When the gavel came down at an auction in Edinburgh in October, the world was introduced to its new most expensive whisky: a bottle of Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 60-year-old. It sold for a record £700,000, plus £148,000 in sales commissions and other charges – or more than $1.4-million.
That may be a steep price for the average whisky fan to swallow, but collectors, enthusiasts and investors around the world likely raised a dram to celebrate a marketplace that has become increasingly sophisticated – and lucrative – over the past decade. Prices of rare whiskies have appreciated 140 per cent in the past five years alone, according to Rare Whisky 101, a consultancy based in Dunfermline, Scotland.
Tom Vanek, a Toronto event planner who specializes in high-end whisky tastings, says, “From an investment standpoint, you say, ‘Are you people nuts?’ But as an investment, it’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.”
Scarcity and global passion for the product are driving demand. Wealthy Canadians with a taste for Scottish single malts and small-batch American bourbons are making room next to their wine collections for rare whiskies from around the world, and that demand is pushing up prices.
Also fuelling sales is branding on the part of growth-minded distilleries – in particular, historic Scottish labels such as Glenlivet, Balvenie and Glenfiddich – and a growing appreciation for the craft. After all, producing a 24-year-old whisky requires, well, 24 years of aging in a cask hand-picked by the distiller. (Whiskies cease aging and don’t experience any changes in flavour once they are bottled. The Macallan Valerio Adami was distilled in 1926 and bottled in 1986, therefore making it 60 years old.)
Stephanie Price, owner of the Dam Pub in Thornbury, Ont., is well versed on each of the 970-some whiskies that line the walls of her establishment, a collection that has drawn fans from as far away as Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Among her patrons’ preferred brands are Macallan, Bowmore, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. They also enjoy highly sought-after whiskies by lesser-known distilleries such as Littlemill, Dalmore, Port Ellen, Inverleven and Van Winkle, a top pick for discerning bourbon lovers (bourbon is a type of whisky made in the United States).
Her most expensive bottle is a 40-year-old Glenfiddich purchased for $9,500; it sells for $860 a dram (about an ounce and a half).
Japanese whiskies such as Hibiki, Nikka, Toki and Iwai are also sought after by connoisseurs, many of whom venture to places like the Dam Pub because they can’t find these rare gems elsewhere.
In provinces such as Ontario, where alcohol sales are tightly controlled, purchasing or importing alcohol can be complicated.
Ontario’s LCBO, the provincial liquor retailer, requires buyers importing whisky to purchase a full case of their desired libation; it also brokers their purchase. The process can take more than six months, and delays are common. Ms. Price once waited nine months for a case of whisky to arrive from Scotland.
Importing is pricey, too, as the LCBO adds its markup and brokerage and shipping fees, in some cases raising the price by as much as 400 per cent over the distiller’s original. It can be cheaper to simply purchase a bottle in the U.S. or visit the country of origin and pay the (often hefty) duty markup at the border when returning home.
Import challenges aside, building a collection also means understanding the marketplace and researching rare whiskies with limited production, Ms. Price says. Dedicated aficionados will often seek out bottles from defunct distilleries.
Doing that homework can pay off – Ms. Price has seen some of the most prized bottles behind her bar increase in value by five times in just a few years.
She once purchased a bottle of Port Ellen 25-year-old single-malt scotch for $350; today it sells for $651 a dram because it’s no longer available. “People have come for miles for this particular bottle, and they are willing to pay the price for it,” she says.
Under Ontario’s strict liquor laws, pubs such as The Dam Pub can sell full bottles, but they cannot leave the premises, must remain behind the bar and can only be served by staff.
Ms. Price also offers a 22-year-old Rosebank 1981 Cask Strength. The original purchase price was $256, and she estimates it would be worth about $3,000 today if unopened.
But collectors don’t always need to spend extraordinary sums to build a collection of outstanding whiskies. Real value can be found at less than $100 a bottle.
Ms. Price points to Ballantine’s 15-year-old Glenburgie single malt as one example. She says it’s a fantastic small-batch release that retails for $73.80 at the LCBO and will likely sell out quickly.
“If you’re doing this to invest, then you want to look at the background of the distillery, what kind of appellations they have, is it a small batch, is it something they’ll continue making?” she says. Waiting for a favourite bottle to become available at your local retailer is usually the most cost-effective way to collect it, she says. “Then maybe you buy two bottles, one to drink and one to put away.”
As long as those precious finds are stored at a moderate temperature, away from sunlight and preferably standing upright, they’ll last forever, she says. Once opened, a bottle is usually good for at least two years before a true devotee will be able to taste a difference.
Of course, only a handful of collectors will pay to taste an astronomically expensive whisky, such as a 72-year-old Macallan single malt bottled in a Lalique decanter. That one retails for a cool $85,000. Peter Cloutier, the LCBO’s spirits category manager, believes he already has buyers lined up for the two bottles the retailer will be receiving in January.
“As much as that consumer base is small, there’s still very much a strong, growing interest within those very rare, collectible products, especially when it’s supported by very historic names such as Macallan, Glenmorangie, Bowmore and Dalmore,” he says. “Collectors are acquiring these more as pieces of art.”
But what if you want to sell what you’ve bought? As Mr. Vanek reminds collectors at his tastings, these rarefied liquids are, in fact, quite illiquid.
“To legally realize a profit, it has to go to auction,” he explains. “In Ontario, the only auction house that’s authorized by the LCBO is Waddington’s Auctioneers. They charge the seller 20 per cent and the purchaser 33 per cent. You’re losing a fair bit, but … you can’t legally list it and sell it anywhere else.”
Perhaps the best way to view whisky isn’t as an investment at all but as a collectible that can be savoured among equally passionate enthusiasts. Luckily, affluent buyers needn’t worry about the hangover that comes with consuming a bottle of alcohol that, in some cases, costs as much as a luxury car.