Drink | Past Masters

Single-malt whisky

Limited-edition vintage single-malt whiskies are as collectable as they are quaffable – and interest is peaking around the world, says Simon de Burton.

March 12 2010
Simon de Burton

Balvenie, Balblair, Laphroaig and Glenfiddich; Ardbeg and Old Pulteney, Glenesk and Dalwhinnie. The names alone set the taste buds tingling, warm the cockles of the heart and transport the imagination to the peat-scented, smoke-tinged, tartan-clad embrace of a Highland fireside quicker than a plate of haggis on Burns Night. Aye, laddies and lassies, we’re speaking of Scotland’s greatest asset: malt whisky.

Go back a couple of decades and these names would have been known only to a relatively small number of connoisseurs, but now our urge to rediscover the true luxury of products made in small volumes using traditional, often arcane, methods has seen the popularity of single malts soar to an unprecedented level and created a thriving collector’s market for old and rare bottles.

Japanese movie producer Hideo Yamaoka, for example, is so keen on a wee dram that he keeps two apartments in Tokyo, one of which is dedicated to storing his 2,000-bottle collection – currently valued at about £250,000. “I wasn’t really interested in alcohol until I reached my 30s, at which point someone gave me my first single-malt whisky. I was immediately fascinated – it’s such a complex drink… but somehow totally beguiling,” says Yamaoka. He has made more than 50 trips to Scotland in the past decade in pursuit of whisky knowledge, and won the title of best “nose” a remarkable three times at the Speyside whisky festival.

Perhaps surprisingly, Japan is the second-largest producer of malt whisky after Scotland, although only “scotch” is deemed truly desirable among the world’s collectors. “There are some 200 malt-whisky bars in Japan, meaning some superb Scottish malts are available, so collecting rare bottles here is not difficult,” adds Yamaoka.

Thomas Krüger, meanwhile, acquired his first bottle of whisky at the tender age of 14, having won it from his father in a table tennis match: “It was a bottle of VAT 69, a blended whisky that is of virtually no monetary value – but to me, it was like owning a part of the world, because the name was recognised everywhere.”

Krüger lives in Rendsburg, Germany, and began collecting in earnest after taking his first taste of single malt when he was 21. He has since amassed 6,789 miniature bottles and 1,500 full-sized ones and, in 1997, also established the online malt-whisky auction site www.whiskyauction.com, which recently sold a bottle of 1974 Ardbeg for €8,140.

Part of the appeal of collecting whisky is that, unlike wine, it doesn’t demand particularly special storage conditions. Provided it is protected from sunlight and extreme temperatures, a whisky will remain for decades in more or less the same condition as the day it was bottled. The varied and attractive designs of bottles, boxes and labels from different distilleries also give a collection aesthetic appeal and can add to the value.

“One of the most valuable whiskies we’ve sold was a 1964 Black Bowmore,” says Krüger. “The taste was not actually that great, but the bottle we had was in its original wooden box with the authentic sacking lining, which made it very desirable.”

But, generally speaking, it’s the rarity value of single-malt whiskies (ie, pure malted whisky produced by a single distillery) that makes them collectable in a way that the mass-produced, blended product (a mix of single-malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries) simply isn’t. Much of the revival of interest can be attributed to the acquisition of some of the best distilleries (about 100 survive) by drinks corporations such as Diageo, which has revived names including Talisker, Dalwhinnie and Lagavulin, often creating “distiller’s edition” bottles that are released in small numbers at premium prices and invariably rise in value.

And, occasionally, a one-off “jewel in the crown” comes to the market, as in the case of the Dalmore Oculus created last October under the expert eye of Whyte and Mackay master distiller Richard Paterson using some of Dalmore’s most exceptional single malts of the past 140 years. It was sold at Bonhams in Edinburgh six weeks later for £27,600, coming close to the world record price of £29,400 achieved for a bottle of 1850s W & J Mutter’s Bowmore hammered down by Glasgow auctioneer McTear’s in 2007.

But according to McTear’s whisky specialist Andrew Bell, a novice collector can enter the world of rare malt whiskies for as little as £100. “Whisky should be regarded as a long-term investment – at least 10 years – but the limited-edition releases offered by the best distilleries can be bought for less than £100 and will almost certainly rise in value.

People often choose to concentrate on a particular distillery or whiskies from a specific part of Scotland, such as the Highlands or Islay, refining their taste and collecting habits as they learn more,” says Bell, who cites the top six collectable single malts of the moment as being Islay’s famously peaty Ardbeg, followed by Bowmore (Islay), Springbank (Campbeltown), Highland Park (Orkney), Dalmore (Alness) and Macallan (Craigellachie). “Stick to the iconic distilleries and buy rare, limited-edition bottles from the 1960s onwards – when production standards improved – and it is difficult to go wrong,” he adds.

That was the philosophy followed by former airline executive the late Willard S Folsom, who didn’t own a single bottle before 1988, when he became hooked on collecting single malts after finding that one of the US’s best whisky bars, Kincaid’s Bayhouse, was just 10 minutes from his home in Burlingame, California. He spent the next 18 years reading everything he could about the subject, visiting tiny distilleries in the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Orkney to taste and learn. His 3,000-bottle collection was recently dispersed by Bonhams in three consecutive sales in Edinburgh, Hong Kong and New York, which realised more than £330,000 between them.

And on the ever-tricky subject of water, Folsom was with WC Fields all the way: “It’s filthy,” he’d say. “Do you know what fish do in there?”

See also

Collecting, Whisky