what’s next? Any plans to treat yourself or are you going to start collecting anything else?!

AB: I was always into photography, so when I retired I started bird watching and bird photography. That gets me out and about regularly and I have seen bits of Britain that I never expected to visit. I will be treating my wife and myself to a couple of birding holidays in exotic locations with some of the auction proceeds and will hopefully buy a new camera in due course. With grandchildren now the emptying of my whisky room will generate another spare bedroom when needed!

WOA: Many thanks for talking to us and letting us in on your tips and stories, Alex – Good luck in the sale and your future adventures!

We’ve got a big job on our hands to collate and organise this very exciting collection and get it ready for sale – watch this space for more details on what is sure to be the mini auction to ever hit the market!

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