A cursory browse through Whisky.Auction will reveal something interesting to the uninitiated: Whiskies that were bottled in previous decades can be considerably more valuable than their modern day counterparts. So your standard bottle of single malt available in any supermarket today for, say, £35, could be worth 10 times that amount if it was bottled in the 1980s, and another 10 times if it dates from the swinging ’60s.
So how do you know when a whisky was bottled? It’s a question we’re often asked. There are too many variables for one post, so we’re going to start with the basics by looking at the labels of Scotch whisky produced for the UK market.
A standard size whisky bottle today is 70cl, but this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970s and earlier, you will see odd measurements such as 26 2/3 Fl. Oz . This translates as 75.7cl and was the standard bottle size for some time until the end of the 1970s (it’s quite common to see no size stated on bottles from the 1940s, 1950s, and even 1960s). Towards the end of the 1970s, both imperial and metric measurements started to be used, creating a confusing array of numbers as seen at the bottom of this Laphroaig. By the 1980s we were fully metric, eschewing the fluid ounces of old, rounding down the 75.7cl to a sturdy 75cl, and soldiering on until the early 1990s, when 70cl bottles became standard across Europe.
To ABV or not to ABV?
If you see 70° or 80° Proof on your bottle, it doesn’t mean you’ve found yourself a super-high-strength whisky, it just means it’s old, likely a bottle from the 1970s or earlier. Prior to 1980, alcohol was measured in Degrees Proof rather than % ABV (alcohol by volume). So, take a look at this bottle of Laphroaig, how do we get from 80° Proof to a number that sounds drinkable? Simply divide by 1.75 to arrive at a healthy 46% ABV (round up or down as appropriate). Common examples are 70° Proof = 40%, 75° Proof = 43%, 80° Proof = 46%, and 100° Proof = 57%.
(Note: US proof is different, divide by 2).
God Save The Queen
The endurance and longevity of Queen Elizabeth II gives this tip limited utility, but it can certainly help. Many brands carry royal warrants by appointment to His or Her majesty at any given time, and these generally expire a year or two after death (though Ballantine’s still used Queen Victoria’s well into the 20th century). So a rudimentary knowledge of the UK’s royal lineage is always useful when appraising bottles. This bottle of Gilbey’s Spey Royal bears the royal warrant of The Late King George V (died 1936), meaning this was likely bottled in the late 1930s. This miniature of Black & White must be early 1950s, as the royal warrant hasn’t yet passed from The Late King George VI to Queen Elizabeth II following the King’s death in 1952. A more recent example would be this bottle of Laphroaig. It is missing Prince Charles royal warrant which the distillery earned in 1994. So using what we’ve learnt, we could narrow this one down to a few years in the early 1990s: All metric measurements, 70cl rather than 75cl, and no royal warrant, means this example was probably bottled from 1992 to 1994.