Beamish International's Charles Beamish was recently featured in the Financial Times as the FT explores how and why prices for rare whiskies have grown greatly over the past decade.
Rare Scotch whisky has been called “liquid gold”. These days, it’s much more than that. Last month a very limited edition, single cask bottle of The Macallan sold at auction for $250,000, three times its top guide price. That works out at $10,000 per dram of whisky, over five times its equivalent by weight in gold.
So, should you consider investing in these rarefied whiskies? There are those who prefer not to acknowledge whisky as an investment, but there is no doubt that money is in the minds of collectors. Even if prices sound astronomical, it remains a relatively small market. Though the data sources vary, sales of rare Scotch bottles were worth over £90mn last year, according to data from Edinburgh-based corporate adviser Noble & Co.
Top whisky prices have appreciated greatly in value over the past decade. These are almost always single malt whiskies — meaning from one distillery — as opposed to blends.
The Rare Icon whisky index of the 100 top auction-traded bottles of rare whiskies has more than quadrupled in the decade to the end of last year, according to data from Rare Whisky 101. But that rise masks a range of performance among distilleries. Age matters, but so does branding. An index of Springbank bottles, from the Campbeltown area on the Kintyre peninsula, has done even better, up nearly six times in the same period.
The most valuable distilleries are those that are not around any longer. “Maybe the best strategy, I’ve told my clients, is to simply stop making whisky,” quips Duncan McFadzean, Noble managing director. Highland distillery Brora went “silent” for nearly four decades before Diageo reopened it in 2019. The index of its extremely rare single malts has increased by nearly seven times in the 10 years to December.
Historical narratives attract buyers. Campbeltown offers one. Having peaked at 34 distilleries over a century ago, only three operate today: Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle. Not surprisingly, Campbeltown bottle prices rose 35 per cent year on year to September, according to Noble & Co.
Even established fine wine merchants offer whisky. “The ability to own old and rare liquid is in great demand,” says Matthew O’Connell at Bordeaux Index. Fine wine exchange Liv-ex too offers rare whiskies on its online site.
Although many buyers prefer bottles, the cask market has gained in prominence among collectors. Casks vary in size, holding several hundred or perhaps 1,000 bottles. That enables deep-pocketed enthusiasts to invest millions. One special cask of 1975 Ardbeg, owned by luxury group LVMH, sold last year for £16mn.
Given rare casks can be seven-figure purchases, ultra-rich buyers demand a personal, exclusive whisky experience. Sourcing old, rare casks of whisky, arranging storage, bottling and delivery is the end-to-end service provided by Charlie Beamish, chief executive of Beamish International.
Even those who start out as cold-blooded investors usually get romanced by their cask in the end, says Charles Beamish, formerly of Whyte & Mackay and now of private client whisky firm Beamish International, which sources whisky for clients in south-east Asia, Europe and the US. “When they first come to us, I’d say 80 per cent are looking to buy casks for drinking, collecting and gifting. The other 20 per cent are looking to invest. But by the end, 100 per cent of them have become whisky lovers and drinkers.”
Why a cask? Beamish believes “this is the ultimate expression of wealth for certain clients.” He found a cask of Glen Grant from 1949 for one Taiwanese buyer, the year that Chinese Nationalists fled to the island from the mainland. But they are in “short supply”, says O’Connell of Bordeaux Index.
Andy Simpson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101 and a collector for over 50 years, today makes a good living sourcing casks for billionaire clients worldwide. He emphasises that his clients buy to consume, not to invest or flip their purchases.
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