A look at the future of whisky – a chat with Max Righi
We met Silver Seal and Whiskyantique owner Max Righi to get his take on what is happening in the world of whisky now that markets are reopening, Asian consumers are increasingly enthusiastic, and collecting is causing a seemingly unrestrained rise in prices.
As new players emerge - from distilleries to independent bottlers - no one is better placed than Max to tell us how the whisky industry has changed over the last few years.
Originally a keen collector, over time he has become a major trader opening a show room in Formigine, now a pilgrimage site for whisky collectors from across the world, as well as a bottler with the historic brand Silver Seal - all the while never losing his original approach to whisky, as a true lover of this spirit should. This enabled him to build a global network of people sharing more than just a job, brought together by authentic passion and friendship. Unsurprisingly, today he is one of the very few Italians who travels with the Malt Maniacs, an international collective of great whisky experts and enthusiasts.
What is your story as a whisky lover? Did you start out as a collector or independent bottler?
I started as a collector many years ago and I still am, since I actually prefer to buy rather than sell. Collecting is a very strong passion and, once you have it in you, it rarely goes away.
Which of your Whisky and Rum bottlings are you most proud of?
It's really hard to choose my favourite among the many bottlings I made, but if I had to pick it would be lesser-known distilleries such as Dailuaine 37yo Silver Seal or any one of the several Littlemills. For rums, it would definitely be Demerara 37yo and Hampden 22yo.
Part of whisky's success owes to the work of independent bottlers who have brought many little-known distilleries under the limelight and increased interest in single malts. As an independent bottler yourself - among many other things - what is your outlook on the future of this profession?
Grim if not bleak. In the past, if you asked for casks in Scotland, they were happy to oblige at reasonable prices. Now everything has changed: either they won't give them to you or they don't want you to use their distillery’s name. In addition, there might be too many of us in this business, and this certainly fuels speculation by cask traders. However, I think it's important to remember that it was the work of independent bottlers that enabled some of the less famous distilleries to reach small but very important outlets such as whisky bars and cigar clubs. I'm talking about the recent past, when most distilleries were more comfortable selling to markets that valued quantity over quality.
Which bottle in your collection do you love the most? What bottle was most difficult to acquire and what are the rarest ones you have?
The bottle that triggers the strongest feelings in me is definitely the next one I can afford to buy. As for the hardest bottle to get, maybe the first edition of Laphroaig Filippi Import short cap with a small booklet. For the rarest, I don't know, maybe Springbank 50yo, Samaroli, royal Brackla 60yo, and others.
How is the whisky market looking right now in your view? Today, consumption and the number of enthusiasts is the highest it has ever seen. Do you think this golden age is here to stay, or is it temporary?
In my opinion, the great interest in whisky we are seeing today will last for several years, I just hope the future continues to bring good quality and not just large quantities.
Do you think the recent price increases will continue, given that some distilleries have run out of stocks of extra-aged casks, or are we in a bubble?
The price of old & rare bottlings will certainly continue to rise. We may already be in a small bubble, but we should also consider that the number of extremely rare bottles is very small compared to the number of enthusiasts willing to buy great bottlings.
The distillery that best symbolizes the iconization of some bottlings is Macallan, of which you are a great collector. How strong and deep-rooted is this fascination in the minds of consumers, both aficionados and neophytes?
Very strong, their fondness of Macallan runs very deep. After all, we're talking about bottlings that are so beautiful and high-quality they would make any enthusiast want to collect them. I, for one, just cannot help buying their vintage releases every year.
Dozens of new distilleries have been opening up in the last few years. Which do you think will be the names to watch out for, and what will the new entrants need in order to be successful and compete with historic distilleries that often have over two centuries of history and expertise behind them?
Aside from Dornoch Distillery, owned by the Thompson brothers with whom I have a bond of brotherly affection, it seems premature to name names. However, I sincerely hope these new distilleries hark back to the past, which ironically would ensure a great future for them.
Speaking of tradition, this is a much-debated topic today. Some long for the old, now largely abandoned methods, while others welcome the many innovations brought on by chemistry, information technology or even just a desire to experiment. Which side do you think will have the upper hand?
I'll be brief and clear: I am always all for distillation artists, long live tradition and long live patience!
Who are your friends and your personal icons in this world?
There are so many, if I named them I’m sure I would forget to mention some of them. But in the end my true friends, who are also the people who inspire me, are always driven by three things: passion, humbleness, enthusiasm.
Which country do you best like to visit for work?
Well, Scotland will always be my true love, but Japan is now one of my favourite places as well. I was sceptical before I went there, but then I fell in love with their art and culture. Singapore and Hong Kong are also pleasant places, and on my list I also include trade shows like those held annually in Limburg, Paris, Lindores, Milan. People go there for work, but there's also a lot of fun involved.
Your dream for the future, if you can reveal it to us?
My dream for the future is to be a farmer and plan rare bottle tasting evenings in my free time.