T he Timeless Whisky Collection contains some of the most valuable whisky ever bottled, with age statements exceeding 50 Years from numerous distilleries. Among its most valuable bottles are whiskies from The Macallan, the distillery that has proudly held the crown of the most valuable whisky since Sotheby’s sold its 1926 Fine & Rare vintage for $1.9m in London.
The Macallan bottles in this collection include the rare 40 Year Old released in 2017, the 1949 vintage 50 Year Old “Millennium Decanter” released in 1999 and even the 72 Year Old “Genesis Decanter”, formerly the world’s oldest whisky. Of all the bottles in this collection, The Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection (made up of six exquisite Lalique Crystal decanters containing whiskies from 50 to 65 years old) is, by some margin, the most valuable lot. To celebrate the significance of this auction and the collection, Sotheby’s commissioned a bespoke pedestal to showcase the beauty of these six decanters.
Enter Jamie Fraser, a cabinetmaker and woodworker from the East Coast of Scotland, whose work at Anselm Fraser Design made him the perfect collaborator on this project. Jamie’s work combines beautiful raw materials, intricate design and flawless finishing to create unique wooden pieces that transcend the distinction between furniture and art. When Sotheby’s approached Anselm Fraser Design with the proposal for the project, Jamie said he had just the thing. And so the Burr Elm pedestal was born. We sat down with Jamie to talk about this pedestal and his work that went into it.
Tell us about the background of this beautiful piece of wood.
This particular piece of Elm has been with my family for over 30 years and was originally sourced by my father, also a furniture maker, who founded the Chippendale School of Furniture. It has been a principle of the furniture school to almost entirely source its timber from within a 50-mile radius of the workshop. This means that while we don’t know the exact location of the tree we can be certain that it spent its living years in East Lothian, a county of Scotland found just East of Edinburgh.
My father decided to keep this stunning piece of wood for himself and, towards the end of the ‘90s, eventually found some time to build a bar in his home employing the Burr Elm as a highly decorative bar top. Over the succeeding 20 years that slab of wood has been the focal point to many joy-filled occasions. Due to recent refurbishments at the family house, the bar was dismantled and this beautiful Elm required a new home. When Sotheby’s inquired about building a bespoke pedestal for The Timeless Whisky Collection’s Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars bottles, it was fortuitous timing indeed. Rather fitting that the Elm burr’s second decorative incarnation is also beverage related, although the quality of whisky this display pedestal is about to celebrate is perhaps of slightly higher quality than the whiskey my family and I used to offer our friends in years gone by.
What makes Burr Elm so rare, particularly in Scotland?
Pre 1970’s, Elm was one of the most populous hardwood species in Britain but since then 90% of Elm trees in Britain have died due to Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal pathogen which is carried from tree to tree by the Elm bark beetle. What makes this piece of wood so rare is that there simply aren’t many mature Elm trees left in Britain, which is also true for European and American Elm species. Apart from the obvious ecological impact that losing these trees has had on their native environment, it is also a great sadness for us furniture makers as Elm has been used throughout history to make fine furniture and Burr Elm has always been highly sought after due to its wild grain pattern. Because of its rarity, almost all Burr Elms found today are sliced into veneer which is another reason the size and scale solid wood pedestal is so special.
The Sherried whisky in The Macallan Six Pillars is reflected in the exquisite colour of the wood top. Tell us about your inspiration and how you achieved this.
I can’t take any personal credit for the exquisite colour that the Elm top has. In fact, I would being doing the wood a disservice to say that it is of one singular colour. If you look carefully you will see that the grain is a culmination of ambers, greens, browns, reds and even black at the centre of the small individual burrs. However, because burrs usually form on a tree in response to some form of stress, the growths are rarely uniform, often with areas of punky soft wood or pockets of void empty space. This piece was no exception, so to create a flat surface for the bottles to sit on and to give the top an undistracting aesthetic, solid Burr Elm inlay was dropped into the most uneven areas, which results in an almost mosaic-like inlay motif.
The edge of this piece is fascinating. The blackened edge reminds us of the charred interior of a barrel. Can you tell us about the process that achieves this?
The dark edge is achieved through a Japanese technique called Shou Sugi Ban mainly used on exterior timber as the process of carbonisation creates an impermeable layer to water, pest, sun decay and rot. I often employ this technique on special pieces of furniture to create the aesthetic of semi charred wood. With this Burr Elm pedestal we wanted to keep the wild live edge, but the colour of the raw cambium layer at the edge didn’t do justice to the deep colour and grain pattern of the rest of the piece. Charring the edge with a blow torch has helped to create a dramatic contrast to the rest of the vibrant grain pattern.
This was your first project that centred around Scotch whisky. Was it important to you to use Scottish materials to achieve the final piece?
I like that there is a geographical connection between the whisky and the piece of wood the whisky is to be displayed on. Whisky is synonymous with Scotland so I it was important to me that the material used was Scottish. I also noted that it has taken considerable time to mature each of the whiskies in The Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection and it is therefore only right to use a material that also requires decades and even centuries to be fully matured. The full life cycle of large Scottish Elm is around 400 years old, roughly the same time it would take to age all 6 bottles in this Lalique Collection. An appropriate way to personalize a piece for The Timeless Whisky Collection
What are you working on next?
On 27th and 28th September I am exhibiting a collection of furniture in London alongside my wife, Domenica de Ferranti, who is a sculptor. It is the culmination of 3 years’ work and if you would like to see details of the show as well as an online catalogue then please visit www.acommonthread.one
The Macallan in Lalique Six Pillars Collection with Bespoke Burr Elm Pedestal also includes an experience for the winning bidder to visit Villa Rene Lalique in Alsace, offered directly from Lalique themselves. The Ultimate Whisky Collection is currently live for bidding and will close in a live auction in New York on the 23rd September 2022.