BREDA, Netherlands – Forty years ago when Dutch businessman Bay van der Bunt bought his first two bottles of vintage cognac on a road-trip to France, little did he know it would be the start of a collection worth millions of euros today.
"Collecting old liquor never even crossed my mind back then," Van der Bunt, 63, said as he uncorked an ancient-looking bottle, part of what is regarded as the largest collection of old liquors in the world – now up for sale for a "mere" six million euros.
"Go ahead have a taste, this is an 1895 cognac from the house of A. E. Dor," he said, pouring the deep brown liquid into a snifter glass then holding it up to the light as the cellar filled with a musky, velvety aroma.
"A glass like this could set you back several thousand dollars in any top restaurant in the world," he added as he carefully lifted his own snifter to his nose, savouring the rich bouquet before taking a small sip.
Van der Bunt wants to sell the collection in its entirety "otherwise its integrity will be compromised." And he has already received solid interest, notably from potential buyers from China and Russia, but has accepted no offers yet.
In the early 1970s, the businessman owned a small antiques shop, which frequently took him on trips to France to look for hidden gems in second-hand stores.
"But many times there were also old bottles of cognac or armagnac and I decided to buy these, not even thinking back then what it would one day become."
In 1978, his collection got its first major boost when Van der Bunt's father gave him a gift of some 100 bottles, "presents my dad received while running a small gardening service company" for the well-heeled in the area.
"My father said: 'You are out of your mind to collect liquor. Why don't you invest in something worthwhile?'
"Well, I didn't listen," he said smiling.
His collection has grown to more than 5,000 dusty bottles, kept safely behind lock and key in a converted cow shed at his rustic farmstead on the outskirts of the southern Dutch city of Breda.
The collection consists mainly of bottles of rare cognac and armagnac, distilled from French grapes, as well as a variety of ports, madeiras and rums.
Asked whether he preferred cognac or armagnac, Van der Bunt just laughed: "It's like asking a polygamist which one of his wives he loves the most."
The crown prince of the collection is undoubtedly a six-litre bottle of 1795 Leopold Brugerolle, bought at an auction by Christie's in 1990.
'Ultimately a form of avarice'
It is the last remaining hand-crafted bottle in the world that accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte's army on its campaigns and is valued at 138,000 euros (US$182,000), according to Van der Bunt.
There's also three complete sets of eight bottles of A. E. Dor cognacs, dating from 1805, 1811, 1834, 1840, 1858, 1875, 1889 and 1893 and valued at between 70,000 to 80,000 euros per set.
Or a hand-blown bottle of 1789 Courvoisier & Curlier which will set a potential buyer back 49,000 euros, or an Armagnac Eau de Vie from the same year.
"The year of the French Revolution," Van der Bunt said proudly.
"I have even been approached by some of the cognac houses in France wanting to buy back their own historical product," he added.
By his own admittance, as his collection grew – buying at auctions and stock from famous restaurants such as Maxim's in Paris – so did his need to possess some of the old spirits in existence.
"It became a passion, an obsession and ultimately a form of avarice."
He tells the story of bidding at a Sotheby's auction in London in the 1970s on a rare 1789 vintage cognac.
"I told my wife Ria: 'This is the one bottle I must have, it simply has to be removed from the market, no matter the cost'," eventually paying 5,000 pounds – an astronomical amount at the time – for the privilege.
"Two months later, another existing bottle is up for auction at Christie's. That one too, simply, had to be 'removed from the market'," he laughed, adding "I paid way too much money for it."
But after 40 years of passionate collecting, the Dutch businessman is now putting his collection up for sale.
"I promised my wife when she turns 65, I will sell the collection and we'll use the money to build a smaller house," said Van der Bunt, who has no children.
There will, however, be one bottle not for sale.
It's a 1780 Remy Martin, believed to be one of the world's oldest existing bottles of cognac, "a gift from my father". AFP