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Creating A Whisky Icon: David Holmes & The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old

Discover how David Holmes helped shape The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old, which would go on to become the most expensive whisky in the world.

The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old is possibly the most infamous whisky in the industry. The world record holding bottle is recognised throughout the international whisky community and beyond.

As one of the earliest examples of a Macallan vintage whisky bottling, this infamy partially stems from an incredibly old vintage statement (at the time of writing the whisky in the bottle was distilled 98 years ago), combined with an impressive 60-year-old age statement. The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old’s rarity is another source of infamy. Only 40 bottles were ever filled from a single cask and released in four/five incarnations. Whilst the number of surviving bottles is a source of considerable speculation amongst whisky enthusiasts. 

The Macallan 1926 60-Year-Old was distilled under the tenure of Janet ‘Nettie’ Harbinson, the daughter of Roderick Kemp, as manager of Macallan. Janet Harbinson kept the Macallan distillery afloat amid the challenges of the interwar period, including grain shortages, stringent duties, and the imposition of American Prohibition.

In 1926, the Spanish oak, sherry seasoned hogshead cask No. 263 was filled and laid to rest in Macallan’s warehouse. After maturing for almost six decades, cask No. 263 was discovered by Hugh Mitcalfe during an inventory of casks held in Macallan’s warehouses in the early 1980’s, with a decision taken to bottle the cask in 1986.

Enter David Holmes

David Holmes had already become a big part of the Macallan marketing landscape. So Allan Shiach and Hugh Mitcalfe approached Holmes to consult on the label and packaging design. They sought to present the Macallan 1926 60-Year-Old through special artistic partnerships which reflected the exclusive nature of the single malt. The first incarnation of the Macallan 1926 60 Year Old featured labels designed by celebrated British pop artist Sir Peter Blake. Blake is best-known for his artwork for the famed Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967.

David Holmes’ son, Rupert Holmes explained, “Dad and Peter Blake knew each other for a long time before the Macallan work… Dad could have suggested Peter for the label design.”

Although in a 2016 interview with David Dye, David Holmes clarified the idea to approach Peter Blake for the label design came from Allan Shiach, the Macallan Chairman; Holmes briefed Blake on the project and helped finish the label graphics.

Peter Blake created a distinctive collage style label, allegedly combining illustrations featuring Macallan personalities with topical references to events from 1926. Events included the death of actor Rudloph Valentino, the feats of US golfer Bobby Jones, and the attempted assassination of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. 

The 12 Blake label bottles of the Macallan 1926 60 Year Old were individually numbered, and hand signed by Peter Blake. Each bottle was presented in a ‘brass and glass’ tantalus cabinet that was designed by David Holmes. The tantalus cabinets were designed around a square glass panelled brass frame, affixed upon a dark wood base featuring a brass plaque inscribed with the year ‘1926’, whilst a brass top is engraved with a stylish copper script ‘M’, and Macallan’s founding year 1824.

Holmes’ designs for the tantalus cabinets were allegedly inspired by Macallan’s distillery spirit safe, as Rupert Holmes recalls the Holmes family, “visited Macallan at Christmas 1985… while Dad met with Allan Shiach and looked around the distillery, we enjoyed a tour of Easter Elchies House.”

Rupert Holmes explains that David Holmes produced the tantalus cabinets at the Royal College of Art in early 1986. The completed 12 Macallan 1926 60 Year Old bottlings featuring the Peter Blake label were originally not available for purchase, but were offered as corporate gifts to Macallan’s most valued customers. 

The Second Release

In 1993, the second incarnation of the Macallan 1926 60 Year Old was created when Armando Giovinetti, Macallan’s Italian distributor, proposed releasing more exclusive bottles featuring an artistic label designed by Italian graphic artist, Valerio Adami. Adami was renowned for painting bold, flat forms outlined in thick black lines, in a style reminiscent of comic art.

The Macallan 1926 Valerio Adami label features a geometric design that includes a representation of the bottle and cabinet within the design. Photo: Sotheby’s

The result was 12 Adami label Macallan 1926 60 Year Old bottles. The Valerio Adami labels feature a geometric design, which included a representation of the bottle contained in a tantalus cabinet in miniature within the design. Each individually numbered and hand signed Adami label Macallan 1926 bottle was presented in one of David Holmes’ ‘brass and glass’ tantalus cabinets. Despite this, Rupert Holmes clarifies, “Dad didn’t brief Valerio Adami on the label design, or return to Macallan at that stage.” The 12 Adami label Macallan 1926 bottles were presented in additional tantalus cabinets constructed when Holmes was first commissioned in 1986, provoking speculation concerning Macallan’s early plans for future releases.

The Remaining Bottles of Macallan 1926

Following the release of the Blake and Adami label incarnations, 16 bottles of Macallan 1926 60 Year Old bottled from cask No. 263 remained. Two bottles were sold privately, in blank bottles with the buyers invited to design unique exclusive labels. In 1999, one of the unlabelled bottles was commissioned to be hand painted by Irish artist Michael Dillon. The painting features a depiction of Macallan’s spiritual home, Easter Elchies House. The location and fate of the second unlabelled Macallan 1926 remains unknown.

In 2003, the remaining bottles of Macallan 1926 were released as part of Macallan’s Fine & Rare Series, originally retailing for £20,000.

An Enduring Legacy: The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old

The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old has become the most highly sought after whisky in the world, with all incarnations breaking records for the most expensive whisky sold at auction. A whisky unlike any other, the Macallan 1926 60 Year Old’s original output was only 40 bottles, with a combination of scarcity and unknown status only increasing the value and mystique of surviving bottles.

In 2011, an earthquake in Japan is believed to have destroyed an Adami label bottle. The second unlabelled Macallan 1926 is missing. Plus an unknown number of Blake, Adami and Fine & Rare label example bottles are suspected to have been opened and consumed. 

In May 2018, a Hong Kong Auction saw the Peter Blake label sell for £816, 983, and Valerio Adami label sell for £886,112. Both were records for the Blake and Adami incarnations of the Macallan 1926 presented in Holmes’ tantalus cabinets. Later that year The Michael Dillon hand painted Macallan 1926 60 Year Old sold at Christies in London for a record £1,200,000. It became the first bottle of whisky to break the million pound mark. In October 2019, a Macallan 1926 60 Year Old Fine & Rare Series Label sold at Sotheby’s in London for a new record of £1,500,000.

In October 2023, it was announced a Macallan 1926 60 Year Old featuring a Valerio Adami label would be sold at Sotheby’s in London on the 18th November 2023. The pre-sale estimate was £750,000 to £1,2 million.

A unique selling point for this Macallan 1926 Adami bottling is that it has become the first auction bottle to have undergone reconditioning at the Macallan distillery, involving the replacement of the capsule and cork. A 1ml liquid sample of whisky has been taken for comparison against a sample from a Macallan 1926 bottling held by Edrington to establish authenticity, establishing a foundation to test any Macallan 1926 60 Year Old bottles which come to auction in the future. It sold for £2.2million, becoming the first bottle to sell for over two million pounds and once again establishing The Macallan 1926 60 year old as the world’s most valuable whisky.

Mark Bostock

Since joining Mark Littler LTD as a freelance article contributor in 2019, Mark Bostock has become an integral part of our UK content writing team. His enthusiasm for whisky, particularly independent bottlings, drives him to deepen his knowledge through frequent attendance at tasting events and the thoughtful expansion of his own whisky collection. This dedication not only fuels his passion but also enriches his contributions to our platform, blending expertise with a genuine love for the subject.

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