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Golden delicious

Rare premium whiskies are spiralling in price as both imbibers and investors vie for the most prized. Alice Lascelles reports

November 08 2012
Alice Lascelles

If you’ve got your wine cellar in order, now might be the time to invest in a larger drinks cabinet, too, for there is a new kind of liquid gold on the market: luxury whisky. The sales of prestige Scotch whisky – the very top tier – grew 24 per cent by volume across key markets in 2011, reaching a total value of $29.8m according to International Wine & Spirit Research. Humphrey Serjeantson, IWSR’s chief operating officer, singles out last September’s sale of a 62-year-old bottle of The Dalmore for £125,000 at Singapore’s Changi airport as a key moment in this category’s rise to prominence.

Demand for prestige and age-statement whiskies is increasing so fast, particularly in South-east Asia, that some distillers are now struggling to keep up. Only this summer, the world’s biggest producer, Diageo, announced it would be investing a record £1bn in whisky production over the next five years. Add to this a growing trend for single-cask, small-batch and collectable releases, and you have an international market with spiralling prices.  

“In the last three-to-five years, the sector has changed in a way not dissimilar to the wine market – you’ve seen bottle prices increasing by as much as 40-50 per cent, while particular bottles sell out in a matter of days (even hours), only to crop up on auction sites at double the cost,” says Charles McClean of the Soho Whisky Club, who admits that the growth of buy-to-invest, rather than to drink, has caused a bit of friction among the old guard. “What you’ll often see is people now purchasing two bottles – one to drink and one to invest.”

Scarcity is one of the factors driving up prices in the whisky market at the moment, and you don’t get much more scarce than whisky from a distillery that’s no longer in production. That’s why you’ll see whisky lovers get particularly misty-eyed over anything from Port Ellen, an Islay distillery that was mothballed in 1983. “With Port Ellen, people are buying into a flavour profile that’s diminishing – there is a finite amount of it and people are chasing that,” says McClean.

This year, the prize from Port Ellen is a 32-year-old 1979 malt (52.5% abv). One of Diageo’s annual raft of fine and rare special releases, it is equal to the oldest Port Ellen in existence and limited to just under 3,000 bottles, priced around £600 each. Aged in both American and European oak, it is rich and complex in the old style. Marrying demerara-flecked, creamy toasted oats and more tangy, oily maritime flavours, it’s like eating the sweetest oyster imaginable.  

Another highlight of the special releases for 2012 is the 35-year-old Brora (48.1% abv), a vatting of malts aged for at least 35 years in American oak. Opening with the intimate fug of a warm, woodlined linen cupboard and a fine dusting of soot, on the palate it’s anise-studded apple pastries, waxy orange blossom (a Brora signature) and spiced smoke at the finish. Limited to 1,566 bottles worldwide, it’s priced around £400.  

The rise of Japanese whisky has also been a huge story in the drinks world of late, with Japanese distilleries now frequently stealing the top prizes from under the noses of the Scots. One is Suntory, which recently won World’s Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards for its 25-year-old The Yamazaki (43% abv, £599), a garnet-hued sherry bomb of orange oil, black cherries, bitter cocoa and a singular umami quality that leaves you smacking your lips. If that’s not to be found, the Yamazaki distillery released a series of limited editions in 2011, each aged in a different type of cask – highlights are Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel (48.2% abv, £64.49), a big-hitting feast of leather furniture, spiced banana cake and cigar smoke, and Yamazaki Mizunara (48% abv, £170), which showcases the oriental spices imparted by Japanese oak.

Competition is also bound to be fierce for the eight bottles of Karuizawa 1960 (53.2% abv), which hit the market this month, exclusive to the Whisky Exchange. Priced at £10,000 and purportedly the oldest Japanese whisky ever bottled, it might not have seen the light of day were it not for whisky importer Marcin Miller of Number One Drinks Company and Japanese-based importer David Croll, who bought up the remaining Karuizawa stocks after the tiny Honshu island distillery was closed in 2000. Imposing and muscular, with dense flavours of prune, soot and torn bark, lifted unexpectedly by eucalyptus and a hint of wet, white rose petals, it’s a fascinating drink. The understated bottle, with a hand-blocked, handmade-paper label and a wax-dipped top, is distinguished in a market that can be on the blingy side.

If you cannot get your hands on that, then try for one of the 564 bottles of the equally wonderful Karuizawa 1983 (57.2% abv, £205), a deep amber embrace of autumnal bonfires, sleepy cask‑filled warehouses and syrupy, spiced black cherries.

A whopping age statement does not automatically equal a great whisky (even though it will inflate the price tag). Whether those years have actually done the spirit any good depends on a multitude of factors: the quality of the cask, the conditions in the warehouse and the expertise of the distiller. But when it all comes together, you get a whisky like the single-cask Glenfarclas 1953, which, at an incredible 58 years old (47.2% abv, £5,995), is the oldest Glenfarclas available, exclusive to Master of Malt. Most whiskies would have withered and died after that long in wood, but this one thrives on it, drawing on the ex-sherry cask to produce a malt that purrs with dark‑chocolate truffle, worn leather and forest‑floor girolles.

Another wonderful example of ageing is the new Bowmore 1964 Fino Cask (42.9% abv), a whisky from what many regard as the distillery’s finest era. Aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-fino-sherry casks, it’s extraordinarily youthful, leaping out of the glass with vibrant passion fruit, peaches and funky papaya, before mellowing into drifting woodsmoke and crème anglaise. Forty-six years old, limited to 72 bottles and priced at £8,000, this whisky is not just a masterclass in wood ageing, but it’s an excellent investment, too.

The record for a whisky at auction is held by the Macallan, whose 1964 Lalique went for £283,530 at Sotheby’s in New York earlier this year. For a mere five figures, however, one could acquire the recently released Macallan 57-year-old Lalique (£13,999). “Nothing in the world of drinks has the same cachet as a very old, post-war Macallan,” says the Whisky Exchange’s web editor Tim Forbes. “With changes in production and the sheer scale of output now, they really don’t make them like this any more – no one could.”

Another sought-after whisky, which is rumoured to see an additional release before the year’s end, is the 50-year‑old Glenfiddich (70cl 43% abv, £11,750 for last year’s). Distilled in the 1950s, when the Speyside distillery still used peated barley, it’s a silky feast of sticky, sweet, barbecue-charred ribs, coal scuttles and smouldering bonfires that lingers long after the glass is empty.

To be in with a fighting chance of securing any of these whiskies, the assistance of a leading merchant is advised; in the UK, three of the best are the Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt and Vintage House, whose Soho shop is also home to the Soho Whisky Club. Spartan in style but furnished with more than 300 malts, superlative cigars and expert staff, the latter is a good place to get the all‑important gossip on upcoming releases, while the £200-a-year membership includes members-only tastings and the use of a nifty little cigar terrace.

At the ultra-luxe end of the spectrum is New York’s new invitation-only whisky club, 1494. Housed in a 16,000sq ft Manhattan townhouse, complete with bar, Range Rover chauffeur service, on-site Savile Row tailor and secure bottle lock-ups, the club offers an elite “whisky curation” service for around 530 top-end collectors, advising on the procurement, investment and appreciation of sought-after whiskies. Founded by former Bowmore man David Clelland, the club, whose membership fees start at $15,000 per year, has already helped to secure both the prized Black Bowmore and Macallan 50-year-old Anniversary Malt for its members, thanks in part to its close ties with New York auctioneer Bonhams. “Heavily peated whiskies are the hottest right now, along with all whiskies aged in old sherry barrels. And anything with significant age or special single-barrel releases is popular,” reports Bonhams’ whisky specialist Joseph Hyman. “I think the market will continue to grow, with more and more non‑age-statement bottlings showing up. We also have craft distillers from around the world getting into the fray. Some very nice whiskies are starting to emerge.”

Time, it seems, to join the gold rush.

See also

Whisky