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Beware bargain barrels

Just when you thought you'd heard the end of whisky investment scams, Ian Buxton says the true story will be in the drinking
By Ian Buxton
Iwas reminded of this old adage when browsing around eBay recently. There I saw what looked like a real bargain – a hogshead of 10 year old single malt starting at offers of more than £200!Out came the calculator. Assuming normal evaporation, that should be enough whisky for 36 cases of 12 bottles at 40% abv.Bottling will cost around £30 per case for a small run like this, even allowing for a nice bottle and handsome label.Surely one of my friends in the trade could be persuaded to retail this at, say, £25 a bottle? “Buxton’s Specially Selected Mystery Malt” – it had a ring to it. I had to find out more so I contacted the seller.A curious tale emerged. The owner of the whisky worked in IT and had bought the cask in 1995 – a victim of one of the dodgy investment scams that were around back then. He paid £1,145 for the new fillings, believing he’d see annual returns of around 20 per cent. Even today as a private individual you can buy 200 litres of new made Islay single malt in a fresh bourbon barrel for £775 so you can see why this particular scam attracted the interest of the boys in blue. During the decade his cask had cost him another £200 or so in warehouse rents and insurance.But, he wasn’t actually the victim.Fortunately, he’d paid by credit card and the bank had reimbursed him the capital cost so any advance on £200 would represent a return for this “investor.” He told me the whisky was Tobermory, but didn’t have the faintest idea about its quality, or the wood it had been filled into.He could have obtained a cask sample at a cost of £25 but explained quite candidly that he’d never bothered. Frankly, I’m not sure he even knew where Tobermory was or could tell good whisky from bad.I thought some more. Take away duty, VAT and my friendly retailer’s margin on a £25 sale and I’m left with about £9.50 per bottle. Bottling costs reduce that to around £7 – but that’s still a gross revenue of more than £3,000.By now the auction bidding had warmed up – the price was £400 and rising. Still, that leaves room for a tasty profit. And then I thought even more deeply.How likely was it that the original scamsters had ordered the finest new barrels for their whisky? How could I put my name to this cask? What would the distillery have to say about it? Would it even be worth drinking, or is this spirit best submerged in some “value” blend for a faroff supermarket?The profits to be made as more casks of this ‘investment’ whisky surface are troubling, however. It causes doubts to be raised about the quality of some of the independent single cask bottlings we are seeing. If I can buy whisky like this, anyone can… what happens after that is anyone’s guess.What did finally happen is that the auction closed with a sale at £510.01.What the buyer intends to do with it I cannot say – but watch this space. A decade on the great whisky “investment” story has some way yet to run.I should add here that back in 1995 the distillery involved sold the new fillings in good faith and that they were entirely innocent of any involvement in the subsequent marketing of the “investment.” In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association was energetic in exposing this malpractice. My concern is that the story hasn’t ended.Look out.