With a whisky export industry worth £4bn a year, you can see why Scotland is leaning on the government to legally define Scotch. Under European Union rules, the whisky has to be aged for at least three years in barrels before it can be sold to the consumer. Many in the industry, which employs around 20,000 people, fear that a trade agreement with America after Brexit could see a loosening of standards at home, as well as a glut of cheaper American whiskeys flooding the market.
Globally, however, the picture is more promising. Worldwide sales of whisky are on course to grow by almost a third in the decade to 2020, fuelled by American and Asian drinkers. For example, Japan makes its own well-regarded whiskies, but not enough to satisfy its thirsty populace. Britain is by far Japan’s biggest supplier with a 62% market share, followed by the US and Canada, notes Bloomberg.
But it’s in the auction room that the popularity for a “wee dram” has been most evident. Between April and June of this year, 21,617 bottles were sold, fetching almost £6.2m, compared to £2.8m last year. “The performance of Scotch malt whisky at auction over the past three months has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Andy Simpson of analysts Rare Whisky 101 tells The Scotsman. But the price rise hasn’t just been confined to the last quarter. Over the past 12 months, the Rare Whisky Icon 100 index, which tracks the prices of 100 rare whiskies, has risen by 8.27%, and over the past ten years, the index is up by 388.28%. In May, a single bottle of 1972 Brora almost doubled its estimate, bringing in £14,500.
As with any collectable investment, to get the best returns, you need to know your stuff. Of course, if you don’t, you can have a lot of fun learning. But stick to the “reputable houses” and you won’t go far wrong, advised “world-renowned collector and connoisseur” Mahesh Patel in a Forbes article last year. Also, bottles from defunct makers such as Brora, which closed in 1983, are “highly collectable”. For seasoned drinkers, reputable auction houses are a good place to pick up rare whiskies. Bonhams in Hong Kong is holding a sale on 18 August (but don’t forget about the 22.5% buyer’s premium).
More recently, those who want to invest but not drink have been able to get in on the success of rare whisky through WhiskyInvestDirect.com. The platform, launched by the people behind gold website BullionVault, allows investors to buy (and sell) Scotch whisky from 18 distilleries by the litre while it’s still ageing in the barrel. Commission is 1.75% on trades, while storage and insurance costs 15p a year per “litre of pure alcohol” (LPA – which roughly makes three and a half standard-sized bottles). Just don’t tell the purists.
Japan’s superior tipples
While Scotch makers may be worried about “inferior” American whiskey flooding our shores, perhaps the real threat comes from superior Japanese offerings, says Yuri Kageyama in The Independent. “These days, Japanese whisky is winning accolades from around the world, often beating the products from Scotland its makers set out to emulate.”
The price of Yamazaki Sherry Cask, for example, “shot up overnight” after expert Jim Murray heralded it as the Best Whisky in the World in his 2015 Whisky Bible. And as Jake Adelstein notes on Forbes, finding a bottle of Suntory’s Hibiki 17, which featured in the 2003 film Lost in Translation with Bill Murray (pictured), is “about as easy as finding a seat on the subway during rush hour”. Even if you are lucky enough to find a bottle, it will set you back at least ¥20,000 (around £140).
Still, that’s not as expensive as a single bottle of 52-year-old Karuizawa 1960, which cost £12,000 when just 41 of them were released in 2013. It turned out to be a bargain. In April, a bottle fetched £100,100 at a sale held by Perth-based Whisky Auctioneer, setting a British and European record for the most expensive bottle sold at auction. Taken together, all 296 bottles sold at that auction smashed their £500,000 estimate to rake in £770,000. “I don’t think we ever expected to have this much interest”, auction-house owner Iain McClune told trade magazine The Spirits Business. That looks set to change.
A “selfie” of astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken while on a spacewalk is expected to go for £1,200 on 14 September at Bloomsbury Auctions in London. The snap was taken during a Gemini mission in November 1966. It shows Aldrin with the Earth behind him. The reverse bears the serial number NASA/66/69926, indicating it had been stored in the space agency’s archives until it was bought by the seller, a private collector, in 2015. “It is the first space selfie in history and anything related to the Gemini missions is highly sought after by collectors,” says Valentina Borghi, a specialist at the auction house.
One day in 1963, Andy Warhol walked into a photo booth in New York and paid a dime to take a “selfie”, in what “was the beginning of the artist’s own face becoming a distinctive feature of his artwork until he died”, notes The Guardian. The iconic print artwork based on that single strip of photographs went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London at the end of June, fetching just over £6m.