Ernesto Mainardi began his career in the 1970s working for Macallan’s Italian importer Co. Import. When the business’ owner died, he took over distribution for Gordon & MacPhail, having met the director Georges Urquhart during a long trip to Scotland in 1975-1976. This offered him access to a number of exclusive bottlings. Additionally, Mainardi imported whiskies bottled by George Strachan (Rosebank, Glen Glen Grant, Tamdhu)—a merchant with a modest independent bottling business—and occasionally imported malts directly from distilleries themselves.
In 1977, Mainardi opened a bar in Parma, which he named Il Sestante after the reflecting navigation instrument (sextant in English). Like the navigators who used a sextant to find their bearings and explore the world, Mainardi wanted his bottlings to help enthusiasts explore the world of whisky. A few years after Sestante opened, Mainardi began releasing independent bottlings under the same name, selecting two Bowmore in 1985—one 14 year old distilled in 1971 and one 20 year old distilled in 1965 which Mainardi claimed Ian Morrison had referred to as the best Bowmore he had ever tasted. Other Sestante bottlings of Bowmore have also gone down in history, including the Crest Label bottlings, so-named after the iconic shape of their label.
The company is known for releasing two versions of its whiskies, one at cask strength and the other at 40% ABV, both bottled from the same cask. The labels are often colourful and decorated with ornate drawings, with each distillery given its own label. Islay holds a prominent position among Sestante selections, with many often high-quality bottlings coming from the island, including the aforementioned Bowmore, as well as the Ardbeg releases with pastel labels, various Caol Ila, a number of Laphroaig bottlings decorated with a yacht and a handful of rare but very beautiful Port Ellen. The list of distilleries represented by Sestante is long and if we could only mention a few from other regions, our thoughts would immediately turn to the cask strength versions of Glenugie 1967 and Ledaig 1973.
In the 1990s, Sestante further made a name for itself when it began bottling whiskies for individual bars in Italy, including Antica Casa Marchesi Spinola in Canelli, the enoteca Carato in Brescia, Bar Metro in Milan and the American bar Nidaba in Montebelluna. Following on from Co. Import’s practice with Macallan, Mainardi released many bottlings in crystal decanters in partnership with Edinburgh Crystal. Collectors flocked to these bottlings, attracted by their many different shapes and designs. Mainardi is said to have sold some 3,500 of these. Many Brick Label releases (with short caps) are also of note—including a remarkable Clynelish 24 Year Old 1965—and the Cadenhead bottlings, including two unforgettable Clynelish—one a 23 Year Old distilled in 1966 and the other a 24 year old most likely distilled in 1965.
In the early 2000s, Mainardi founded another bottling company, Silver Seal, in partnership with Douglas Laing. The first releases came in 2001 and were marked “First Bottling” on the label. The business was sold to Massimo Righi at the end of the decade.
Although the quality of his cask choices has always been indisputable, Ernesto Mainardi remains a controversial figure in the Italian whisky world, notably for apparent inconsistencies regarding the origins of Pluscarden Valley, which he has claimed is from Glenfarclas, despite some labels mentioning Milton Duff. His selections nonetheless make him one of the greatest bottlers of his era.
59.5%, 75 cl, 1988
Of the very few bottlings of Glenurgie released, many consider this the best. With a very strong sherry influence, it offers a first-class rancio as well as notes of coffee and bitter orange. The range of aromas expressed is truly astonishing, with the nose developing exotic fruit (pineapple, mango) and medicinal (camphor, eucalyptus) notes that add texture to the whisky’s overall character. On the palate, the fruit and opulence is dressed in a variety of spices, including cinnamon, star anise and clove, in a mix reminiscent of Chinese five-spice powder. Breathtaking.
56.3%, 75 cl, 1987
This bottling also has something of a reputation and reveals a marine character with a hint of farmyard notes not unlike some Islay and Brora whiskies. Peat takes centre-stage, followed by peppery, aniseedy and medicinal notes. The whisky’s slightly buttery, sweet aspect is counterbalanced by a lemony acidity. Overall, it is precise and generous, with a wonderful expression of peat on the finish.