A new collaboration between Japanese architectural giant Kengo Kuma and The Dalmore, a 183-year-old Scottish whisky label, has tongues wagging, appealing to whisky and design fans alike. The whisky label has already garnered prestige in Greater China with a set of Dalmore Decades 1951-2000, the only complete six-bottle collection direct from the distillery, achieving $1,123,938 at auction in Hong Kong in October 2021.
This latest project saw Kuma design a handcrafted sculpture encasing a 48-year-old Highland single malt whisky called Luminary No.1–Rare-2022 Edition, created by The Dalmore master distiller Richard Paterson in a limited run of three bottles. The sculpture, inspired in part by the V&A Dundee (designed by Kuma), also paid homage to the Japanese craft of kintsugi. Forty-eight diamond shaped “leaves” rendered in Japanese, Scottish oaks and mirrored steel playfully surround the bottle.
Only three bottles and two sculptures have been created globally. One complete set will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on November 16, (with an estimate of £95,000-180,000) with online bidding starting today.
Craft, casks and material harmony
“Before I had this project with Dalmore, I was already a big fan of whisky,” Kuma tells Jing Daily, sitting in Edinburgh with his London-based protégé Maurizio Mucciola. “But through the process I tasted so many types of Dalmore’s, many ages, many samples, many different ways of drinking; and it’s become a part of my life through this.”
“There is an interest in being challenged in what we do,” adds Mucciola, who worked closely on the project. “I’m interested in all type of collaborations, it can be as small as a bottle of whisky in terms of scale, or as large as a museum building like the V&A. The point is to create something interesting and innovative — the approach and methodology of trying to find the right harmony between different materials.”
With Scotland and Japan being two of the world’s major whisky centers, each boasting a host of famed brands, distilleries and distinctive design cultures, the partnership “has been quite natural and organic,” says Gregg Glass, The Dalmore’s Master Whisky Maker. “I don’t think we ever discussed what a whisky drinker should take away from this. My feeling is that it’s about connection, stories, and passions. Looking at the skill and artistry of architecture, and a holistic and sensory experience…because of the threads of the innovations and practices we’ve used.”
Working with an alcoholic spirit was an exciting first for Kuma, who also created the Japan National Stadium used for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. “We’ve designed shoes, pianos, cars — but the liquid whisky and architecture have some similarities as well as differences,” he says. “We are using natural materials here, very intimated with the place, the earth, the wood…like the whisky casks made by wood and the wood used in the architecture of V&A Dundee.”
Avid appetites continue from China and Asia
It’s no secret that Asian and Greater China collectors dominate the ultra rare luxury whiskey market. Auction results show that a bottle of Macallan-1928 50-year-old sold for HK$1.48 million (US$189,000) at Bonhams 2019 sale, and in 2021, Hong Kong-based buyers dominated Sotheby’s spirit auctions spending $4.5 million, with mainland Chinese following closely behind with $4.1 million.
Last year, Sotheby’s reported that 37 percent of new buyers at their wine and spirits auctions were under the age of 40; and Asia still powers the spirits market, accounting for 52 percent of global totals. The Asia Pacific whisky market was estimated to be worth $1.84 billion in 2021 with projections reaching $2.4 billion by 2026.
Apart from prized auction bottles, Chinese consumers’ taste for high-end spirits pushed spending on Scotch whisky to a record high in the last two years despite pandemic disruptions. Brands are eager to carve out market share and loyalty, especially with culturally conscious younger clientele who are forgoing traditional baijiu for premium whiskies.
How is the industry responding? Apart from the release of exceptional vintages, collaborations with design stars in the luxury spirit world has captured the attention of younger, aesthetically savvy clients. Take Gordon & McPhail’s collaboration with British Nigerian architect David Adjaye OBE: the resulting bottle of Decanter #1 Generations 80-Years-Old sold last year for $193,000 in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Courvoisier has worked with Britain’s young designer du jour Yinka Illori to create immersive installations, and Diageo-acquired Port Ellen has teamed up famed glass sculptor and artist Ini Archibong on a sculpture. It seems that pairing pioneering creatives with renowned labels and rare liquids makes for a winning formula for the global market — as well as Chinese and Asian high spenders.