Liquid Gold: The Whisky Investment Scene is on the Up and Up
The world of investing is a gloriously varied one – from the abstract and intangible world of tokens and trading, through to luxury items ranging from cars, artworks and fine wines – there are assets to suit every interest, and near-countless opportunities for growing your wealth.
Thanks to a series of high-profile and seriously impressive returns, whisky has recently been hitting the headlines as an asset worthy of attention, not least to investors seeking to put their wealth into something a little on the leftfield.
In late 2021, a four-decanter lot of single malt from the esteemed Glenfiddich distillery in (where else?) Scotland went under the hammer for over a million dollars, setting new records and creating some considerable ripples through the world of HNW investors.
Over in Asia, whisky investment reached fever pitch a month later, with almost $20 million being paid for a unique 1975 cask of Ardbeg single malt. Quite why the auction hit such eye-watering heights is anybody’s guess – this was way in excess of any price paid for whisky sold at auction before. Nonetheless, such figures send shockwaves, and there’s been an unmissable flurry of trades made over the past year; one that has seen more and more investors than ever before add whisky to their portfolio.
When considered against the backdrop of the uncertain times we’re living through, it’s perhaps less surprising that whisky is ascending than one might first consider. With the bear market manifesting more boldly by the day and traditional assets – such as shares – going through a rough patch alongside the confusion of NFTs and certain corners of the crypto market, there’s something reassuring about assets that actually, physically exist. Whisky bottles and casks sit, unmoving and undisturbed in cellars and caves and cabinets, waiting for their moment in the sun… and that moment increasingly seems to be right now.
Does Whisky Belong in a Diverse Investment Portfolio?
Note the spelling of whisky, and the emphatic lack of an ‘e’ in the name of the spirit. It’s no accident or point of insignificance: when it comes to investments and whiskies appreciating in value, there’s little space (yet) for those of American or Irish origin. It’s not a comment on their quality, distinction, or potential to one day be high-flying assets, it’s just the name of the game and the lay of the land in 2023. When it comes to whisky investments, the scene revolves almost exclusively around Scotch and Japanese single malt.
Whisky Investment Partners (WIP) has grown to become one of the global authorities on the subject, and has stated that Scotch whisky, in particular, has proven to be remarkably recession proof and robust on the market. Scotch has a current export value of over $6 billion, making up over 70% of Scotland’s total food and drinks exports. This number has remained remarkably consistent for years, and WIP’s 2022 report showed that Scottish cask whisky ownership has reliably provided returns between 8% and 12% per annum for the last two decades. With such figures backing up the market, it’s no wonder whisky investment has been something of a ‘best-kept secret’ until relatively recently.
The bursting open of this investment scene to broader speculation has been driven by one factor above all others: Asian market interest. Buying groups in Japan, China and India have taken a particular interest in Scotch single malt over the past decade, bolstering trades which revolve around an astonishing 1.3 billion bottles being sold from Scotland each year.
So, with that all being said, which whiskies and which distilleries deserve your undivided attention and investment? It’s a relatively complex scene with no shortage of variables, but a quick rundown of the big-hitters of whisky sales will reveal certain trends and names that are difficult to ignore.
Let’s take a look at the 10 most expensive whiskies ever sold at auction, and delve into the high-flying realm of fine spirit investments with the figures to back the facts.
$975,756 The Macallan Red Collection
In one of the most astonishing whisky auctions of all time, the 2020 lot at London’s Sotheby’s which featured The Macallan Red Collection had a presale estimate of $259,000. However, bids flew in from across the globe, resulting in a small set of ardent collectors battling to own this completely unique set of fine spirits. The winning bit of almost a million dollars came from a philanthropist, who pledged the proceeds to the City Harvest London food charity.
The one-of-a-kind collection itself boasts six aged Macallan whiskies, including a pair of the oldest spirits ever released by the esteemed distillery: a 78 year old and a 74 year old bottle. Further investment value came in the shape of its exclusive illustrated and signed labels, which were created by Spanish artist Javi Anarez.
$993,000 The Macallan Lalique Six Pillars Collection
Lovers of life’s finer things will already be familiar with Lalique: Paris’ most revered glassmaker and style house. The coming together of Lalique with The Macallan was one that would always send ripples through the world of luxury goods, and this beautiful set featured six Lalique crystal decanters, each filled with some of The Macallan’s most sought-after single malts aged up to 65 years old.
Each of the decanters had originally been single releases, but the collection (housed in a bespoke ebony cabinet complete with Lalique glasses) bolstered their investment value by a considerable margin, seeing it almost hit the $1 million mark in Hong Kong in 2017.
$1.04 Million The Macallan Peter Blake 60 Year Old 1926
1926 is a milestone year for those looking into investing in whisky by The Macallan. In this year, a sherry-seasoned cask (and whisky investors will jump at the chance to tell you that sherry-cask whiskies produce the biggest returns) was filled with whisky in The Macallan’s Speyside distillery, and it lay untouched for 60 years. In 1986, it was decanted into 40 bottles – 24 were given unique labels by famed artists of the day. One bottle was commissioned to be painted, and two more were auctioned without labels. The remaining 14 were destined to become part of The Macallan’s vintage release schedule… but we’ll hear more about those later on the list.
In 1993, The Macallan joined forces with pop artist Peter Blake, who is best known for designing the iconic cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. Blake was asked to create a label for the 60 year old whisky, thus launching the first of three artistic partnerships that would see The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old whisky become bonafide record-breakers.
$1.07 Million The Macallan Valerio Adami 60 Year Old 1926
Here we are again – the second of The Macallan’s legendary 1926 bottles, this time with Valerio Adami (a renowned Italian painter and pop artist) on label duty. Before the auction, rumours started whirling that one of the bottles from this legendary 1926 cask had been destroyed during an earthquake in Japan, thus prompting even more furious bidding over the remaining examples. That’s one way to get an auction house excited!
$1.24 Million The Dalmore Decades No. 6 Collection
In late 2021, The Dalmore Decades No. 6 Collection became the most expensive whisky auction lot ever to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s Asia, having been bought by a private collector for $1.24 million. Interestingly, it’s the only Scotch whisky on this list not bottled by The Macallan, proving that the world of high-end whisky investment isn’t totally dominated by the fabled Speyside distillery.
This lot was a collection of utterly unique milestone releases from The Dalmore, stretching between 1951 and 2000, and representing a truly legendary run for this iconic producer. Selected for their distinction by master distiller Richard Paterson, the collection highlights key milestones in the distillery’s 180 year history. From bottles distilled from the final two casks overseen by the last of the Mackenzie clan all the way through to the first bottle of the new millennium, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of this collection for fans of The Dalmore.
$1.38 Million The Macallan The Intrepid
We’re back with The Macallan for this listing, and it’s yet another record breaker. This time, it’s the record for the world’s largest whisky bottle: at 5’11, The Intrepid is a truly monumental release that dwarfs regular whisky bottles and houses an astonishing 311 liters of the amber nectar.
Sold in Edinburgh, The Intrepid contains single malt whisky from a pair of hogshead casks that have spent 32 years in maturation. In a beautifully evocative touch, the glasswork on the bottle pays tribute to 11 of the world’s most revered explorers.
$1.52 Million Hanyu Ichiro Full Card Series
The Japanese whisky scene is as fascinating as it is dynamic, with popularity and demand causing a much-publicised whisky drought over the past few years. 2020 saw this ultra rare set of Japanese whiskies go under the hammer with record-breaking results, and features 54 bottles each representing the cards in a playing deck. Beautiful, intriguing and elegant, it perfectly encapsulated the uppermost echelons of this truly remarkable industry.
Produced by the renowned Hanyu distillery, the collection consisted of hand-selected cask whiskies made between 1941 and 2000. It was the vision of distillery founder Isouji Akuto’s grandson, who wished to pay tribute to his pioneering grandfather and to the modern heritage of Japan’s whisky scene. Sold for $1.52 million, it smashed the previous record for a Japanese whisky lot, which sold for $600,000 just one year earlier.
$1.53 Million The Macallan Michael Dillon 1926 60 Year Old
We’re back in Scotland with The Macallan, and once again visiting the record-busting 1926 releases which have already taken up two places on this list. While the other pair of 1926 bottles featured labels created by eminent pop artists, this remarkable bottle is emblazoned with the work of Irish artist Michael Dillon, who depicted the beautiful Macallan estate’s Easter Elchies House – an altogether more evocative and traditional image, ideal for those looking to immerse themself in the romanticism of Speyside’s distilling heritage.
This bottle became the first ever whisky to pass the £1 million mark at auction (it sold for $1.53 million), and was subject to a ferocious bidding war at the Christie’s auction house in London.
$1.9 Million The Macallan Fine and Rare 1926
It’s a testament to the allure and appeal of these 1926 releases that we’re – once again – looking at a bottle from The Macallan that came from those very same casks, right up here at the zenith of this list. The Macallan Fine and Rare 1926 was awarded the status of the most expensive whisky ever auctioned in 2019, selling for an incredible £1.9 million at Sotheby’s. It’s widely considered the original bottle of the Fine and Rare series, which highlights the most coveted releases in The Macallan collection produced over eight decades.
Interestingly, all 14 bottles from the Fine and Rare 1926 collection are now in private collections worldwide. Whether they’ll continue breaking records at future auctions remains to be seen, but all the evidence points to these rare examples continuing to appreciate in value and draw prestigious attention from collectors worldwide.
Special Mention: $2 Million Craft Irish Whiskey Co. The Emerald Isle Collection
The most expensive whisky ever sold at auction? Despite what was mentioned earlier in this article, it’s an Irish whiskey (and yes, that ‘e’ is important) that went under the hammer on – when else? – Saint Patrick’s Day 2021 for $2 million. However, it’s a bit of an outlier on this list, because the bottle was sold with a Faberge egg and timepiece crafted from 18K gold and sapphires. As such, it’s difficult to say just how much the whiskey itself sold for as it was a mere aspect of an already hugely valuable set.
The whiskey itself is a 30 year old distillate inspired by the seven wonders of Ireland. Triple-distilled in the traditional Irish manner, it’s the oldest Irish single malt in existence.