Ever felt like taking your passion for fine spirits to another level? Well, for a select number of collectors and enthusiasts alike, the prospect of buying one’s very own bespoke cask of whisky is now a real proposition. A growing number of distilleries and specialist clubs are offering this mouthwatering opportunity. But – and of course there’s a but – there are a few key things to consider first, to help you learn your hogsheads from your firkins.
Firstly, what does cask ownership actually entail? To be clear, it doesn’t mean you need a barrel-shaped space in the garage or cellar. In layman’s terms, owning your own cask is a bit like buying liquid shares in a distillery. A cask will be filled with new-make spirit that belongs to you, and the cask will be kept safely stored until both the distiller and you deem it ready to drink. The distillery will then bottle the whisky on your behalf for you to either drink, sell or give away.
It’s a journey that takes a little time (three years at the very least, the legal minimum age for ageing a Scotch whisky, or in the extreme, sometimes several decades) and one which buyers often consider to mark a specific anniversary or occasion – planning the drinks for a well-heeled offspring’s 18th birthday, perhaps.
Distillery cask clubs, especially those run by newer distilleries, are tailor-made for this sort of celebration and give the buyer a chance to personalise a whisky in many ways: from style and eventual flavour all the way through to the eventual outturn of bottles and the label design. Cask clubs also represent a novel way to get closer to your favourite distillery, with benefits such as private visits, personal tastings with the distiller and a chance to sample other single-cask whiskies that might not be available to the general public.
Wolfcraig, a new distillery slated to open in summer 2022, is one such club, with Dalmore master blender Richard Paterson at the helm. Members receive three 200-litre ex-bourbon casks of whisky, and can specify the type of cask they would like their spirit to be ‘finished’ in. As with other cask clubs, they are also welcome to visit the distillery where their casks are maturing, and can take home samples to see how their whisky is progressing.
Owning 50 bottles of whisky may not sound much, but that’s a lot of whisky for someone to get through by themselves
The prime element to consider when it comes to ownership is cask type, style and – more importantly – size, as this will have a profound effect on the number of bottles you will eventually end up with. Ex-sherry casks have become the holy grail for many whisky connoisseurs, and the cost and scarcity is almost always reflected in the price versus the smaller, more readily available ex-bourbon cask. Some distilleries offer options on the number of times the cask has been previously used before it is filled on your behalf. Fresher, ‘first-fill’ casks will always be more expensive, due to the enhanced character they give the fully matured whisky.
Next, consider its capacity: a sherry butt holds 500 litres of spirit (which works out at 700 70cl bottles); an ex-bourbon barrel 200 litres (285 bottles); a hogshead 250 litres (350 bottles); and the smallest sizes, firkins, 40 litres (57 bottles). The bigger the capacity, the more eventual whisky, although over the course of maturation, casks will always dip in volume. A distiller will set the price it believes the new-make spirit is worth, sometimes detailing the strain of barley used and even the specific location where it has been grown, before it is filled into the cask, giving you even more options for personalisation.
Is that it? No. You will, of course, want to see how the whisky is maturing and where it is slumbering away in the warehouse, so most cask clubs offer yearly samples to track its progress – although there’s not a great deal you can do if it doesn’t turn out quite the way you’d hoped.
In terms of pricing, there is no ballpark figure as to what cask ownership will cost. Options tends to range from a few thousand pounds to tens of thousands, depending on the factors outlined above and which distillery you choose to partner with. One cost element to bear in mind – and one that often gets overlooked – is duty. Once your whisky has been ageing for, say 10 years, it will have incurred bonded ‘duty free’ warehouse storage costs.
At the point you want to bottle it, Her Majesty’s Government starts to get interested, and you’ll have to pay £28.74 in excise duty (the current rate) per litre of pure alcohol (100% abv). This means that if you bottle your whisky at cask strength (usually between 50 and 60% as opposed to the usual diluted 40-43%), you’ll be facing a hefty bill at some point in the future. You then need to factor in bottling and label design costs: negligible if you opt for the distiller’s own style, but the sky’s the limit for bespoke glass design, which starts at around £10,000.
A moot point is of course the very fact that you’ll eventually own potentially hundreds of bottles of the same whisky to either drink, sell through a retailer or give away. Owning 50 bottles of whisky may not sound much, but that’s a lot of whisky for someone to get through by themselves. Selling through a retailer is the best option; they’ll add on 20% margin and VAT, and by doing this you won’t need to obtain specific licensing. Or, of course, you could give your whisky away… and make many friends in the process.
What happens to the cask when its finally emptied? Technically, it is usually yours to transport away, but the likelihood is that the distillery will want to hang onto it, to start the cycle of cask ownership all over again, maybe even with you for your second batch.
Five Cask Clubs To Explore
Arran’s latest distillery, Lagg, is only making 700 casks available to private customers, all ex-bourbon barrels. Additional benefits include a complimentary golf pass to play on one of Arran’s seven golf courses, as well as dinner and bed and breakfast for one at Lagg Hotel.
Edinburgh’s Cask 88 offers a complete ‘asset management’ service, meaning it handles the entire life cycle of cask ownership: from selection of the right distillery and cask for you (including already aged whisky), legal transfer of its ownership, storage in a bonded warehouse to the important business of creating a bespoke label and bottle design when you deem your prized liquid ready to be plucked from its oaky surrounds.
InchDairnie’s cask club offers members just 30 casks per year, each release focusing on a different cask type, including Rioja and Tuscan wine casks. Prices per cask start at £12,000, which includes three VIP distillery visits to see your cask maturing, with the whisky only expected to be ready after 12 years.
This London brokerage specialises in selling casks of already-aged whisky from a wide range of Scotch distilleries, including well-known names such as Glenfarclas, Caol Ila and Highland Park.
Cornish Geothermal Distillery Company
If rum is your thing, bartending whizz Mr Lyan and global rum authority Ian Burrell have teamed up with the Cornish Geothermal Distillery Company to create a revolutionary new cask club, which focuses on flavour style, as opposed to age. Starting at £5,500 per cask, ownership entails choosing between light, medium and rich flavour profiles, with casks maturing in a geothermic, climate-controlled tropical biodome, to mirror the conditions found in the more traditional rum-producing locations.