In 2013, I bought two bottles of Japanese whisky: a Joker from Hanyu’s Card series, and a bottle of Karuizawa. They cost me £215 and £235 respectively, and I remember thinking them rather expensive at the time.
Last August, however, Bonhams Hong Kong sold a bottle of the Joker for HK$39,680 (£3,700); and in December, a bottle of the Karuizawa went for £7,500 at scotchwhiskyauctions.com. I’m glad to report that my own long-ago-consumed stock of these now coveted bottlings did at least taste delicious.
Galling as it may have been, the auction prices of my two bottles pale in comparison to those of other whiskies that have gone under the hammer in recent times. In March 2020, a Karuizawa 52-Year-Old Zodiac Rat Cask 1960 fetched £363,000 at Sotheby’s in London, becoming the most expensive Japanese whisky ever sold. Even this, though, is dwarfed by the most expensive bottle ever seen at auction, also at Sotheby’s. In 2019, a Macallan Fine & Rare 60-Year-Old 1926, offered by a private American collector, had been estimated to sell for £350,000–£450,000; the hammer finally fell at £1.5m, breaking the previous record of £1.2m, set by a bottling of the same Scotch at Christie’s a year earlier.
Wine has long been a staple of the auction world, but over the past decade, whisky has rather stolen its thunder, becoming the alternative asset with the highest year-on-year percentage increases in the past two years. Just four years ago, whisky made up a mere 1% of all wine and spirit sales at auction; that figure is now 19%. Its average auction price is more than 10 times that of its vinous equivalent, and with some bottles only available at auction, prices continue to rise exponentially.
The demographic of whisky buyers is changing. Not so long ago, most buyers were over 50; last year, 75% of buyers were under 50, and 43% under 40
The total sales of whisky at auction hit $92m in 2020, with $35m of those coming from online sales. The number of auctions is also on the up, with internet-based sales in particular having increased massively. In 2019, there were only six online whisky auctions; by last year, that had risen to 20. (And not just as a result of the pandemic; there were, perhaps surprisingly, still 21 ‘live’ ones – the same number as the previous year.) The demographic of buyers is changing, too. Not so long ago, most buyers were over the age of 50; last year, 75% of buyers were under 50, and 43% under 40, according to Sotheby’s, which also reported a majority of bottles (54%) coming from single-owner collections. Most buyers came from Asia, which represents 65% of global sales.
While few would claim that a whisky could ever be worth a million pounds on its own merits, as with artworks, it is the rarity factor that pushes prices up. And that’s not the only similarity to the art world. Many of the most coveted whiskies feature art labels. Christie’s £1.2m Macallan boasted a hand-painted label by Irish artist Michael Dillon. Sir Peter Blake has also graced The Macallan labels, with one example fetching £615,000 at Bonhams in 2019.
A limited run of 322 bottles of a 1967 vintage Macallan – from its Anecdotes of Ages collection, and also in collaboration with Blake – is about to be released for £80,000 each. One wonders already what these might fetch at auction once the initial release sells out. And sell out it will; retailers are using a ballot system for buyers to register their interest. Then there is the Macallan Masters of Photography series featuring photographers such as Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and Rankin, with bottles selling for around the £4,000 mark at auction.
The Macallan has a dominant position in the whisky investment market, accounting for 38% of all spirits sold by Sotheby’s. But whisky at auction is certainly not all about The Macallan. According to Rare Whisky 101, which collates data from all whisky auctions and tracks individual brands, while The Macallan holds the records for top lots, in percentage terms, there are other brands and bottles that fair better (Dalmore is riding high at the moment). Certain brands have more of a cult following than others, and while they may not be as rare, demand is higher. Whiskies from Islay in particular hold a cult status for collectors and investors, with brands such as Ardbeg leading the way; its limited bottlings, such as the Ardbeg Day release, sell out in a matter of minutes, immediately upping their value. Springbank Local Barley is another example.
Such bottles are bought by a diverse consumer base, and while many are opened and consumed, some are immediately ‘flipped’ at auction. Flipping is the practice of reselling a bottle soon after release, purely for profit. The practice is frowned upon by purists and enrages traditional whisky fans to the extent that some distilleries are actively trying to discourage it by numbering their bottles and holding ballots to gain the option to buy one. Some retailers even break the seal of bottles to make their resale more difficult. If you miss a release at retail, the trick is not to buy a bottle as soon as it comes to auction, when there is usually a spike; instead, wait a year for the price to level off before it begins to rise more steadily again.
In the past, it was thought that official, original distillery bottlings would always increase in value more than versions from independent bottlers. With more casks to choose from, the feeling was that distillery bottlings would be better. This is changing, with the release of some fantastic expressions from some of the well-established independent bottlers. Over the past decade, Gordon & MacPhail has released some very long-aged whiskies, most notably a 70-year-old Mortlach in 2015 that retailed for £15,000 and would now fetch upwards of £20,000 at auction. Looking out for long-aged, single-cask releases of both official brand bottles and independent bottlers can pay dividends.
Bottles from distilleries that no longer exist are also highly sought after, with Diageo releasing highly anticipated limited editions from closed distilleries such as Brora and Port Ellen each year. Such is the popularity of these distilleries, and the fashion for single malts, that these two – and Rosebank – are now being rebuilt. What impact this will have on the price of their output remains to be seen, though Brora is evidently confident of market demand, launching a triptych of rare bottlings to mark its return to production for a cool £30,000.
While looking out for limited releases is key to investment, so is buying from a reputable source. With so many specialist operators joining the traditional auction houses, some are better than others – particularly when it comes to rooting out fakes. The best I have found are whisky.auction, whose director Isabel Graham-Yooll has a wealth of experience, and scotchwhiskyauctions.com, based in Glasgow and one of the longest-running whisky auction houses.
Of course, as with all liquid investments, the old adage remains: be sure you will still enjoy drinking whatever bottles you collect in case they don’t work out financially. But unlike me, you might want to check their value before cracking them open…
This article is taken from the French-themed summer 2021 edition of our quarterly magazine, which focuses on premium wine, spirits and good living, via vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to get your copy.