Buying whisky at auction: what you need to know

As sale records are smashed on an almost monthly basis, Colin Hampden-White delves into the potentially rewarding – but far from straightforward – world of whisky auctions

Words by Colin Hampden-White

Dalmore whisky bottles next to wooden box casing
Two Dalmore bottles fetched more than £500,000 between them in May this year

When a bottle of 62-year-old Dalmore single malt sold for £114,000 at Christie’s in 2017, doubling its pre-sale estimate, it became the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold at the august auction house. At the time, it felt like a watershed moment.

Fast forward three years, and the figure has been blown out of that water. At the end of May this year, a pair of Dalmore 62-year-olds fetched more than £500,000 between them, two separate Asian private collectors each paying £266,200 for Dalmore The MacKenzie and Dalmore The Cromarty bottles No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, from an original production of just 12 bottles.

The Sotheby’s sale set a new auction record for the distillery, elevating it towards the eye-watering levels of The Macallan – bottles of which have attracted bids in excess of $1m several times – and drawing further attention to the increasing lustre of whisky as an investment asset. According to sources as diverse as Forbes and the Knight Frank Wealth Report, whisky has, over the last decade, been the world’s best performing asset.

It’s a trend boosted by the migration of most whisky auctions online, thereby reaching a wider, global audience. This seems particularly timely in a world that has been locked down – over the last few months, sales have not just continued, but, as evidenced by the Dalmore lots – flourished. Even at the more modest, charity end of the market, there has been demand – The Worshipful Company of Distillers in London holds an annual charity drinks party and auction. This year, it moved online where over £60k was raised. Meanwhile, at the beginning of lockdown the Drinks Trust charity auction raised over £100k.

Whisky auctions are not new – traditional houses such as Bonhams and Sotheby’s long ago started including a spirits section in their fine wine auctions. However, over the last decade they have exploded – and nearly all the action has been online. McTear’s in Glasgow started as a traditional auctioneer in 1985 before moving online, quickly followed in 2010 by scotchwhiskyauctions.com. In 2014, Whisky.Auction was registered and began trading in 2015, quickly becoming a big player. The brand, which held both the recent charity events, is owned by Sukhinder Singh, founder of The Whisky Exchange and a passionate and shrewd collector. His knowledge, combined with that of Isabel Graham-Yooll, who runs Whisky.Auction for him, is exceptional.

In subsequent years, other players have established themselves; three in 2017, and a further five whisky-specific online auction houses in 2018. The last few years have seen bigger auction houses such as Dreweatts launch specific whisky sales as well. And this is only in the UK; there are others all over the world. In Hong Kong the traditional houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and Spink and Son all have specialist whisky divisions.

Sukindher Singh's Whisky.Auction has quickly become a major player in online auctions

Choice doesn’t necessarily mean ease of entry though – unlike wine, it’s not simply about buying a case of something good, stashing it away and waiting for it to go up in value. It’s about finding the right whisky. And knowing which is the right whisky when it is first released onto the market is a tricky business. It’s also difficult to do so enough times, across different whiskies, to return an investment amount that is worth it. Because of this, whisky auctions have become a useful way of finding good numbers of investment-level bottles.

To be certain of the quality and provenance, it’s advisable to buy whisky that has recently been produced. There are some pitfalls buying bottles at auction, especially very old bottles. Incredibly few people in the world have the experience to sniff out fakes, and with the increasing number of houses hosting whisky auctions, there are bound to be some slipping through the net. Knowing when a particular whisky changed its foil colour, or the type of paper used for the label, or the different types of closures used at certain times, takes years of experience and many of the auction houses simply don’t have that knowledge. Independent advisors such as Angus MacRaild and Jonny MacMillan are two names to look out for.

Even with so many new players, demand still outstrips supply, and prices are booming as a result – even within the mid-market range. I bought some Port Ellen third release from British supermarket Waitrose in 2008 for £105 a bottle, and delicious it was too. If I were to search out a bottle at auction today the hammer would fall somewhere past £1,000. This illustration is not exceptional – several similar examples can be found across the sector.

Very rare bottles fetch huge sums of money. The world record for a single bottle is £1.5m (US$1.9m) for a 60 year old 1926 Macallan sold last year at Sotheby’s London. It broke the previous record set by a bottle of the 1926 Macallan featuring a hand-painted design by Irish artist Michael Dillon, which went under the hammer at Christie’s London for a cool £1.2m (US$1.5m) in November 2018.

Today's auction buyers could expect to pay upwards of £1,000 for a bottle of Port Ellen third release

While individual bottle sales make for good headlines, over the last year, whisky sales at auction have taken a new turn. Namely dedicated sales for casks. London-based Cask Trade became the first company to host a live online auction of casks earlier this year. It’s likely to be the first of many (indeed it has another planned for August).

Whisky continues to age and mature while in cask; once it’s bottled, it doesn’t really change or improve further. And whisky bought young will always get older, and more expensive. In addition, casks provide an investment of suitable critical mass that individual bottles seldom can. If I were investing in whisky today, it would be in casks rather than bottles.