Buying rare whiskies by the cask

Whisky aficionados are no longer just collecting rare malts by the bottle – they’re buying them by the cask and savouring the slow pleasure of watching them mature. Alice Lascelles reports

Rare Whisky 101 co-founders Andy Simpson (left) and David Robertson, who have private clients owning more than 100 casks of whisky
Rare Whisky 101 co-founders Andy Simpson (left) and David Robertson, who have private clients owning more than 100 casks of whisky | Image: Fraser Band

Demand for fine, rare and collectable Scotch whisky is at an all-time high. According to Rare Whisky 101, the brokerage and analysis firm that publishes the leading indices on such things, the UK auction market looks set to double in value this year to over £20m – or more than 80,000 bottles. The vast majority of this whisky is traded in bottles, but as the thirst for hard-to-find whisky increases, some whisky lovers are taking things to the next level and buying their whisky not by the bottle, but by the cask.

Which is easier said than done. The demand for whisky with an impressive age statement means distilleries are now much more reluctant to relinquish mature stock than they were 15 or 20 years ago. Those that do sell casks often do so only under the radar (several I spoke to for this piece asked not to be named). It takes time, money and contacts to get hold of this stuff – which is exactly what makes it so alluring.

The Macallan’s invitation-only Easter Elchies House at its Speyside estate
The Macallan’s invitation-only Easter Elchies House at its Speyside estate | Image: The Macallan

“We’re now seeing a growing incidence of people who are looking to put together a collection of casks from all the best distilleries,” says Rare Whisky 101 co-founder Andy Simpson. Some of his top clients have more than 100 casks maturing around Scotland (if a whisky matures anywhere else, it can’t legally be called Scotch).

Prices for a cask of whisky vary enormously. One of the most widely used types in the Scotch industry is the 250‑litre oak hogshead, which is equivalent to about 350 bottles when it’s first filled. But the final price tag will depend on many factors, including its provenance, size, maturity and how much whisky is left inside at the point of sale (3-4 per cent of the contents is lost to evaporation every year – a portion known as the “angel’s share”). 

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“You could pay as little as £1,500 for something fairly young from a distillery that’s reasonably easy to get hold of,” says Simpson, “but something that’s 20 years-plus from one of the big names could cost in excess of £500,000. We’re currently looking at one potentially worth over £800,000.” Heavily peated and sherried whiskies tend to be more sought-after, he adds, with The Macallan, Ardbeg, Springbank and Bowmore, as well as silent distilleries Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank, all top of the hit list (as How To Spend It went to press, the whisky world had just learnt that these last three, very excitingly, are now being revived – it will be many years, though, before they’re releasing mature whisky). “Some buy to invest, but we find most people are actually buying these casks for consumption,” says Simpson. “They want a family cask, say, or something to bottle for gifting. And a lot of these guys will sample their casks almost yearly – they’re fascinated by its evolution.”

And that’s part of the attraction: whisky in the cask goes on evolving in a way that bottled whisky does not. What’s more, every single cask is unique: you can fill two identical casks with the same spirit and put them in the same warehouse for the same period of time, and they’ll still turn out slightly different. This unpredictability is part of what makes buying whisky by the cask so fascinating. But it’s also what makes it risky. 

Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle members select their limited edition blend from a shortlist of 30 casks, chosen by master distiller Brian Nation
Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle members select their limited edition blend from a shortlist of 30 casks, chosen by master distiller Brian Nation

Knowing when to take your whisky out of the cask is crucial, says Simpson. “A lot of people have this idea that everything just goes on getting better and better in cask, and will make 50/60/70 years old. But it rarely does.” There’s also the danger that the whisky evaporates so much it drops below the legal threshold for Scotch of 40 per cent, at which point it becomes worthless. “We had a 49-year-old cask from a famous distillery that should have been an incredible find,” recalls Simpson, “but when we opened it up the strength was down to 28 per cent abv and it was green, oily, horrible. There was nothing we could do with it – we just had to tip it down the drain.”

All these potential hazards mean it’s essential to get expert advice, particularly if you’re buying for the first time. One company that specialises in the fine art of single cask selection is The Last Drop Distillers. For the past decade, this team of spirit gold-panners have dedicated themselves to trawling the warehouses of Scotland for gems that would otherwise be too limited or esoteric for bigger companies to deal with. In the past, they’ve only offered these finds by the bottle, but with their latest launch, a nine-cask parcel of 45-year-old Scotch, distilled in 1971, they offered three casks for sale in their entirety, priced around £630,000 each (which also included a tailormade trip to Scotland to witness the casks being a bottled). “Compared to buying bottles of whisky, an entire cask provides a new level of uniqueness and exclusivity,” I’m told by one of the buyers, a female whisky collector from China. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Master distiller Brian Nation
Master distiller Brian Nation

Last Drop and Rare Whisky 101 only deal in whisky that’s already very mature – Simpson rarely looks at anything under 20 years old. But Speyside distillery The Macallan offers a handful of clients every year the chance to create their own cask of Macallan from scratch. That means selecting the cask, filling it with new‑make spirit and then laying it down for a minimum of 12 years in the distillery’s cellars before having it bottled to the clients’ specifications, with personalised labelling. The experience – which is price on request, but starts at five figures – is enhanced by some lavish hospitality, including dinner and a stay at the estate’s invitation-only Easter Elchies House. Cask owners also enjoy VIP visitation rights – a perk that will become even more sought-after when The Macallan unveils its new £100m distillery next year.

The only snag is that The Macallan only sells 12 of these casks a year, and they’re currently booked up until 2024 (which means you wouldn’t be able to bottle your cask until at least 2036). But when you consider that The Macallan accounted for nearly a third of all fine and rare whisky traded at auction in 2016 (according to Rare Whisky 101), you might consider this one cask that’s worth waiting for. 

The East London Liquor Company is on the brink of launching its first whisky
The East London Liquor Company is on the brink of launching its first whisky

Scotch isn’t the only whisky now being sought by the cask. Irish distiller Midleton – maker of Irish whiskeys including Jameson and Redbreast – found itself getting so many requests for its whiskeys by the cask that it recently launched Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle. This by-appointment service allows individuals to select their own cask of Midleton Very Rare, a limited edition, vintage blend that has been released each year since 1984 (a full set of vintages would sell for around €50,000). Officially, clients choose from a shortlist of 30 different casks selected by master distiller Brian Nation and his fellow production masters – prices currently ranging from around €75,000 for a 12-year-old ex-bourbon barrel up to €300,000 depending on the age and style of the whiskey and cask. But Midleton’s huge inventory means that for the right price, it’s probably possible to source almost anything in terms of age, style or vintage for a really special occasion.

The chosen cask then rests in state at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, where members can host up to 25 guests for drinks, tastings and dinner, overlooking their precious stash. And when the party is over, a dedicated distillery concierge can arrange golfing, hunting and fly-fishing, as well as lodgings at the magnificent Ballyfin estate. 

The East London Liquor Company’s whisky will be one of the first to be distilled in London for more than 100 years
The East London Liquor Company’s whisky will be one of the first to be distilled in London for more than 100 years

Some American distilleries offer cask programmes too – the historic Sazerac Company offers an off-the-peg service. But Japanese whisky is a harder nut to crack. On visits to warehouses I’ve certainly seen casks chalked up with the names of private owners, but I’ve yet to find a distillery that admits to selling casks on the record. 

If you’re not hell-bent on getting whisky from a big-game distillery, there is another, easier way to buy by the cask, and that’s to buy from a distillery that’s just starting up. Thanks to the boom in craft distilling the market is  awash with start-ups attempting to raise capital by offering casks of unaged or young whisky for sale. The accessibility and comparatively low prices can make this a tempting option, but it can be a lottery – you’ll almost certainly be waiting many more years before your whisky is ready for bottling, with no guarantee that you’ll see a return on your investment (or, indeed, liquid that’s any good). 

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That said, investing in the stock of a new distillery can be a lot of fun. One distillery that does it very well is the East London Liquor Company in Bow. Having made its name with vodka and gin, it’s now on the brink of launching its first whisky, one of the first to be distilled in London for more than 100 years (in the 1800s London was home to at least six whisky distilleries, a tradition that’s now being revived). 

And the charm of ELLC is that it really encourages investors to get stuck in: members of the inaugural Cask Creators scheme even got to distil their own new‑make spirit. All the spots on that programme are now gone, but the distillery will shortly be releasing a small number of whisky casks for sale through Bordeaux Index. Anyone who buys one can pop down to visit it, and sample it, at any time, something that’s rarely possible with a big distillery. “We want people to come and keep their casks company – we want them to be part of it,” says ELLC founder Alex Wolpert. “You can just rock up, grab yourself an Old Fashioned from the bar, amble downstairs to the warehouse, pull up a chair and spend the evening hanging out with your cask.” There was one evening when the casks were even entertained by a blues band.

Some investors never visit their casks at all. But I think all true whisky lovers would agree, there are few more visceral delights than standing in the expectant gloom of a warehouse, in the presence of these great beasts. Feeling the grain of the staves with your fingers, inhaling the heavy scent of whisky on oak, and tasting your own, time-honed single malt straight from the cask. It doesn’t get better than that.

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