A once-in-a-lifetime whisky tasting
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In my 20 years as a drinks writer I’ve witnessed the emergence of a lot of market trends – but none has been quite as breathtaking as the surge in demand for old, rare and collectable whisky.
At the start of the millennium, whisky auctions barely existed – today, according to the Rare Whisky 101 Index, they’re worth an estimated £75mn a year. In 2021 a record 172,500 bottles were sold at auction. Top lots included a 60-year-old Macallan, sold by Whisky Auctioneer for £1mn; a 55-year-old Yamazaki Japanese malt, sold by Whisky Hammer for £380,000; and a one-of-a-kind 51-year-old Bowmore sold by Sotheby’s for £400,000.
Strong demand for liquid rarities, especially from the Far East, coupled with a shortage of aged stocks, has also fuelled a febrile market in whisky by the cask – earlier this year, as reported in the FT, a private buyer in Asia bought a single cask of 1975 Ardbeg for £16mn.
What’s behind the surge in demand for collectable whisky? Will the bubble burst? And what’s the best strategy for those looking to drink and enjoy or simply to invest? Join me and Sotheby’s head of whisky Jonny Fowle at the FT Weekend Festival on 3 September for a survey of the fine and rare whisky market, accompanied by a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of five very special drams:
Clynelish Select Reserve, Diageo Special Releases 2014 – Highlands
Two of the most sought-after names on the secondary market are the so-called “ghost distilleries” Port Ellen and Brora, which both ceased production in 1983. With the revival of these distilleries now under way under the auspices of owner Diageo, we will taste this limited-edition bottling from Brora’s next door neighbour Clynelish. Run in tandem with Brora for several decades, Clynelish is renowned for producing malts with an elegant, scented “waxy” note very similar to the one that makes Brora so prized. No-age-statement, 54.9 per cent abv, RRP £500
The Balvenie DCS Compendium Vintage 1974 – Speyside
This 44-year-old single malt from one of the jewels of Speyside was released in 2019 by William Grant & Sons as part of The Balvenie DCS Compendium, a 25-bottle, five-chapter collection honouring the career of The Balvenie’s longstanding master blender David C Stewart MBE. Only 50 complete sets of the Compendium were released – a single bottle of this whisky has an RRP of £17,000. One of a growing number of “haute couture”-style whisky collections, which are hand-sold to collectors through private client programmes round the world. 51.3 per cent abv, RRP £17,000
Gordon & MacPhail Longmorn 1966 – Speyside
Independent bottlings – which are handpicked and bottled from a distillery’s stocks by a third party – are another important pillar of the secondary market. This 53-year-old Longmorn hails from one of the oldest and most respected independent bottlers, Gordon & MacPhail. Founded in 1895, the family-owned business boasts an unrivalled library of single malts from more than 100 distilleries – last year it hit the headlines with the launch of an 80-year-old Glenlivet, which at the time was the oldest single malt ever released. 46 per cent abv, RRP £6,750
Thomas H Handy Rye Whiskey – 2016 Edition, Kentucky
Scotch whisky – and a handful of Japanese labels – still dominate the secondary market. But growing demand for collectable American whiskey has lately prompted a number of auction houses, including Sotheby’s, to hold dedicated American sales for the first time. Thomas H Handy is a cask-strength rye taken from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, an annual release of limited edition bourbons and ryes from one of Kentucky’s most storied whisky companies. Proof that America can do whiskey as fine any Scottish single malt. No-age-statement, 63.1 per cent abv, RRP £1,000
Ardbeg 37yo, exclusive FT Weekend Festival bottling – Islay
In July, the FT broke the story about the most expensive cask sale in history: a sherry butt of 1975 Ardbeg sold to a private collector in Asia for £16mn. We couldn’t bring you that whisky, I’m afraid, but we’ve come close with this 37-year-old Ardbeg bottled exclusively for the FT Weekend Festival. A rare chance to taste an Ardbeg from the 1970s, when the distillery still had its own maltings. 46.2 per cent abv, Festival exclusive
FTWeekend Festival, London
Save the date for Saturday 3 September to listen to over 100 authors, scientists, politicians, chefs, artists, designers, style and wellbeing experts, and journalists at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Choose from 10 tents packed with ideas and inspiration and an array of perspectives, featuring everything from debates to tastings, performances and more. Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf