Ruedi Zotter: How did you get into the whisky world?
Claudio Bernasconi: I was a hotelier all my life and already at the age of 20 I became general manager in a business with 40 employees. Actually, I was only supposed to step in for about two weeks until the hotel could fill the post. After a short time, they then told me that they didn't want to look for anyone else. After a few years there, I felt the need to set up something of my own. But no bank wanted to give me the money to take over a restaurant in the Zurich Oberland.
So I packed my backpack and went to see the world. First through South, Central and North America, then different countries in Africa, the Middle East and finally the Far East. In India, I had to be especially careful not to get food poisoning. So I bought a bottle of whisky there and bought a train ticket. The three best-selling whisky brands in the world are from India, only then come the well-known ones like Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels. I first used the whisky to brush my teeth and after a week I thought it was actually a damn good drink.
A few years later, back in Switzerland, I took over the lease of the Hotel Waldhaus in St. Moritz. We had a lot of Swissair people there for training seminars. I once wrote to them that if they wanted to make me happy, they should bring me a bottle of whisky from their travels. After a year I had about a hundred - that's how it started.
How did the world's biggest whisky bar come about?
In1995,we opened the largest whisky bar in Switzerland, then in Europe, in the Waldhaus. When the world's biggest whisky collector died, we bought around 1 000 bottles from his stock and in 1996 applied to be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. Since 1998, we now have 2 500 whiskies and are the undisputed world leader.
What does whisky mean to you today?
Istill think it's the most beautiful luxury drink. It is the purest spirit and there are also many stories behind it. And whisky people are completely different, they are pleasure people. In 25 years, I've never had a fight in my whisky bar.
Whisky is no longer limited to Scotland, Ireland and the USA. The whisky world seems to have become bigger in recent years. How do you assess this development?
Thereare several possible answers. Basically, Ireland is the origin of whisky, but the heart of the industry is Scotland. Whisky has also been allowed to be produced in Switzerland since 1999 and today there are over 50 producers. Germany also has over 100 producers.
Almost weekly I receive questions along the lines of: "What about Japanese whisky? Can you drink it?" My standard answer: a hundred years ago, the Japanese bought a car, took it apart, put it back together and today Toyota is No. 1 in the world. I have the general agency of Ben Nevis, which belongs to Suntory. I haven't received a bottle for two years because they export everything to Japan, which is then sold there as Japanese blended whisky. Today you pay unbelievable prices for Japanese whiskies. But for me, the most beautiful whiskies still come from Scotland.
What do you say about Swiss whiskies?
The problem is that many Swiss producers put their relatively young whiskies on the market after three to five years and the price level is relatively high. I recently took my 15-year-old, distilled in 2003, to Scotland. Not one, not even Charles MacLean would have thought it was a Swiss whisky. Basically, I am a strong supporter of the free market economy and support everything to do with whisky.
How has the whisky bubble developed in Switzerland?
About 30 yearsago, the people were between 25 and 40 years old. In the 90s, the community became a bit more feminine with a share of about 20 to 30 percent. At the last fairs I visited, I had the feeling that the proportion of women has reduced again somewhat. But the people are still rather young, even though there are of course always older people.
Supply and demand of Scotch Whisky. Is that a problem?
Yes, a huge one. I've been in the business since 1983, a time when 14 distilleries had to close because of overcapacity or marketing considerations by the big companies. In the time that followed, things went up a few percent year after year. Perhaps a brief side note. Spirits are also subject to a certain trend. In the 1960s it was cognac, in the 1970s grappa, in the 1990s rum, later vodka and today gin.
On the demand side, the Russian market was added in the 1990s and since the turn of the millennium the Chinese market as well. Demand and therefore prices have almost exploded since then. If you look at the figures, the Scots, for example, sold less last year, but sales still increased because of rising prices. An example: thirty years ago, Glenlivet still had an output of two million litres per year. They then steadily increased this output. Since last year, Glenlivet's capacity has been 30 million litres per year, of which the output last year was 21 million litres.
I don't know of a single distillery in Scotland that hasn't increased capacity in the last twenty years. In the longer term, I expect prices to fall with one uncertainty: Brexit. If the British can negotiate a free trade agreement with India, that will give the Scots another massive boost.
How do you see whisky as an investment?
Years ago, I was invited to Glenlivet for an exclusive event. After the gala dinner, I sat with an American journalist from the New York Times who also wrote for Time magazine.
He told me about his months of research in which he analysed the returns on various investments over the last ten years. Stamps 110 per cent, art 160 per cent, diamonds 170 per cent, cars 180 per cent, etc. Single malt, on the other hand, had a return of 580 per cent. According to his research, there would have been no better investment than whisky.
An example. I got the first Port Ellen edition for CHF 280, but today it costs between CHF 7,000 and 8,000. The new 17th edition, however, costs CHF 3,000 when it is launched. The companies and distilleries have recognised the business model for themselves. But as a capital investment it can still be an interesting business.
What was your best whisky experience?
When I was at The Macallan and personally received what was then the oldest whisky in the world. A 72-year-old Macallan.
And the biggest disappointment?
Actuallynone (laughs), I've never had to sell a bottle below cost price. One frustration was perhaps this, that's another funny story: I had a whisky from 1878 where the glass cost CHF 10 000. I always waited for some guest to come and take a glass.
It was then a Chinese who took a glass and he was also satisfied and everything was wonderful. Afterwards, it turned out that the whisky was fake. For me, of course, it was a great frustration, because I had also put several thousand francs on the table for this bottle, which then "only" contained a 30-year-old Glenlivet.
Today there is a system that can determine the year of the barley harvest or distillation, if it is after the dropping of the atomic bombs in the Second World War. When the forgery came to light, my son, who had sold the whisky, personally travelled to Shanghai to repay the guest the CHF 10 000.
Main prize Swiss Cocktail Open 2022
Exclusive private event at and with whisky legend Claudio Bernasconi
The founder of the largest whisky bar in the world, Devil's Place in the Waldhaus St. Moritz, and owner of one of the finest private whisky collections in the world, opens the doors to the winner of the SWISS COCKTAIL OPEN 2022 and five accompanying persons for an exclusive look into his private collection with numerous exceptional whiskies.
- Workshop and accompanied tasting of exclusive whiskies
- Exclusive lunch prepared by Claudio Bernasconi incl. whisky accompaniment
- Exchange and transfer of a lot of expertise
What would you serve a female whisky novice?
I would probably serveawoman a 12-year-old Redbreast. Due to the triple distillation, Irish whiskies tend to be rounder and softer than the Highland whiskies of the Scots. From there, you can also start well with a Lowland whisky, for example Bladnoch or Auchentoshan, the only distillery in Scotland that also distils three times. If I may make a comparison with the wine world, Lowland is Beaujolais, Highland is Burgundy and Islay is Bordeaux.
And what to a whisky beginner?
Toaman, actually, the same thing, some Lowlander like Auchentoshan, Lindores Abbey or Glenkinchie.
What is your favourite whisky?
I don't have one favourite whisky, but basically I appreciate smoky whiskies from sherry casks.
And which is the most expensive bottle in your collection?
BlackBowmore, the bottle costs about CHF 30 000 today.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a whisky collection?
This is a complex question with many different approaches. For example, I would recommend focusing on closed distilleries that still have affordable whiskies. Then, of course, there is also the possibility of focusing on specific brands or on different provenances.
Who actually determines the price of whisky?
Whenwe have a new whisky, we often first look at the benchmark. That's where it often gets complicated. In Germany, for example, the spirits tax is between half and a third of what it is in Switzerland.
For higher amounts, the difference evens out again because of the different VAT rates. But the price is mainly determined by demand. Twenty years ago it was mainly whisky freaks who determined the price, today it is also many speculators.
What can we expect from Claudio Bernasconi in the near future?
Years ago,I had the brand "World of Rum" protected in addition to "World of Whisky". Now there is a company in France called Rum of the World. Now we are doing a rum bottling together: "Rum of the World" meets "World of Rum".
The first barrel to be launched in June is from a producer in Australia, without added sugar, caramel colour or any other addition. But I have to say, the rum business is ten times more complicated than the whisky business ...