When Bay van der Bunt snapped up six bottles of rare Cognac for $170,400 in London last week, it was just another booze run for the insatiable Dutch spirits collector.
Van der Bunt, whose 5,000-bottle collection of old Cognacs, Armagnacs, rums and fortified wines has been valued at $15-million, couldn't resist Thursday's auction offering: a half-case of pre-Revolutionary Clos du Griffier Grand Fine Champagne Vieux Cognac Café Anglais 1788. Distilled before Marie Antoinette met her fate on the guillotine, the brandy – sold by Christie's for £17,825 ($28,400) a bottle – came from the 400,000-plus-bottle wine cellar of famous Parisian restaurant La Tour d'Argent, which had been bricked in with a fake wall in 1940 to thwart invading Germans.
"I decided to buy them whatever the price was, because they are very, very rare," van der Bunt told me over the phone from Breda, Netherlands. Indeed, they were rendered all the rarer earlier this year after a butter-fingered customer at London's Playboy Club accidentally smashed a bottle of the same vintage, previously auctioned by La Tour d'Argent, after ordering two glasses and asking for a look-see at the label. (I hope he left a good tip.)
Van der Bunt's purchase fell short of his most ostentatious. That came last month, when the 64-year-old former antiques dealer and plastics-packaging entrepreneur bid $31,650 (U.S.) in Geneva for a single bottle of Saulnier Frères Cognac Réserve de St. Amant de Graves 1789.
Not bad for a man who can't stomach drinking. "I cannot say I don't like alcohol, but I can't handle it," he said. "When I drink a full glass of Cognac, I pass away, I fall asleep. It's not good for me."
Widely reputed to be the largest collection of its kind, van der Bunt's stash (viewable at Oldliquors.com) would be as impermeable as La Tour d'Argent's to an armed assault. Guarded by a biometric-entry system, it is programmed to recognize his facial features. "I cannot enter the cellar after certain hours in the day. First I have to call special numbers, look in the screen, and it looks in my eyes."
For van der Bunt, hooch hoarding – if not actual drinking – is a paternal legacy. His father, "a Cognac lover but not a collector," happened to own a bottle of Napoleon 1811, perhaps the greatest 19th-century vintage. In 1971, in a misfired attempt at son-father bonding, van der Bunt purchased two similar bottles for the then-hefty sum of 120 Dutch guilders apiece ($66 today). "I'll never forget," the son recounted. "He said, 'You stupid, how could you do that?' and looked at me like fathers do when they look at a dumb kid." The same bottles are now valued at $10,000 each, van der Bunt added with a laugh.
Undeterred, he kept buying. "In the beginning, you don't realize you are collecting," van der Bunt said. "I thought they were beautiful. All of a sudden, I considered it a habit, and my wife said, 'You are addicted to Cognacs.' "
The "addiction" was kept in check for about nine years, during which he bought nothing, but he recently fell off the wagon. Now, there is another motive for shopping sprees like the one on Thursday: to enrich the stash for an eventual sale. "It increased the value of my collection, definitely. It's a strategy. It's a plan." In talks with potential buyers in London to part with everything, he hopes that a deal will be hammered out in a couple of months.
It sure appears to be a seller's market where fine old Cognac and Armagnac (the other great wine-based French brandy) are concerned. The average auction price jumped 38 per cent last year, van der Bunt says. "It goes sky-high and the end is not there."
To which I would add a note of caution for well-heeled potential buyers. Unlike certain fine wines, brandies, whiskies and rums do not improve once bottled; they can mature only in contact with wood barrels, from which brown spirits draw most of their flavour.
Also in contrast to wine, though, the flavours remain fairly stable in a well-sealed bottle, essentially representing a time capsule. And that is the drinker's appeal with old spirits, especially those bottled before the phylloxera root epidemic, which destroyed virtually all of France's vineyards in the late 1800s and early 1900s, forcing a large-scale replanting on disease-resistant American (rather than native European) rootstock. "That particular taste will never come back," van der Bunt said.
Not that the virtual teetotaller will be celebrating a sale by popping one of the 1811s he bought in 1971. "Opening a $10,000 bottle?" he said. "It's 200 years old and it never comes back. It sounds stupid maybe, but I would never do that. I would rather die."
I, on the other hand, would consider it the height of living.