The supremacy of the Hong Kong based auction houses and the huge explosion in trading in Japanese whisky was the story of live whisky auctions in 2015.
Whisky Magazine Issue 135 carries the 50th consecutive issue of the WMI column, and over the years, the prices paid for collectible whisky and the number of whisky lovers participating in whisky auctions has grown phenomenally. Live auctions accounted for £6.8 million in WMI eligible bottles in 2015, accounting for 8,500 bottles. Towards the latter part of 2014, the signs were becoming clearer that Karuizawa had developed an unstoppable momentum. The closed Japanese distillery brand championed by Number One Drinks rose quickly up the WMI to battle with The Macallan for the top spot. Using only live auction data, it took until the final months of the year to unseat The Macallan, though the online auctions in the UK were buzzing with Karuizawa sales all year.
One of the most telling figures was the category of bottles costing more than £2,000. The Macallan had dominated this category as far back as 2007 when WMI data collection began. Last year marked the first year The Macallan was outsold comprehensively, with 419 bottles of Karuizawa selling for more than £2,000 compared with 177 from The Macallan. Little wonder that the 2015 top five most expensive bottles sold at live auction were all from Karuizawa, including a new world record price for a standard sized bottle of whisky. The highest price paid for The Macallan in 2015 was at Wally’s, New York for a bottle of The Macallan 50 Years Old in Lalique, the only bottle in the top 10 list of highest live auction prices not to be sold in Hong Kong. McTear’s, Glasgow had the highest live auction price paid in Europe (£20,000 for The Macallan) but this fell outside the top 10 values. Average prices for The Macallan peaked in June 2015 at £1,976, and fell back 15 per cent over the second half of the year to £1,673. Karuizawa average prices ended 2014 at £1,297 and ended up 94 per cent higher at £2,517 by the end of 2015. Pappy Van Winkle prices stabilised, gaining a comparatively modest 9 per cent.
The WMI top 25 had some new entries and a few brands dropped out. The major new entry was Old Overholt after dozens of antique bottles were sold through Christies, New York which took it above Van Winkle in the top three. The Japanese brands of Hanyu, Nikka, Hibiki, and Suntory all made substantial gains in their position in the top 25. Glenmorangie, Highland Park, and Bruichladdich are single malt Scotch whisky brands that were once in the top 10 but these days, they are more commonly traded online than at live auction and have dropped down. Lagavulin, Talisker, and Rosebank were previously long-staying WMI brands that struggled to hold on to a top 25 position for the whole year, however, Glenfiddich and Port Ellen bucked the trend with consistently strong performances.
There were no shortage of great collectibles released on to the market in 2015, many of which were actively traded from the word go. These included Highland Park Odin, Glenmorangie Tùsail, Bowmore Mizunara Cask, Laphroaig 32 Years Old, Ardbeg Perpetuum Committee Reserve, Redbreast Mano a Lámh, Midleton Dair Ghaelach, The Glover from Adelphi, Arran White Stag First Release, and the Arran Illicit Stills Smugglers’ Series. There were plenty of opportunities to buy aged grain whisky from closed distilleries during the year. This market may be worth watching for the development of a more active secondary market as retail prices have climbed steadily to around £500 or more for liquid from the 1960s. At the top end of the single malt market, there were whiskies to tempt you until you ran out of ready cash, but these all look to have reasonably good credentials for growth in value over the mid to long term. My picks are the Glendronach single sherry casks from the 1960s and 1970s, the best examples from the Glenfarclas Family Casks, Tomatin Rare Casks, Midleton Very Rare Pearl 30th Anniversary, Ledaig 42 Years Old, The Macallan Masters of Photography Mario Testino, and the remarkable Gordon & MacPhail Generations Mortlach 1939 75 Years Old.
The year that...
• Bonhams were named Auction House of the Year for the second year running, after handling around £3 million in WMI eligible bottles.
• Karuizawa took the top spot in the rankings, after Macallan had ruled the chart since data collection began in 2007.
• The WMI started the year at 1141.7 and ended the year at 1800.5 (up 57.7%, a similar rate of growth to 2014).
• Eight separate auctions contributed more than £200,000 to the WMI.
• The most expensive live auction bottle of the year was £63,011 for the Karuizawa 1960 52 Years Old The Cockerel sold by Bonhams, Hong Kong on 28th August 2015.
• For the third year running, Bonhams, Hong Kong had the highest grossing sale. On 28 August, their sale contributed over £672,000 in WMI eligible bottles.
• Christies, New York sold the greatest number of WMI eligible bottles in a single auction on 24 October 2015 (335 in total).
• For the fifth year running, more bottles of The Macallan were sold at auction than any other brand, narrowly ahead of Karuizawa.
• Old Overholt made the biggest gain up the rankings to enter the top 25 brands after a large quantity of vintage bottles were sold through Christies, New York.
• Worldwide, a total of 766 bottles sold at live auction for £2,000 or more (up significantly by 133% on 2014, itself a year where this figure grew 40%). The major brands within this comprised Karuizawa 54.7%, The Macallan 23.1%, Bowmore 4.4%, Hanyu 2.9%, Glenfiddich 2.7%, The Dalmore 1.6%, Yamazaki 1.6%, and Nikka 1.6%, with the remainder, in decreasing order of frequency, representing top prices for Balvenie, Springbank, Van Winkle, Laphroaig, Glenfarclas, Highland Park, Ardbeg, Glenlivet, Port Ellen, Glen Grant, Glenrothes, Hibiki, Royal Brackla, and Rosebank.