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The appetite for premium whiskies grows strong

Alyn Griffiths
April 15, 2024
8 min

“There is huge investment in whisky at the moment, not just from collectors in old and rare bottles, but in the industry itself,” says Joe Wilson, head curator and spirits specialist at Whisky Auctioneer. He points to the number of new distilleries launching around the world and the revival of sites like the ghosts of Brora and Port Ellen, both of which closed in 1983 but are now being brought back to life.

“Whisky breeds infectious enthusiasm,” he adds, “and the more people are drawn to its increasingly bright flame, the more you find them becoming interested in the bottles that comprise its rich and fascinating history.”

According to a report compiled by financial advisory firm Noble and Co, the volume of fine single malts sold at auction rose by 23 percent in 2022 alone and the value, by 21. The report also showed that the oldest whiskies significantly outperform non-age statement bottles, proving that, to whisky collectors, age is more than just a number.

The fact is, buyers of exceptionally rare whiskies are looking for outstanding examples with a provenance or maturity that means they are irreplaceable. As more of the world’s oldest whiskies are either consumed or sold, the remaining casks and bottles become increasingly valuable and begin to take on mythical status among collectors looking to complete a set, or enthusiasts hoping to get their hands on something truly unique.

A bottle of 12-year-old Port Ellen whisky commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Islay distillery in 1980 was sold at auction in 2022 for £100,000. Courtesy of Whisky Auctioneer

“Value is based on demand outstripping supply, so desirability is key,” explains Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s head of whisky who oversaw the 2022 Whisky of Distinction auction. “The winning combination seems to be bottles released in very limited numbers that are vintage, age and cask specific, individually numbered and bottled at natural strength – with exceptional presentation.”

Another outstanding auction result that demonstrated the demand within the secondary whisky market was the sale of a single bottle of The Macallan 1926 Fine & Rare, which achieved a record online auction price in February 2021 of one million pounds on Whisky Auctioneer. As Wilson explains, it was one of just 12 released and is “considered a holy grail for many collectors.”

Aside from the auction market, other ways of obtaining rare spirits include through-merchants like Berry Bros. & Rudd or Justerini & Brooks. Many distilleries and independent bottlers also have their own teams dedicated to helping private clients source their perfect whisky. One of the market leaders is Diageo’s Casks of Distinction programme, which was established in 2015 as a single-person cask ownership service. It provides access to a handful of exceptional casks each year, including the Port Ellen 1979 and Brora 1982 sold by Sotheby’s. The customers who buy these casks often travel to Scotland to sample the whiskies and to see the casks in storage at the Royal Lochnagar distillery in Royal Deeside. The programme allows Diageo’s private client team to get to know some of its most valued customers personally, enabling them to hand pick particular whiskies that suit their individual tastes and preferences.

Casks of Distinction. Photograph © Diageo

“To me what makes the Rare & Exceptional part of our business special is that it’s not just transactional, it’s a really involved process,” explains Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s senior global Scotch whisky ambassador. “Our team will learn about what flavours a client enjoys and any distilleries they may gravitate towards so they can put suitable samples in front of them. Some of these customers own several casks and might be purchasing some of our rare bottlings as well, so building a relationship with them is hugely important to us.”

Only the very best whiskies are selected by Diageo’s master whisky makers for inclusion as a Cask of Distinction. With over ten million casks maturing in the company’s warehouses at any given time, the tasting panel has access to the largest inventory of any global whisky producer. Above all, they are looking for fully matured whiskies, typically aged 25 years and above, that deliver unique and outstanding flavours. “What makes something exceptional is subjective,” adds Gunn, “but our experts spend over 4,200 hours annually searching for whiskies that stand out from the crowd in terms of complexity, balance and depth of flavour. Beyond that, it’s up to the customer to decide which whiskies will bring them the most joy.”

Collectors pursuing casks and bottles with unique characteristics are typically drawn to single malt rather than blended whiskies as they value provenance, craft and the single-source story. For more than a century, Elgin-based whisky creator Gordon & MacPhail has been a key advocate for single malt whisky, matching spirit from distilleries around Scotland to its casks before setting them aside for long term maturation. In recent years, Gordon & MacPhail has brought to market some of the oldest and rarest whiskies in its collection, including a 1948 single malt from Glen Grant distillery. Filled into a first-fill sherry cask in the year of King Charles’ birth, the Private Collection 1948 was bottled in 2022 and released in April ahead of the coronation. Only 281 bottles are available at a price of £25,000 each.

“Our Private Collection of ultra-rare whiskies exists because past generations were exceptionally patient and laid down stock for future generations to benefit from,” says Stephen Rankin, director of Prestige at Gordon & MacPhail and fourth-generation member of the owning family. “Some of these whiskies from the 1940s, 50s and 60s are among the last casks from their particular vintage to be bottled so they are becoming increasingly rare, and many are now close to extinction.”

As Rankin points out, stocks of the oldest whiskies held by many distilleries are gradually dwindling, which will continue to drive up prices at the premium end of the market. However, Noble & Co’s analysis showed a drop off in average price paid for fine and rare whiskies in 2022 as transactions in the £100 to £1,000 range experienced the fastest growth. This suggests the influence of younger collectors entering the market and purchasers attempting to flip lower valued bottles for a quick profit.

Looking ahead, the appetite for premium whiskies looks set to remain strong, whether it’s for drinking, collecting, or investing. Despite headwinds facing all luxury industries because of rising interest rates and quantitative tightening, many of those involved in the whisky trade speak optimistically about the potential for growth and innovation in the years ahead.

As Gunn suggests, with so much choice in the market, and so many ways to source rare and exceptional single malt whiskies, there’s never been a better time to begin collecting. “It’s great to see more customers who are already whisky drinkers looking to purchase casks and bottles that are older, rarer or harder to obtain,” he says, adding, “fine and rare whisky isn’t just for people who can spend five figures on a bottle. If you know where to look, there are amazing whiskies out there for anyone interested in tasting a little slice of history.”In June 2022 two of the rarest and most valuable casks of whisky in existence sold at Sotheby’s auction house in London for over one million US dollars each. The sale of the casks from two iconic ‘ghost’ distilleries, Brora and Port Ellen, highlighted the burgeoning market for fine and rare whiskies which, with ten-year growth of 373 percent, has surged ahead of other luxury assets such as fine wine and classic cars.