It is tempting to presume that whisky collectors have had a stellar year in 2023. One of the most prolific sales in the rare whisky market was the Bowmore STAC 55 Year Old. The Islay distillery’s oldest release fetched a princely sum of £562,500 ($951,800) at a Sotheby’s auction, exceeding the guide price by a fair margin and setting a new record for Bowmore single malts.
Meanwhile, a bottle of Macallan Adami 1926 also went under the hammer at Sotheby’s and was transacted at more than double the guide price, setting a new record for the most expensive whisky ever sold at £2.1 million.
Despite these record-breaking events that both happened during the tail end of last year, whisky prices in the secondary market are actually not on the rise — at least not uniformly. According to secondary whisky market data experts, Whiskystats bottlings such as the Brora 30-year-old Special Release 2009 plunged from a peak of 2,800 euros ($4,000) in June 2022 to 1,400 euros in November 2023, a level not seen since August 2019.
In fact, the 500 historically most traded whiskies lost 8 per cent of their market value in November 2023, the most significant one-month loss of all time since Whiskystats began tracking whisky prices in 2015.
According to them, the reason is that long-established market rules no longer apply, causing uncertainty and forcing the meteoric rise in collectible whisky prices to go on a downtrend since Q2 2022.
A report on Whiskystats in November 2023 even states that the secondary whisky market is currently facing record losses, with their main Whisky Index (a market value-weighted index of the historically 500 most traded whiskies) retreating to January 2021 levels. This indicates that all value gains over the past three years have disappeared.
Speaking to private client director of Beam Suntory Daryl Haldane, the man with intimate knowledge behind the spirits giant’s old and rare stocks, he explains the phenomenon by noting that even though prices in the secondary market have softened in recent years, it’s “the big trophy bottles that are still doing well”.
Unsurprisingly, he believes 2024 is not a good time to sell your bottles, as only the top-tier, most collectible whiskies are fetching gains. It is also unpredictable when the market will see a broader rebound.
The year ahead
Don’t hold out hope that this year will buck the trend. In his dealings with the industry, Haldane reveals that the sentiment isn’t spectacular. “People are nervous about 2024. People don’t want to think too much or worry too much,” he says, adding that nothing is for certain, as with any investment.
After years of unprecedented growth in the secondary whisky market, the global economic and political uncertainty has now put a damper on surging bottle prices. Fuelled by negative events such as the wars in Ukraine and Israel, inflationary pressures worldwide, and the aftermath of COVID-19, spending attitudes are now more guarded.
“People will be more cautious generally, and impulse buys will slow down,” he remarks. “But buying a bottle of Bowmore or a premium whisky is usually a fairly thought-through decision anyway.”
He believes all is not lost. When it comes to deciding what could be a good bottle to collect, Haldane recommends looking at the track record. He notes that a distillery’s historical performance will have a “massive impact” on collectability.
“So find one with a good age statement, have good production credentials, and above all, it has to come from a distillery that has to have produced good whiskies over a good period of time.”
Within Beam Suntory’s portfolio, Bowmore obviously fits that description, cites Haldane. But beyond the brands he represents, he also names the likes of Isle of Harris Distillery, which produces The Hearach Whisky (the first whisky to come out of Isle of Harris), as another one to look out for.
A relatively new producer, he admires how they are “laying down the gauntlet” and challenging established norms, doing things such as lengthening fermentation times up to five days (two to four days is the norm).
He also encourages experimentation and giving lesser-known brands a go. “It’s sometimes worth a punt when you don’t know a distillery that well. Glen Scotia is an example. People don’t really know them, but the industry seems to think fondly of them.” One of only three distilleries in historic whisky capital Campbeltown, Glen Scotia is also one of Scotland’s smallest yet mightiest, claiming the title of Scotland’s Whisky Distillery of the Year in 2021.
The Glenturret distillery is also one to watch for its exceptional experience for tourists, Haldane notes. Their on-site Lalique Restaurant even claimed a Michelin star in 2023, a first for a distillery in Scotland.
Ask why you collect
Instead of worrying too much about the rise and fall of whisky prices, Haldane instead believes one should seek out the intrinsic joy of whisky collecting and consumption.
“When I buy a bottle, who is going to appreciate it more than me?”, he asks. “Drink it. It’s what it’s been made for. If you speak to anyone at a distillery, they are making it with the intention that someone will appreciate the liquid. I also don’t like the fact that there are people out there just looking to make quick money.”
As a collector of rare and premium whiskies, Haldane reveals that he drinks most of his bottles. He also enjoys giving away expressions that are hard for common consumers to understand to his friends. As for his most prized possessions, he will look for a special occasion to open them.
“There is no guarantee with any investment, and we don’t create whisky to be used like that,” he insists. “The worst case scenario with whisky, however, is that it is at least worth the same value as when you bought it.”
“So if you’ve got a good collection, I would say drink it. I think it’s sad if it goes into a cupboard and is never seen again.”