Prices for rare whisky have rocketed in the past decade – and one of the more unexpected results of this has been a spin-off market in collectable miniatures. Late last year, an anonymous bidder broke all records when he paid £4,000 for a dog-eared green glass bottle of Scotch measuring only four inches high.
The whisky inside was a single malt from Stromness, a distillery that operated on mainland Orkney between 1817 and 1928. Bottled some time in the 1920s or ’30s, and labelled O.O. Old Orkney Real Liqueur Whisky (the word “liqueur” often figured on whisky labels in those days), this was a unicorn of the whisky world – a dram many whisky lovers had heard of, but few had actually seen.
The bottle sold through whisky.auction, an online auctioneer that runs dedicated miniature sales four times a year. “Miniature collectors used to be mocked by ‘serious’ whisky drinkers, because they weren’t interested in drinking the whiskies they were amassing,” says whisky.auction auction director Isabel Graham-Yooll. “They just wanted to collect them like fridge magnets or stamps. But more recently, it’s become clear that those collectors were actually curating the history of Scotch whisky. Whisky prices are now inaccessible to a lot of enthusiasts, so these collections are attracting new interest because they offer the chance to taste whiskies that would otherwise be completely out of reach.”
The majority of minis go for less than £100, but the top tier can achieve astonishing prices: in the record-breaking whisky.auction sale of October 2019, the top 10 miniatures – which included a 1967 Tomatin (£1,900), a 1984 Karuizawa from Japan (£1,150) and the headline-grabbing Old Orkney – fetched a total of £13,350.
But before you start stockpiling aeroplane miniatures of blended Scotch, take note: the market for miniatures is just as discriminating as the market for full-size bottles. Limited-edition, old, or commemorative bottlings from big names like The Macallan and Johnnie Walker are often a good investment – and collectors will pay a lot if a mini helps them complete a set. Japanese whiskies including Yamazaki, Hibiki and Karuizawa tend to fetch high prices, particularly if they’ve got a big age statement or vintage. Whiskies from distilleries that have ceased production – such as the aforementioned Stromness – are sought after too.
Whisky club miniatures – bottled privately for a group of friends – can also be hugely valuable. In 2018, a miniature of 10-year-old single malt from the now-defunct Islay distillery Malt Mill – thought to have been bottled by a whisky club who got the liquid through the back door – sold for £3,400 through Scotch Whisky Auctions, which was a record at the time. “This Islay whisky was never bottled as a single malt in its own right. It was only ever used in blends,” says Kate Johnston, formerly of Scotch Whisky Auctions. “In that sense it was a bit of a mythical whisky.”
Very occasionally, a miniature may sell for more than a full-size bottle simply because the format is so rare, says Johnston. “We’ve had a full-size bottle of Yamazaki 18yo sell for £310, and a miniature of the same malt go for £2,000.”
Miniatures of Japanese whisky and Scotch tend to fetch the highest prices. But it is possible to find minis of brandy, rum and liqueurs that fetch a few bob too. Recent sales through whisky.auction include a commemorative mini of 50yo Appleton Rum for £600, a Baccarat miniature of Rémy Martin Louis XIII for £340, a pair of George Dickel Tennessee whiskies for £115 and a 1950s mini of Yellow Chartreuse that went for a very respectable £24.
The rarity of the liquid, rather than the packaging, tends to dictate price. But some bottles are exquisite. Miniatures from the early 20th century – when rocketing prices and a vogue for travelling cocktail kits saw a surge in 5cl bottle production – have a phenomenal level of detail.
There are plenty of novelty bottles too. Recent sales have included a 1996 Macallan Private Eye Edition with a label by cartoonist Ralph Steadman (£270), a quartet of Speyside malts featuring portraits of Neil Armstrong, Sputnik, Space Shuttle Columbia and Yuri Gagarin (£210) and a hideous pair of ceramic “Adam and Eve” miniatures containing a Spanish liqueur (£24). Someone also paid £105 for two 1cl bottles of Grant’s – which each amount to about two teaspoonfuls.
The growth of the whisky auction market and the advent of the internet mean that undiscovered gems are much rarer than they used to be. But there are almost certainly some priceless collections still waiting to be unearthed, says Graham-Yooll. “The chap who brought us the Old Orkney picked it up as part of a job lot of miniatures he bought at an auction in Brighton for £50.” So next time you’re decluttering, have a rootle at the back of the drinks cupboard. You never know what you might find.