Just a few weeks ago, a 48yo bottle of Bowmore 1964 set a new world record for a standard 70cl bottle of whisky at auction when it went under the hammer for a whopping £61,000. Although still some way off the world record for a whisky of any size (currently held by a larger 1.5litre Lalique decanter of Macallan 64yo which sold for $460,000 in November 2010), it was just one lot in a Distillers Charity Auction in London that saw several whisky records tumble. But was this just a flash in the pan fuelled by good will – or proof that whisky is now a seriously investible spirit? I asked Jonny McCormick, whisky writer and auction expert behind the Whisky Magazine Index, which operates like a FTSE100 of whisky, for the lowdown on this liquid market.
‘Whisky auctions really took off in about 2009, and since then the number of auctions has grown enormously – there are now about 40 to 50 live auctions a year, and new ones mushrooming up all the time,’ says McCormick, who first got involved in the scene ten years ago when he organized a whisky auction for charity.
‘There’s also a lot more competition now – you’re no longer just competing with collectors, you’ve also got whisky companies who may be buying back stock to fill a gap in their archives, or destination bars, or retailers who are maybe realizing that the money that may have in the past been spent in their shop is now being spent at auction instead.’
‘This increased competition, particularly from Asia, has pushed prices up and up. The market is gaining around 10% per annum,’ says McCormick. ‘It would be easy to get carried away talking about a bubble, but in reality the growth has been steady rather than exponential, with sustained growth year on year.’
The star performers are The Macallan, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Glenfiddich and Port Ellen, although McCormick also singles out The Balvenie Tun 1401, The Macallan Diamond Jubilee and ‘the hottest bottlings at the moment – the rare Japanese single mats from the closed Karuizawa distillery,’ as recent releases that have seen a ‘spectacular’ increase in value.
McCormick acknowledges that a good proportion of these will be bought by collectors who never intend to drink them. ‘Whereas a lot of the success stories in the past were actually whiskies which were still approachable enough that people wanted to drink and enjoy them, rather than simply hoard them, which then meant there was an unknown quantity of them left out there on the market. A good example is the Diageo Rare Malts, a range of single cask whiskies released in the late 1990s/early 2000s – something like a Brora 1972 now goes for £1300 or £1400. Some of the early Ardbeg Committee bottlings are the same.’
The real record-breakers, however, still tend to be one-off bottlings for charity like the Bowmore 48yo and the Macallan 64yo Lalique decanter, simply because they’re so rare – not to mention exquisitely packaged.
‘Packaging has got fancier, that’s undeniable,’ acknowledges McCormick. ‘But I’ve noticed a backlash lately among some people who feel their being asked to pay for the bottle rather than the liquid inside.’
‘In reality, most collectors are really only interested in the closure being intact and correct. If there is a little water mark on the label or the box has a bit of a dent in it that doesn’t seem too important to most of them. Signatures from the distillery manager don’t seem to make that big a difference either. That surprised even me. But then again, if you’re planning to drink it, as long as the liquid is in perfect condition, then it shouldn’t matter.’
So what’s McCormick’s advice for the whisky-lover wanting to make their first steps in the auction world?
‘My advice is do your research. Go to the action house, examine the bottles in advance to make sure they’re in good condition, then find out about them by going on the internet and asking people you know. Find out their market value – not by looking at retailers, but by looking at their auction price. And then set your maximum price, bearing in mind that you’ll also have to pay commission, VAT and possible an additional online fee of 3% or so, which will have VAT on it as well. All these extra costs mean a £100 bottle can actually ends up costing more like £120/130. People who are new to whisky auctions can get caught out by that sometimes.’
And if you haven’t got half a million dollars to spare, take heart, he says. ‘There are actually still plenty of whiskies you can buy at auction for under their retail price. You don’t necessarily have to follow the herd.’
Then decide on a maximum price you’re prepared to go to, and stick to it, says McCormick. ‘It’s very easy to get carried away in the heat of it all. Seeing the excitement round the room, feeling the adrenaline of a highly competitive auction – there’s nothing to beat it!’
Here are Jonny McCormick’s top five most expensive bottles sold at a live auction this year:
- Bowmore 1964 48 years old £61,000 Distillers' Charity Auction, London 17/10/13
- The Dalmore 1964 Private Decanter 49 Years old £28,000 Distillers' Charity Auction, London 17/10/13
- The Macallan Anniversary 50 years old £21883 Bonhams, New York 29/04/13
- The Macallan Lalique 50 Years old £19,800 Bonhams, Hong Kong 23/05/13
- The Macallan Lalique 57 years old £16,200 Bonhams, Hong Kong, 23/05
Read more from Jonny McCormick in his monthly Whisky Index column in Whisky Magazine.