Buying spirits at auction

Last December, 12 bottles of 1780 rum went under the hammer for nearly £80,000 – a record price in the rarefied world of vintage spirits. Jemima Sissons reports on a market ripe for discovery

From Left: 1928 Macallan, sold for £17,500 at Bonhams. Calvados 1952, sold for £320 at McTear’s. Glenugie 1966, sold for £340 at Mulberry Bank Auctions. Brora 1972, sold for £1,200 at McTear’s
From Left: 1928 Macallan, sold for £17,500 at Bonhams. Calvados 1952, sold for £320 at McTear’s. Glenugie 1966, sold for £340 at Mulberry Bank Auctions. Brora 1972, sold for £1,200 at McTear’s

When rum connoisseur Ian Burrell spotted the rival bidder at Christie’s King Street, that is when his palms started sweating. He had just seen him happily fork out £20,000 for some rare whiskies, and the tension was mounting. Bids were moving rapidly for some bottles of 1780 rum that had been discovered caked in layers of mould at the back of the cellar at Harewood House in Yorkshire in 2011. As the bidding scaled well over the estimate of £600‑£800, to £2,000, then £3,000, his heart stopped as his fellow bidder’s hand hovered. Yet, Burrell raised his bid and managed to hit home, paying £4,500 each for two bottles. In total the sale, which took place last December and offered 12 bottles of the 1780 rum, in a dark and lighter kind, realised £78,255 – over six times the pre-sale estimate, making it the oldest and most valuable rum that had ever been auctioned.

Burrell is one of many who are heading to the auction room to buy spirits. Purchase them correctly and they can make great investments. For example, you could pick up a 22-year-old Brora rare malt 10 years ago for £60; one was sold last summer for £1,200 through McTear’s in Glasgow. Lower down the scale there are some bargains, if you can find the right bottling year. But for many, it is the chance to acquire something unique or sup a bit of history. As there were a number of bottles found in Harewood House’s cellar, Burrell had the fortuitous opportunity to try the rum at a tasting before he bid, something that most collectors are not normally able to do.

“There was a real sense of occasion sipping something that old. It put me in the mindset of how rum was created all those centuries ago. It was pungent, with lots of aroma. It can be quite emotional tasting something that last saw air in the 1700s.”

A few months on and David Elswood, international director of wine in Europe and Asia for Christie’s (which incorporates spirits sales), is sitting in his South Kensington office, empty bottles of Château d’Yquem and Château Lafite with peeling labels casually strewn around. In front of Elswood are small bottles of the two ancient Harewood rums. Even though it is 10am, it’s impossible to resist the offer of a taste of this precious nectar. It is wonderfully buttery with a warm, treacly finish.

As he explains, one of the major draws of buying very old spirits is that a good bottle is pretty much guaranteed. Whereas a 200-year-old wine can easily be oxidised, a spirit of the same age has been stored properly (upright with no cork damage) and so is a pretty safe bet. Any wine more than 50 years old is already becoming a risk, more than 100 is definitely a risk.

“Once a spirit is in the bottle, it doesn’t change for the worse. With wine there’s a steady decline – it starts to break down – so the trick is to catch it at the right point,” says Elswood. “Spirits can change – if you drank a brand new rum off the shelf, it might be quite sweet. These old rums have a bite you can’t replicate. But once in the bottle, spirits will not deteriorate.”

Bottles of 1780 rum discovered in the cellar at Yorkshire’s Harewood House in 2011
Bottles of 1780 rum discovered in the cellar at Yorkshire’s Harewood House in 2011 | Image: Glen Segal/Christie’s Images Ltd

It might seem surprising therefore that buying spirits at auction is still a niche market. According to Elswood, there are around 100 major whisky collectors in the world, the same for cognac, and maybe 20 or 30 for rum. The latter spirit is rare and only comes up occasionally and, along with others such as cognacs, armagnacs and brandies, will most often be included in wine auctions. Whiskies represent the majority of spirit auction sales, and many auction houses, such as Bonhams and McTear’s, have their own dedicated whisky departments.

Out of the whiskies, still eclipsing all other brands is The Macallan, with limited-edition bottles topping the world record sales. In January this year, the 6L “M” sold for a record £393,109 in Hong Kong (it also came in a specially commissioned Lalique crystal bottle). But the holy grail for many are the pre-second-world-war Macallans (the 18-, 25- or 50-year-olds), where good money is to be made. In June 2012, for example, a Macallan 1928 that was bottled in 1983 sold for £17,500 through Bonhams, despite having an estimate of £10,000-£12,000. However, the other end of the spectrum also represents a good investment. Macallan 18-year-olds bottled in the 1960s or 1970s that cost between £270 and £350 in 2011 now fetch between £380 and £550.

“Macallan has a significant profile in many countries, in particular the US,” says Stephen McGinty, whisky valuer at McTear’s, which holds at least 10 whisky auctions per year, usually with 1,000 to 1,400 bottles in each sale. “In recent years, the focus has moved away from a heavy sherry style to a lighter bourbon flavour, so the sherry kinds are more collectable.”

According to Whisky Magazine, which tracks auction trends, the top five performing brands last year were Macallan, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Springbank and Glenmorangie – and among the top three, anything pre-1970s is of particular interest. For those who are new to collecting, the good bets are limited, distillery-only releases, where one has to go to the distillery to buy them. A Macallan 1996 that was produced with Private Eye for its 35th anniversary had a release price of £35; one recently sold for £1,187.50.

“If you are buying something that is known to be produced in very small quantities, then the value is likely to go up,” says McGinty. “An example is a Black Bowmore 1964, which sold for £4,000 at McTear’s in 2013 and which had a reserve of £2,500]. There was a finite number produced and they were individually numbered, so every time one is opened, the value of the other bottles rises.”

Also look for bottles from distilleries that have closed. “There was a whisky boom in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Nicola Young, whisky specialist at Mulberry Bank Auctions in Glasgow. “But due to an economic downturn that led to a decrease in the sales of Scotch whisky, many distilleries were forced to close down in the early 1980s. So, ones to watch out for are bottles from the now-defunct Brora, St Magdelene, Port Ellen and Glenugie distilleries.” A Glenugie 1966, for example, sold for £340 at Mulberry Bank Auctions in 2013; it had an estimate of £160-£220. Some Japanese whisky is also worth a shot at the moment, according to Young, in particular aged ones like Yamazaki and Karuizawa, the latter of which no longer produces whisky.

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McGinty adds that pre-prohibition bourbons are another category of spirits also worth putting your money on, as are old Irish whiskies: “The whiskey industry in Ireland was never as organised as in Scotland, and never thrived so well in the international market. Much of the production died out before 1950. We managed to obtain a bottle of Nun’s Island, whose distillery had shut by 1915; it is only the second bottle that has come to light.” It went up for auction in April, and sold for £4,092.

As for other spirits, there are some excellent rums to invest in, such as pre-Castro Bacardis from the 1920s and 1930s (Bacardi was exiled from Cuba in 1960), or Appleton rums from Jamaica from the 1940s, Wray & Nephew 17-year-old rum and anything from Alfred Lamb’s 1939 and 1949 stock.

“With investment rum, factor in how long it has been sitting in the barrel,” says Burrell. “Make sure the cork has a seal. Many collectors dip it in wax again, and it must be kept upright.” He has also picked up an Appleton 50-year-old rum for £3,500 at auction. This was casked in 1962, the same year Jamaica won independence. Once it reached 50 years old, only 800 bottles were released. “Sometimes you can be very lucky with modern rums. About six years ago, I paid £40 for one from Venezuela, aged in cognac and called Plantation 1992 vintage. Because this limited rum was good, and sold out, it is now worth 10 times the original value. Even the company that produced the rum offered me money for my bottle, as it too has run out.”

Chartreuse, according to Elswood, is also an interesting spirit. “Green and yellow chartreuse is a niche collectors’ market,” he says. ‘It has gone through many different periods of production and ownership, resulting in a wide variation of styles and bottling. The full history dates back to the 17th century, and people collect older bottles avidly, particularly those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Christie’s will also be holding its first moutai sale later this year in either Shanghai or Beijing. Moutai, a fiery Chinese spirit made from sorghum (a type of grass) and wheat, which is most definitely an acquired taste, is collected feverishly by the Asian market. Pre‑sale estimates will range from £400 upwards to £40,000, with particular focus on vintages from the 1950s to the 1980s.

According to McGinty, although the cognac market isn’t so attractive at the moment (except perhaps the Napoleon 1811), old calvados has really taken a jump in the past few auctions, in particular anything around 1950 and older. Recently at McTear’s, a bottle of Manoir de Montreuil 1952 calvados, which had a reserve of £100, went for £320.

Black Bowmore 1964, sold for £4,000 at McTear’s
Black Bowmore 1964, sold for £4,000 at McTear’s

Yet for many it really is not about securing your child’s future school fees – it is to acquire something that is really one of a kind. Charles Bowman, owner of The Inn at Whitewell in Lancashire, regularly bids for spirits at auction, mainly from Bonhams or J Straker, Chadwick & Sons in Wales.

“We are a remote inn with a good wine list, so I want to make sure that the spirits in the bar are as interesting as the wines. The only way of doing that is going off-piste and getting individually bottled whiskies, for example, and things that are truly unique.”

He has bought many this way, including a Hine 1961 cognac and a Glenmorangie 1970. “I don’t necessarily do it for the good deals, as it’s all relative. Many of these bottles have no real benchmark for market prices as they are so rare, so you have to stick your bid in and see. If I’m in London and the sale is on, I’ll go. I’m the worst bidder. I fall asleep; I lose patience. But it reaps its rewards; I bought 24 bottles of Delamain 1980 cognac and thought I’d overdone it, but we went through it in three years.”

Another who has purchased for his restaurant is Ranald Macdonald, managing director and founder of the Boisdale in London. One of his star purchases is three bottles of a Macallan 46-year-old, bought 10 years ago for £2,000 a bottle; now it is worth £10,000.  

His advice? “Do your research, annotate each lot with your strike price and keep your wits about you. The only reason to go to auction is to buy better. The uncertainty makes it exciting… There are fluctuations on the day, of course, but I look to buy at 10 to 20 per cent better than the market. In the end, it’s quite good fun, too.”

Elswood says that international collectors and enthusiasts who buy from Christie’s are usually buying to drink their winning bids. “When you are a keen wine drinker, you have to finish with something special – and if you end with a 200-year-old cognac, it’s a pretty good feeling and nothing can follow that. And if you are a collector, there is no point walking into a tasting, or seeing a friend with something that everybody’s got. You are never going to find anything really rare in a shop. They will sell expensive spirits, but not a small production. What we offer is unlikely to be found anywhere else.”

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In the end, even if a successful bid does turn out to give a poor return, it is not all doom and gloom. “You should buy for passion,” says Martin Green, whisky specialist at Bonhams, Edinburgh. “You have to remember that whisky is speculative. It does, however, have the advantage that if it hasn’t gone up in value, you can at least have the pleasure of drinking it.”

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