Collecting dust

Certain whiskies, distillery names and expressions are highly desirable to collectors – Gavin Smith tries to find out why: what makes collectables collectable?
By Gavin D. Smith
The popular image of the ‘collector’ – of any commodity – is not too far removed from that of the ‘train spotter’. Tick-lists, Pot Noodles, and obsessive-compulsive disorders spring unbidden to mind.And whisky collectors! Why would anyone want to collect the stuff when they could drink it? Every distiller you speak to insists that he creates a product to be drunk, not to gather dust in a cabinet. Then again, if he happens to be responsible for something like Glenfiddich’s recent 1937 release, which sells for around £10,000 per bottle, he is likely to be disappointed.
The fact is that most collectors are also drinkers, and in an ideal world, when price permits, will purchase two bottles of any desirable whisky – one to consume and the other to keep. That way, they know the contents of their own collection intimately.Some collectors would rather cut off a piece of their anatomy than part with so much as a single miniature, while for others ‘dealing’ and speculation are part and parcel of the overall pleasure. Some purchase ‘off the shelf’, while others, perhaps those with deeper pockets, scour auction catalogues.Developing an interesting and potentially appreciating whisky collection need not, however, be a bank-breaker.
The likes of Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice range offers affordable rarities including a 1975 Braes of Glenlivet, and bottlings from defunct distilleries such as the perennially popular Port Ellen. These might serve as a good, historic, starting point for the potential collector, though the fact that they are bottled at 40% rather than cask strength does work against their ‘collectable’ status.Just to show their credentials as truly serious players in the collectors’ market, at the opposite end of the price spectrum from Connoisseurs Choice, Gordon & MacPhail have launched an elaborately-packaged decanter of 60-year-old single cask Mortlach, retailing at £7,000. The decanter is presented in a whisky chest, made by a Speyside cooper. A worldwide release of just 100 decanters suggests that if you can afford the initial purchase price, this will certainly appreciate in the future. For many collectors, The Macallan is the ultimate single malt of choice, and the make from Easter Elchies near Craigellachie has broken more sales records in its time than any other brand. In September 2001, a bottle of The Macallan 60-year-old sold at McTear’s Glasgow auction house for £15,000 – the highest price ever paid for a bottle of whisky.
According to The Macallan’s Master Distiller David Robertson: “There have been between 80 and 100 bottles of Macallan in each of McTear’s last three sales. The next most prolific, as it were, has been Bowmore, with between 15 and 25 bottles, followed by Springbank.”Robertson considers that The Macallan’s reputation as the most collectable of all whiskies may have developed initially because the distillers began to mark their 18-year-old expression with the date of distillation and the date of bottling, and later the 25-year-old carried the same unusual information, which marked it out from the rest of the whisky crowd.
“And part of the reason why The Macallan has become collectable is certainly its reputation as a very good whisky,” he says. “The quality of the drink itself is definitely a factor.”There are currently 1951 and 1961 vintage Macallans available, priced at a whopping £1,500 and £750 respectively, but Robertson points out that “in 1996 we produced a replica of an 1874 Macallan which sold for £65 per bottle, which we thought was an accessible price point. It meant people would buy it to drink as well as to keep. Because quite a lot of that got drunk, bottles that survive now change hands for between £200 and £300. Some of our whiskies are sold to collectors, some to consumers and some to speculators.“I think the 1861 replica which we did last year, and which sold for £100, will also eventually appreciate in value,” Robertson maintains. “We released 17,400 bottles globally, with 6,000 for the UK market, and those 6,000 sold out to retailers within a month of its launch. “It’s only in the last two or three years that we’ve begun to understand the power and the position that we have in the
collectors’ market. We’ve done lot of research with retailers and collectors to find out what they want, and we will certainly be producing more in the future, though we’re obviously conscious that it would be self-defeating to flood the market, and we need to be very careful in matching the price to the rarity of the bottling.” One man who knows more about collectable whiskies than most is Martin Green of the Martin Green Whisky Consultancy, which conducts whisky auctions in association with McTear’s. Green has now presided over six whisky auctions with McTear’s during the last two years, having previously been associated with Christie’s in Glasgow. Whiskies were first included in one of Christie’s fine wines auctions in 1986, and dedicated whisky sales soon followed.Green agrees with David Robertson that the reputation of the whisky as a drink does matter to collectors, and he reckons that single cask whiskies, in individually numbered bottles, always have a potential collectable value. “Anything with finite stocks, from closed or demolished distilleries, is worth considering,” he notes.Along with United Distillers & Vintners’ Rare Malts range, Green singles out Signatory’s cask-strength bottlings for consideration. “They are excellent either for drinking or keeping, and in some cases they have certainly appreciated over the last 10 years.” Among the company’s offerings is the Silent Stills range, which includes such rare gems as Glen Albyn and Glen Flager, ranging in age from 16 to 35 years. Also, says Green, “You see things such as the 1976 cask-strength Ardbeg which was released not long ago selling out very quickly.”Glenmorangie’s older bottlings and slightly more idiosyncratic finishes often appreciate, he says, pointing out that the 1963 Glenmorangie bottled at 22 years of age now changes hands for in excess of £300 per bottle.According to Green, one of the great collector’s whiskies is the ‘green’ Springbank, matured in two ex-rum butts and bottled by Cadenhead in 1991. “I think they originally sold for under £75, and now they go for up to £650,” he says.Matthew Mitchell, Communications Manager for Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd, considers that “whisky auctions are a very good barometer of what’s happening within the industry, and certainly Bowmore is the collectable Islay, and is challenging The Macallan in terms of prices paid all along the way. The 10- and 12-year-olds must have done well over the years to establish the whisky’s overall reputation, and the heritage and integrity of the brand are very important.”Mitchell is adamant that, in common with most distillers, Morrison Bowmore likes to see its products being drunk, first and foremost. With that in mind, Bowmore Voyage – finished in a port pipe – and a Claret-finished Bowmore were produced in numbered, limited editions of 12,000, and retailed at £34.99.Anyone willing to part with £3,965.01 more may still purchase a bottle of Bowmore 40-year-old, 294 of which were bottled. According to Mitchell, one US restaurateur drives his 40-year-old to and from his eatery in an armoured car, and the desirability of this particular expression was highlighted in Canada in 1999 when a bottle was stolen from a specialist retailer’s display. A phone call demanding a ransom for its return followed, but bottle 249 has never been recovered.
For many connoisseurs, however, the ultimate collectable Islay whisky is ‘Black’ Bowmore, distilled in 1964 and matured in sherry butts. 2,000 bottles were put on the market in 1993, a further 2,000 the following year, and 1,812 bottles in 1995. “They sold for a few hundred pounds when they were released,” says Mitchell, “but there has been increased interest in the Bowmore brand since then, and bottles can reach £1,500 at auction now. A set of all three would perhaps go for £5,000.”
Nicholas Morgan, United Distillers & Vintners marketing director for Premier Malts, echoes Martin Green’s views on the potential collectability of whiskies in UDV’s Rare Malts range. Rare Malts are bottled at cask strength, and, according to Morgan, “we now just release 6,000 bottles of every one we do, and they feature the age along with the bottling year, and each is individually numbered.“They’re cracking drinking whiskies,” he says, “and it irks me that some will just be kept in bottles, but they will appreciate with keeping. Rare Malts are usually aged between 20 and 25 years, because above 25 you are often pushing your luck – you just get too much wood character. “We also do distillery anniversary bottlings,” notes Morgan, “the most recent being a 19-year-old cask-strength Glen Elgin, of which there are just 750 bottles. Most of them are intended for internal sales, and as gifts, but a few are sold exclusively at our shop at Royal Lochnagar distillery, for around £200 per bottle.”In the USA much whisky-collecting centres around special, charitable editions of the Kentucky bourbon Maker’s Mark, famous for its hand-dipped wax finish.The earlier ‘specials’ were dipped in blue wax and white wax instead of the usual red, celebrating the all-conquering University of Kentucky basketball team a decade ago. According to the company’s International Brand Manager Nikki Owen, “they were an absolute hit, and the first one, in blue, sold out within minutes, as we only did about 750 cases. When we did the white one a couple of years later we made sure there was enough for everyone in Kentucky who wanted a bottle to get one. I’d say that 95% of the specials get kept, rather than drunk, and almost all are sold within Kentucky.”Since the events of September 11th, a special patriotic edition – dipped in red, white and blue wax – has been produced, for sale across the whole of the US.Maker’s Mark has also been part of what can be seen as the ultimate absurdity of obsessive collecting. Nikki Owen says “we sponsor the Maker’s Mark Mile race at Keeneland racecourse in the spring, and for the last four or five years we’ve done a special edition to tie in with that. People start queuing at 3 o’clock in the morning for them now – it’s mad!“Sometimes it’s been as limited as 5,000 bottles, and the most we’ve ever done was 10,000 bottles, and they were empty! We were very short of whisky stocks at the time, so we just did the bottles. We charge a few dollars more for the special bottlings, and the extra goes to a charity. The year we did the empty bottles we sold them for the same as all our other special bottlings, so the charity did very well indeed! Despite being empty bottles, they sold out within hours of going on sale.”Let’s just hope Scottish distillers don’t start getting ideas … McTear’s next specialist whisky auction is on April 17th. For information tel +44 (0) 141 2214456, or e-mail