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Why Collectors Are Investing In Whisky

If I were worth a cool US$1.9 million by the time I turn 60, and all I had to do was sit on my still all day, I’d probably be the happiest sloth alive. That was what became of a bottle of The Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 whisky.

By Benny Teo
July 3, 2021

Auctioned last October for said sum by Sotheby’s during a session featuring the private whisky collection of a single owner, it not only became the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold, it also contributed to a cool US$10 million total sales that day for the seller. 

Break it down and that 700ml bottle of The Macallan costs US$42,000 per 15ml pour. And there’s only 45 of those to give. Which begs the question, if I were looking to put my money somewhere safe, would I simply go ahead and buy some Scottish liquid? As crazy as it sounds, it is probably not a bad idea. The question is, how. 

Let’s start with The Macallan since it is likely the most popular single malt whisky in the world and we’ve been talking about it. Former Singapore-born actor and host Randall Tan is now brand ambassador of The Macallan covering the entire Southeast Asia and Pacific regions such as Australia and New Zealand, and he has this to say. 

“Asking someone to shell out five or six figures for a bottle of whisky that he is very likely never ever going to taste, it is not for the faint-hearted.” 

He adds, “Before throwing down large sums of money for whisky, it is important to do your homework and find out what you’re going for. One good source is to look at auctions to see what collectors are looking for. Auctions are a good place to get them too but plan your bids wisely and go for the labels that you are familiar with and you like.”  

While it may be obvious that whisky pricing is determined by market forces, there is good reason why the older the whisky is, the rarer, or more expensive it becomes.  

“As the cask ages, the level of liquid drops two to three percent each year so that when you have a say, 72-year-old whisky, the amount available is very limited and may cost, in our case, about US$63,000.” 

Apart from buying rare single bottles, some will go for the entire cask. The Macallan Whisky Maker’s Bench, where all the inspiration for the creation of the brand’s single malt resides, used to offer 10 casks a year filled with unique spirits and aged for a minimum of 12 years. Unfortunately, it became over-subscribed and the distillery stopped this offering some three years back.  

The idea behind buying by cask is the hope that prices will go up over time with the owner being able to reap a sizeable return to investment. But there are yet others who do this for sentimental reasons. 

“I have some collectors who buy casks as a future gift for their children; leaving it for years until they graduate or giving it to them on their wedding anniversary. For them, whether it makes money or not isn’t important. 

“Also, there is a risk associated with buying and keeping casks. When it comes time to bottle it, it may not be as good as you think, so be prepared when considering this option,” warns Randall.  

One major company that continues to do so is Diageo, owner of the Johnnie Walker brand and the largest collection of distilleries in Scotland, including 30 operating and 20 closed sites. In 2018, they launched Diageo Private Client, a segment whose main aim is to offer a select group of wealthy aficionados an opportunity to acquire rare and exceptional whisky direct from the distillery. 

With the Cask of Distinction programme, Diageo’s private clients are able to sample various casks selected by the company’s master blender and then buy the one they like, after which they have up to five years to bottle it.  

Of course, there are other perks to being a Diageo Private Client, and one of which is access to the private sampling lounge called the Johnnie Walker House. Outside of Scotland, there are houses in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Seoul and Singapore, each offering its clients the opportunity to taste and purchase rare whiskies such as Port Ellen and Brora, both of which have stopped production since 1983. 

These two Islay single malts are popular with collectors looking to stock up on finite bottles that will surely be gone in the years ahead. This year, however, Diageo is looking to reopen both distilleries, but will likely be at least 12 years’ time in 2032 before anyone gets to savour the first taste. 

Joseph Mayton, who has worked in the liquor trade in the Middle East, San Francisco and is now a wine consultant in Singapore under the name “FatsoSomm”, offers a word of advice: “Honestly, in terms of investment, find single barrel whisky (liquid originating not only from the same distillery but also the same barrel) and grab it. Otherwise, buy what you will drink.  

Unless there are only a handful of bottles, prices don’t change. For investment, one must search and find whiskies that are limited in production or are not made any longer. That’s the only way to really drive up value.” 

Some very old and rare labels, like the Bowmore 1964 “Black” Limited Edition 1994 Sherry Butt can retail for more than US$30,000, and with a panoply of choices presented, it can be mind-bogglingly intimidating for a new collector to begin. Randall’s earlier suggestion to go for familiar labels is sound but Mayton also makes an important distinction between collecting and investing. 

“If you want to make money as a collector, you have to be able to spend. That being said, we all can keep a lookout for nice limited bottlings, buy two – one for drinking – and then keep the other until more bottles are drunk by others, then you’ll have some rare bottles that can go up in value. But this takes time.  

“So, you’ve got to be patient. Enjoy the process and savour what you have along the way. Don’t expect to make a lot of money immediately. Collecting means patience so if you don’t have patience, don’t collect whiskies. 

“Also, avoid buying anything expensive that comes with ‘special bottling’. Read up and do your research before plunging in for a special label or special bottle to make sure it is worth going after and collecting.  

“An example would be the new Macallan Edition series. The Edition 1 was rare and limited and is worth a solid amount now. The Edition 5 just released has more production and isn’t as hard to find so don’t rush in thinking it’ll be the same,” he concludes. 

That sentiment is shared by Randall. “If you want to start collecting, the Edition series is a good start. When we launched it, Edition No. 1 costs about US$120; now, if you can find it, it costs over US$1,000. There is no age statement in these bottles, but they are some of the finest whiskies you can drink.” 

He continues explaining what it means, dissociating quality from age. “From the drinking perspective, I would look at character and flavour, not age statements. I like whiskies with complexity and a story to tell. Age statements are just labels and I find that it is better not to be constrained by age. If you ask me, non-age statements are the way to go. It’s where you can really find the true quality of a whisky.”  

And what about Japanese whiskies? These have steadily gained a reputation as equals, or to many, even superior to the original Scottish single malt whisky.  

In 2003, Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-year-old scored big by winning the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge, the most authoritative liquor competition in the world. Ever since, eyes have been turned to the land of the rising sun and the mysteries behind its varied malt offerings.  

“Japanese whiskies are exactly what they are, Japanese. They take what others have and perfect it. The one word that people always use for Japanese whisky is smooth. The whiskies are great but it just doesn’t leave you with a lasting impression. The reason why the prices go up is because one particular whisky (the Yamazaki 12-year-old) won an award and everyone rushed to get it,” offers Randall. 

“Much like Tasmanian whisky, it is all about desire. So Japanese producers pushed up the price, limited and eventually cut production so prices become crazier over time,” says Mayton. Today, a bottle of Yamazaki 12 years costs about US$200. A Yamazaki 18 costs more than US$1,000, and a 25-year-old sits at almost US$10,000 a bottle.  

Despite the cautious tones of both experts, the fact remains that Japanese whiskies are well sought after by drinkers and collectors – and it’s not just Yamazaki. HakushuHibiki, and Nikka are some of the more popular labels. Others, like KaruizawaKomagatake, and Kawasaki come with age statements ranging from 27 years to 48 years and special, limited edition bottlings costing between US$3,000 to US$20,000, depending on where you get them from.  

The father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru loved Scotland’s single malts so much that he left his homeland to study its intricacies and returned with a Scottish wife. In 1923, he started the Yamazaki distillery with financing from Suntory owner, Shinjiro Torii and adapted the harshness of Scottish malts to suit a more refined Japanese palate.  

There really isn’t any base of comparison between Scottish and Japanese malts. Both sides represent a long heritage of nurture and endearing care to create that fine liquid that is cherished worldwide by drinkers and collectors alike.  

For anyone wishing to embark on this journey, it is one that promises to be enjoyable and, with the right investment, even rewarding. Take a quaff, swirl it with your tongue and let history fill your palate with delight.