This summer I did some work for a family who have been in the whisky business for 200 years. They showed me a treasure from their collection, a bottle of 50-year-old Macallan with a receipt to show how much they paid for it in 1985: £40 including VAT (which they managed to claim back). Recently, an identical bottle sold at auction in New York for $25,000.
The world has gone whisky mad. In its annual report, a brokerage firm called Rare Whisky 101 shows that if you’d invested in a vertical (a series of bottlings from successive years) of Macallan 18-year old vintage whiskies in 2015, they would have cost you £19,000. At the end of last year they were worth £46,000, up 142 per cent. That makes Macallan a far better bet than first-growth claret. Much of the demand comes, inevitably, from China. Previously the Chinese were buying Macallan as gifts to facilitate business (i.e. bribes) but when the government cracked down, demand slackened. Now, according to Kristiane Sherry, of the specialist spirits website Master of Malt, China is ‘really coming back’ as a whisky-buying market. Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange told me that ‘now sadly all stock goes to Asia. I get emotional about this’.
Singh developed an interest in whisky while working at his parents’ west London off-licence and set up The Whisky Exchange in the 2000s as Britain’s first online whisky shop. Since then he’s seen prices, particularly for Macallan, go through the roof. Macallan is special because, according to Singh, ‘they were the first distillery to do really old whiskies; they were way ahead of their time’. He frequently has customers offering to buy his entire collection.
It’s not just Macallan though: Ian Buxton, author of a fascinating new book, Whiskies Galore, told me about visiting the Bowmore distillery on Islay in the 1990s and seeing bottles of Black Bowmore 30-year-old whisky gathering dust and priced at around £100 a bottle. One sold this year at auction for £11,450.
Particularly collectable are whiskies from closed distilleries. Port Ellen in Islay was shut down in 1983. Diageo, the drink conglomerate that owned it, has released a little of the product every year for 17 years. The first releases were at £80; last year’s were at £2,600. Others are more affordable: Singh tips Rosebank, a Lowland distillery, and Imperial on Speyside. A ten-year-old Rosebank bottled in the 1990s would have been about £50 seven years ago; now it’s £550.
But the closed–distillery whisky that really gets collectors excited is not Scottish; it’s Japanese. Karuizawa closed in 2001, and this June the Whisky Exchange released a special pair of bottles, a 33-year-old and a 31-year-old, from this distillery, called the ‘Golden Geishas’, for £2,750. A pair go at auction for around £10,000.
Until five to ten years ago, Japanese whisky was drunk only domestically, but now whisky lovers have woken up to its quality and there is a shortage of aged Japanese spirits. David Walters, a whisky expert who recently joined the wine brokers Fine & Rare, tips Yamasaki ‘age statement’ whiskies: ‘There’s just not enough to go round.’
It’s a similar story with Scotch. Ordinary ‘age statement’ whiskies that aren’t made any more are in demand. Sukhinder Singh recommends looking out for whiskies that aren’t necessarily expensive but are loved and actually drunk: ‘Much of the demand is driven by how good the whisky is; it’s not about packaging or rarity.’ Some releases aimed squarely at collectors have not kept their value, whereas the Whisky Exchange has 1980s bottles of 12-year-old Talisker for £1,200.
It’s not just single malts that are attracting attention, but also blends. Frans Op den Kamp, a collector of Johnnie Walker, told me that it’s fascinating how blends such as Black Label have changed over the years. Whiskies were made in different ways in the past: different strains of cereal, longer fermentation times, blends with higher proportions of grain to malt, or containing whisky from lost distilleries. He owns whiskies that not even Johnnie Walker have in their own archives.
Ian Buxton finds the thought of people buying whisky not to be drunk depressing: ‘They’re made for pleasure.’ Singh is more relaxed — ‘People are free to do as they like’ — and insists that much expensive whisky really is consumed.
Such is the demand at the moment that some releases are on strict allocation. Master of Malt received only six bottles of the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 release, which whisky writer Jim Murray declared the best whisky in the world in 2015.
Just as with wine, there are problems with forgeries. This August a Chinese businessman ordered a glass of Macallan 1878 in a Swiss hotel bar for $10,000. When the story made the news some whisky experts declared the bottle a fake. The businessman is trying to get his money back. In 2004, Macallan itself was embarrassed when some of the whisky it had acquired for its collection turned out to be counterfeit.
In a few cases Sukhinder Singh has tipped off the police (who weren’t very interested) about forgers trying to sell him dodgy bottles. He pointed me towards sites that are selling Macallan 1941, ‘a year they didn’t make any whisky!’ His advice is always to buy from a reputable merchant such as the Whisky Exchange, or an auction house: ‘Do some research and if it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is.’
If you want to make sure what you are buying is kosher, you can buy ‘new-make’ whisky directly from a distillery, age it at the warehouse and then sell it on, or bottle it when mature. There are lots of new distilleries in Scotland and Ireland in need of cash flow. The key is to look at the pedigree of the distillery: see who is involved and where the money comes from. Some distilleries such as Arbikie, which Fine & Rare is involved with, offer a buyback clause. Others may charge for storage.
The risk with all the new distilleries, particularly in Ireland, is that there’s going to be a lot of unknown whisky coming on to the market at the same time. Ian Buxton told me ‘people have had their fingers burnt in the past from investment casks’. He thinks worldwide demand is driven by fashion as much as anything else: ‘It’s all driven by low interest rates, cheap money and people chasing investment returns.’
As a whisky historian, Buxton takes the longer view: ‘We’ve been here before with whisky booms.’ But he admits he is something of a voice in the wilderness; for years he has predicted a bust that hasn’t happened. Singh, too, points out that the market could turn and when it does, it will be the people just in it for the money who get hurt: ‘Whisky is for drinking at the end of the day.’ Kristiane Sherry thinks you could make 7 per cent a year from a shrewd investment, but ‘if all goes wrong and you can’t sell it, worst case you’ve got some fabulous whisky to drink far cheaper than you otherwise could’.