What is Dragon 8’s ‘MW35’ whisky?

Questions have been raised about the provenance of a specially bottled ‘35 year-old Glenlivet’ currently being offered by Hong Kong auction house Dragon 8.

roar_dragon8The whisky was released in collaboration with well-known Hong Kong actor and singer, Michael Wong, this August.

Described as a 35-year-old Glenlivet from a Sherry hogshead, the description on the Dragon 8 website reads: “This extremely limited 228 bottle edition of MW Michael Wong Glenlivet 35 represents the pinnacle of passion.

“The rare single malt scotch whisky started its journey at The Glenlivet Distillery, in Speyside, Scotland. There it matured in a single cask of Sherry Hogshead for the past 35 years.

“The MW Michael Wong Glenlivet 35 is presented in an exclusive, specially crafted Glencairn Crystal decanter. It is housed in an ultra-bespoke black leather & lacquer showcase, made by master craftsmen.”

The whisky is listed for sale on the Dragon 8 site for HK$24,888 (£2,640/US$3,200) and also comes with a pair of Glencairn glasses.

The drinks business has looked at the various press material provided by Dragon 8 in support of the MW35 whisky. A lot is written about the whisky’s distillation at The Glenlivet and Dragon 8 states that the whisky, “started its journey at The Glenlivet Distillery, in Speyside, Scotland. There it matured in a single cask of Sherry Hogshead for the past 35 years.”

Yet it is unclear where “there” refers. Is it The Glenlivet or simply Speyside?

Dragon 8 would not have acquired a cask directly from The Glenlivet, so it had to be from another source.

As such the whisky in the cask would not have spent its entire life maturing at The Glenlivet’s distillery but in the warehouse of the company that acquired the cask (which could be in Speyside) and that company may have bottled it too.

But who was the bottler? If Dragon 8 owned the cask, as the company’s founder, Gil Lempert-Schwarz, says it did, then there is no need to name the bottler on the final bottle or decanter as the cask owner is regarded as the ‘bottler’. Yet nor need it be kept a secret – and Lempert-Schwarz has refused to state who did bottle the whisky or where the cask was acquired from.

A Hong Kong-based blogger who writes for ‘Time for Whisky’, however, was at the launch party for MW35 this August and noted in a post that the whisky appeared to have been “bottled by Signatory at 49.8% ABV.”

the drinks business contacted the company in question, Signatory Vintage, on Thursday 27 October and spoke to owner Andrew Symington about this post.

Symington called back on Friday 28 October having looked into the matter and expressed serious concern that Signatory’s name had been associated with the MW35.

He was very clear that Signatory has never bottled any whisky for Dragon 8 and certainly not a 1981 Glenlivet.

This was admitted by Lempert-Schwarz, in an email to the drinks business on 1 November when this point was put to him. He wrote: “We have no relationship with Signatory whatsoever. We once thought we would have, but do business elsewhere.”

the drinks business has since contacted many independent bottlers including: Duncan Taylor, Hunter Laing, Broxburn Bottlers, Angus Dundee, Gordon & Macphail, Cadenhead, Lombard, Murray McDavid, The Ultimate, Exclusive Malt, Hart Brothers, Whisky Doris, The Whisky Agency and more. None of them have bottled a whisky for Dragon 8.

Symington also pointed out a number of inconsistencies on the decanters on Dragon 8’s website including apparent changes to the ABV and the number of bottles produced, as well as a cask number that only appears on some decanters.

Decanters

It is true that there are several photographs of various decanters on Dragon 8’s website.

One decanter, pictured below, which was featured on the Time for Whisky blog, has now been identified as the original mock-up ordered from Glencairn Crystal by that company’s managing director, Paul Davidson.

The information it displayed was as follows:

Michael Wong, distilled at Glenlivet, 35 years of age
Single Cask #10978
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Sherry Hogshead
Bottle No. 001 of 238
Product of Scotland
51.7%/Vol 750ml
Bottled by Signatory

This decanter of MW35 debuted at Dragon 8’s ‘Gamma’ sale in June as a preview of the up-coming launch of the product and is the only one to feature a line referring to Signatory Vintage.

The same version then appeared in a promotional video on the Dragon 8 website, which has subsequently been removed (as of 30 November 2016).

While the reference to Signatory is dropped on later decanters, much of the information on this first decanter was re-used on another.

To begin with there is a standard promotional shot featuring Wong (above). Apart from the absence of the Signatory reference and cask number it is exactly the same as the first mock-up.

It displays this information:
Michael Wong, distilled at Glenlivet, 35 years of age
Single Cask
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Sherry Hogshead
Bottle No. 001 of 238
Product of Scotland
51.7%/Vol 750ml

Although the first decanter – the known mock-up – was very prominently shown in close-up in the promotional video for the photo shoot, the decanters in the photograph of Wong are the same decanters described above – that is to say with the cask number and reference to Signatory removed but otherwise displaying identical information.

They must be mock-ups too as the actual decanter in which MW35 is apparently bottled is this one, displaying this information:

Michael Wong, distilled at Glenlivet, 35 years of age
Single Cask
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Sherry Hogshead
1 of 228 Bottles Made (*note: the decanters are not individually numbered but all state ‘1 of 228 Made’)
Product of Scotland
49.8%/Vol 750ml

Paul Davidson, managing director of Glencairn Crystal, confirmed that that was the engraving on the decanters when the final order was placed. Note also the change from 238 bottles to 228 as well as the changing ABV. Confusingly, both the actual decanters and the mock-ups were photographed together at the official launch of the MW35 during August.

The reference to the cask number which appeared on this mock-up – #10978 – should be addressed quickly.

Symington has told the drinks business that cask #10978 was indeed a Glenlivet, distilled in 1981 husbanded by Signatory Vintage. If it had been bottled this year it would be 35 years old.

But cask #10978 was vatted by Signatory in 2013 and that vatted whisky is still in the Signatory warehouse. There is no possibility that the MW35 is a Glenlivet whisky from cask number #10978.

Although the final decanter states very clearly it is a single cask, there appears to be no further reference to which cask exactly these decanters were filled from. Although, again, the cask number does not need to be stated on the label it is yet another detail Lempert-Schwarz has refused to reveal.

Where did the decanters go?

There is another question concerning the decanters, however, which is that no one appears to know where they went after being collected from Glencairn.

In June of this year Lempert-Schwarz told Glencairn a courier would collect the pallet of decanters for bottling “in Scotland”, while the glasses were to be shipped directly to China. No bottling company was specifically named by Lempert-Schwarz. Glencairn would normally arrange shipping to send the decanters to the bottler but the use of couriers is not unusual.

The courier, from Dalkeith Transport, arrived at Glencairn’s studio in East Kilbride outside Glasgow and apparently took the pallet of decanters to either its Cumbernauld depot, which is also in the Glasgow area, or to the Dalkeith depot outside Edinburgh.

As Glencairn did not handle the shipping contract it has no reference number with which to follow up the pallet but Davidson informed the drinks business that through his own inquiries he had heard the pallet was then picked up by a second courier from one of those depots.

The depot manager at Dalkeith, Vanda Roberts, told the drinks business that given the volume handled by Dalkeith Transport through its warehouses every day – upwards of 500 pallets in each – the only way to track the order through its systems was to have a reference number and the only person to have that would be the one who placed the order – Lempert-Schwarz.

In her “experience”, however, she suggested it sounded likely an international haulier had been tasked with the pick-up and contracted the job through Dalkeith Transport, using one of the vehicles in its fleet to pick up the pallet from Glencairn and then either using another haulier or one of its own vehicles to then pick up the decanters from either the Cumbernauld or Dalkeith depots for the next leg of their journey, wherever that was to.

There is currently a gap therefore in the whereabouts of the decanters after their departure from Glencairn until they resurface in Hong Kong in August, filled with spirit.

As stated above, with no major bottling firms having filled these decanters, were they therefore taken out of the country unfilled? If they were, then the questions of where they were filled and what they are filled with are of paramount importance.

Lempert-Schwarz has been asked repeatedly by the drinks business who bottled the MW35 and where the whisky was sourced. He has refused to answer, citing prior “unfair” coverage by this magazine, when the provenance and authenticity of certain wines and spirits Dragon 8 was auctioning were questioned by LA-based lawyer Don Cornwell earlier this year.

In an email on the morning of 4 November he repeated to the drinks business what he had told Glencairn, that his bottler is, “in Scotland” but then added, for the first time, that he and said bottler, “have contracts in place that contain NDA (non-disclosure agreement) clauses and other such obligations”, which was why he could not state the bottler’s name. He added it would be “unethical” for him to reveal who the bottler was as they intended to work together again.

Furthermore, Lempert-Schwarz has refused to show the drinks business any part of the Certificate of Origin/Age Certificate all spirits imported into Hong Kong are required to have by law.

He has also refused to reveal the six digit reference number which would allow the drinks business to check with the Hong Kong Customs Department that the MW35 has been properly listed.

Conclusion

The drinks business cannot conclusively say that the whisky in MW35 is not what it claims to be.

On the other hand, there are a number of important questions to which there remain no clear answers:

  • Where was the whisky used to fill the decanters sourced?
  • Why was the transport of the decanters arranged by Dragon 8 and not Glencairn and why was it so complicated?
  • Who bottled the whisky in the decanters and where was it done?
  • What is the cask number this whisky was bottled from?
  • Has the MW35 been properly registered with Hong Kong Customs?
  • Why does Lempert-Schwarz refuse to answer these questions in full?

Any Scotch whisky being exported for retail must be shipped ready-bottled and it must be bottled in Scotland. If the decanters are being filled outside of Scotland, then it is in contravention of the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009/2012.

The Scotch Whisky Association and Pernod Ricard have been notified of these concerns.

2 Responses to “What is Dragon 8’s ‘MW35’ whisky?”

  1. Andrew Billcliffe says:

    Unless this brand is fully traceable through the Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme through the 5 verifiable processes of the production of Scotch Whisky, then they cannot market it as Scotch Whisky. The “brand” of Scotch Whisky, Michael Wong or MW35, is also not on the verified brands list held by HMRC. https://customs.hmrc.gov.uk/sdvlookup/index.action

  2. Josh says:

    Given this company’s track record how is it that they are still in business?

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