How To Start a Whisky Collection

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(Bloomberg) -- A passionate whisky collector once told me that single malts are as intricate as jazz, with a texture like velvet. Who wouldn’t want to drink that?

The number of these aficionados is growing everywhere, from Manhattan to Ho Chi Minh City. “Whiskies,” says Chris Munro of Christie’s auction house, “offer as rich and complex a landscape as fine wine.”

If you like whisky, this is a good time for drinkers and investors, with more diverse bottles available than ever before—and I don’t mean the nine Game of Thrones bottlings. A new generation of collectors has embraced a boom in online whisky auctions, too, which offer thirsty aficionados around-the-clock bidding from where most of us are right now: home.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, for example, is offering a stunning online sale of treasures through May 5. And in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, whisky-focused bars and restaurants are selling off prize bottles to stay in business.

Prices have gone up and up, pushing Scotch and also Japanese whisky into serious investment territory; a 25% tariff on Scotch in the U.S. hasn’t helped, either.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

The record-breaker so far is a bottle of 60-year-old 1926 The Macallan Fine and Rare, which sold for £1.45 million ($1.9 million) at a Sotheby’s live sale in London last October. That’s $42,000 a pour, folks! Jonny Fowle, Sotheby’s spirits specialist, called it “one of the most exciting moments in the history of whisky sales.” (You could have bought a bottle of it in 2009 at Christie’s New York for $54,000, when the crowd gasped at that price.)

Luckily, plenty of collectible bottles sell for far, far less.

Where to start?

Most people drift into collecting because they like the taste and romance of a particular whisky, then they get more curious, says Andy Simpson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, a consulting business that values collections, advises collectors, and issues market reports.

He first tracked down bottles from his birth year, 1972, and suggests picking a collecting theme: hunting down every bottling from your favorite brand, or one bottle from every existing distillery, or those from single casks, or “silent stills” (closed distilleries).

Although Scotch whiskies come from only three ingredients—water, malted barley, and yeast—there are huge differences in aroma and flavor that depend on the source of the water, the type of still, and, most of all, the kind of cask a whisky is aged in and the amount of time it spends there. The famous smoky taste of Islay bottlings comes from the use of peat fires. (American whiskey is a whole different category, good for another column.)

Japanese examples started getting acclaim in the mid-2000s, but excitement about them began only after the 2008 financial crash, Fowle says. Suntory recently held a lottery to give collectors the chance to spend 3 million yen ($27,600) on a bottle of 55-year-old Yamazaki single malt. With shortages and increasing popularity, prices of major brands have only increased. One problem is loose regulations, so producers can, for example, bottle an imported whisky and label it Japanese, which many call “ whisky laundering.” 

“The Karuizawa 1960 #5627 was originally sold in 2013 for £12,500. Sotheby’s achieved a value of £363,000 for it last year,” Fowle says. Karuizawa is one of Japan’s now-famous silent distilleries.

What to know to collect

Consistency of quality and a distillery’s reputation are all-important, and age rules. A 30-year-old whisky from the same distillery is more valuable than a 20-year-old bottle. The numbers that count are the date of distillation and the date of bottling, at which point a whisky stops aging. A 1983 25-year-old would have been distilled in 1983 and bottled in 2008, for example.

But for drinkers, older doesn’t always mean better flavor. I’ve sampled whiskies that spent 60 years in a wooden cask that taste mostly like, well, wood.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Rarity also counts, which is why whiskies from silent distilleries continue to be hot; discontinued bottlings also fetch a premium. A 10-year-old Laphroig from Islay that was bottled in the 1970s is way more valuable than one bottled recently. Some distilleries create “a collectible” by releasing a limited number of a special bottling for only a short time, as giant spirits company Diageo Plc does with its annual Special Release Collection.

Whiskies with a darker color are generally more prized than paler ones. Only 10% of Scotch whiskies are aged in sherry casks made from European oak, which gives them a dark color and flavors that are rich and fruity, like a spicy Christmas fruitcake.

And, hey, watch out for fakes. As prices have risen, counterfeits have become a problem.

Also, be sure to store bottles standing up in a cool, dark place.

What to buy

The best way to discover what you love is to taste as widely as you can. In ordinary times, I’d recommend attending WhiskyFest (the New York event was rescheduled for Oct. 29, 2020), visiting a whisky bar, or forming a whisky club with friends. But even in lockdown you can tune in to #whiskywednesdays, live virtual tastings with Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s Brandy Library, on the membership shopping/entertainment club Spirits Network, where you can order the ones he’ll be talking about.

In addition to the five leading names below, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Port Ellen, Brora, and Glenugie rank high on Rare Whisky 101’s investor and collector rankings.

The Macallan
The ultimate blue-chip and collector favorite, this Speyside single malt is a luxury brand with seemingly endless bottlings. Its prices are softening slightly, but people still love its rich, thick texture and deep toffee and spice flavors gained from aging in sherry casks.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Springbank
The most recent Rare Whisky Market Report, from 2019, taps Springbank as the No. 1 distillery in investor rankings. A few years ago, older vintage bottles traded at $600 to $700 each; now they go for $2,500 to $4,000. Complex subtlety, along with citrus and caramel notes, are this traditional Campbeltown whisky’s hallmarks.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Mortlach
Simpson says Mortlach is one of the whiskies whose value is increasing rapidly. The brand is known for its old-style, big, bold, savory flavors.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Clynelish
Another up-and-coming collectible producer, according to Simpson, this distillery owned by Diageo is a partner to silent distillery Brora, which the company plans to reopen this year.

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Yamazaki
Owned by Suntory, this is the oldest whisky brand in Japan, with versions that can be had for much less than those from hot names Karuizawa or the Ichiro’s Malt Playing Card series. (For a good selection, try www.dekanta.com)

How To Start a Whisky Collection

Wine deal of the week

Zachys Wine Auctions: The sale of 498 lots of rare wines from the cellars of Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, Union Square Cafe, Maialino, and Marta is expected to raise $1 million for employees of the Union Square Hospitality Group. Highlights include amazing bottles of Burgundy from stellar producers such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, as well as Italian classics such as Bartolo Mascarello Barolo. Bidding is open through May 3.

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