Macallan Whisky Seeks Millions With a Little Help From Its Friends
(Bloomberg) -- An iconic Scotch brand is again tapping the talent of one of Great Britain’s most iconic artists.
On Wednesday, the Macallan announces Anecdotes of Ages, the Scottish distillery’s third collaboration with artist Sir Peter Blake, who gained global fame when he co-created the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The centerpiece of the collection is comprised of 13 bottles of 1967 whisky, each labelled with an original artwork by Blake in his iconic collage style. In each one, Blake explores a different aspect of the Macallan’s estate and history.
One of the bottles, titled A New Era of Advertising—a cheeky name, given that it’s hard to remember an era before marketing—will be auctioned by Sotheby’s on March 13, alongside the Bo Johnston Collection. That store of single malt Scotch whiskies, accrued in the 1980s by the late South Carolina collector, included a Macallan 50 Year Old Anniversary Malt from 1928. A 1926 vintage, also with Blake artwork, hammered for more than $1 million in 2018.
The auction will raise funds for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s diversity, equity, access, and inclusion initiatives, intended to “increase free access and develop engagement with a variety of audiences.” Sotheby’s estimate for the bottle is a wide range: from $125,000 to $750,000, meaning it’s anybody’s guess.
Rare whisky, though, has been on a tear, outperforming every other luxury asset as an alternative investment. It’s reliable, too, says Freeman Ho of both Rare Finds Worldwide, a whisky brokerage and investment platform, and Hong Kong-based Rare Single Malts. The latter, a private equity fund launched in 2020 to invest in whisky casks, sees assets appreciate 15% per year on average, Ho says. The individual bottle market, while riskier, has potential for even greater returns.
“For true whisky experts who follow the market very, very closely,” he explains, “if they are able to pick the right items, they can achieve a great return within a short period of time, which hugely exceeds 15% per year. According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report, if you invested in rare bottles, on average, you should have seen [a return of] around 580% for the past 10 years.”
Buying into casks, Ho says, is like real estate, while investing in bottles is closer to buying art—especially when it comes to these so-called unicorn bottles or unicorn collections.
“It’s a bit more about the hype that the auctioneer and the auction houses are actually able to create,” Ho says. “It’s as much about the artists, the topics, the story behind it as it is about the spirit.”
Of course, the difference is that with art and real estate, you can appreciate them without devaluing them. Drain that bottle of whisky, and not only do you crater its resale value, you make the remaining bottles on the market that much more precious.
Fortunately, for the winner of the March 13 auction, there’s a workaround: Along with the bottle, the winner gets a VIP visit to the Macallan distillery (when it’s safe to do so). All of their spirits are available by the dram, so you can have your Blake and sip it, too.
For everyone else, the Macallan will archive another bottle in the series, and the remaining 11 will be put up for sale through traditional retail channels, though the prices for those won’t be released until after the auction. Each will feature the original hand-cut and glued artworks by Blake.
Available immediately, a 322-bottle Down to Work edition, with reproduction labels (but the same 1967 whisky inside), has a suggested retail price of $83,000 per bottle. A broader release, called An Estate, A Community, and a Distillery, is in a custom box with a scroll printed with Blake’s artwork and sells $1,200 per bottle, but has no indication of what liquid is inside.
“When we started talking about this collaboration with Sir Peter Blake,” says Sarah Burgess, the Macallan’s lead whisky maker, “there was nothing in terms of what kind of whisky it was going to be, what age is it going to be, what it’s going to look like.”
Her inspiration came during a pre-pandemic visit to Blake’s London studio, itself the stuff of legend. A former iron monger’s warehouse, it contains his collection of artifacts, ranging from a huge assortment of hats and model ships to the waxwork figure of boxer Sonny Liston seen in the front row of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover.
“When you look at Sir Peter’s collage artwork,” Burgess says, “you look, and then you look again, and you look again, and there’s always something different that you see each time.”
That spirit of surprise guided her in shaping the 1967 spirit. Of course there was the traditional Macallan flavor profile—dried fruit (in this case, fig), cinnamon, clove, and oak. But then, wanting to reward closer tasting with “something more interesting, something unusual,” she blended in whisky that highlighted notes of hazelnut, strawberry, and chocolate.
Rather than being captivated by Macallan’s strikingly modern, $195 million distillery and visitors center, which opened in 2018 and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the team behind London’s Millennium Dome, Blake draws inspiration from its environs. He says he was particularly taken with the fauna around the modest wood hut belonging to the riverkeeper, or ghillie, alongside the River Spey, which runs through the estate.
“I think the thing that excited me most was that the area around the distillery is one of the few places where the red squirrel is still seen.” The ghillie, Blake says, “befriended one of the squirrels and fed it every day,” naming it Malcolm. Both the red squirrel and the ghillie are featured on the bottle called The River Spey.
Small curiosities abound in the bottle labels: Among the figures Blake includes in the New Era of Advertising bottle going up for auction is Allan Shiach, the distillery’s chairman in 1979. Today, Shiach writes under the name Allan Scott and is credited as the co-creator of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
As part of the collaboration, Mary McCartney, a renowned photographer and frequent collaborator with Blake, took shots of the completed bottles among the settings that inspired them. Says Blake, who prefers to paint from photographs rather than sitting subjects: “If I’m commissioned to do a portrait—at the moment I’m painting Michael Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury Festival—I go with Mary, and she takes the actual pictures that I would take if I was a good photographer.”
The bucolic nature of the Macallan labels touches on themes Blake explored in his Brotherhood of Ruralists phase in the mid- to late-1970s, a period ripe for revisiting. “At the moment, I very much have the feeling that I'd like to do some straight landscapes,” he says.
The 88-year-old artist has also designed fabrics for McCartney’s sister, designer Stella McCartney, for whom he also serves as her “fairy godfather,” in his words. “It’s a bit of a joke, but we both like the idea. Although she did once say that I was a s--- godfather because I didn’t look after her.”
The Macallan teaming up again with Blake isn’t risky. In his first venture with the distillery, he designed a dozen bottles for a 1986 release of a 1926 spirit that briefly held the record as the most expensive bottle of whisky ever—before being eclipsed in the same auction. Another bottle of the Macallan, of the same vintage but from a different cask, is up for auction with Whisky Auctioneer and expected to fetch more than $1.3 million.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.