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How to win at whisky auctions, according to the experts

Your guide to success when whisky goes under the hammer
By Gavin D. Smith
Joe Wilson, head of auction content for Whisky Auctioneer
Joe Wilson, head of auction content for Whisky Auctioneer
The trading of whisky has become such big business that long-established UK auctioneering names such as Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s now host dedicated whisky sales in a variety of locations around the world, including the USA, Hong Kong and Dubai, while the number of dedicated online whisky auction houses has proliferated to a remarkable degree during the past decade.

By nature of their specialisation, these houses have largely succeeded in concentrating vintage whisky knowledge within their teams, while also tapping into whisky communities to highlight upcoming sales and achieve higher hammer prices. What’s more, high-profile and widely marketed auctions of large private collections, such as Richard Gooding’s ‘Perfect Collection’, Pat’s Whisk(e)y Collection and Emmanuel Dron’s collection of rare Samaroli and Corti Brothers whiskies (all brought to auction by Perthshire-based Whisky Auctioneer), have brought mainstream attention to what was previously a niche, specialist-interest market.

With the single malt whisky auction market in the UK alone worth £53.3m in 2020, and its value expected to rise to £65-£70m this year, here is a brief guide to good practice that should help you make the best decisions, whether buying or selling whisky at auction.

Admiring Pat"s Whisky Collection, which was brought to auction by Whisky Auctioneer


DO’S AND DON’TS



Let’s start with the blindingly obvious. Don’t buy a ‘collectible’ bottle from a person you met in a pub, and beware anyone who claims that a recently deceased relative just happened to have an amazing collection of 100-year-old single malts. If a website offering bottles for sale looks less than professional in its approach, or seems to be listing bargains, don’t be tempted. As the old saying has it: if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Andy Simpson and David Robertson of consultants and brokers Rare Whiskies 101 add: “Never buy rare or collectible bottles through an online peer-to-peer auction. For example, where a seller lists their own bottle(s), sells direct to a buyer and there are no ‘eyes on’ auctioneers to look at the physical bottles, which is the first back-stop. The vast majority of online and traditional auctioneers take fakes very seriously and, given the growing competition in the marketplace, understand that reputation is critical.”

Andy Simpson and David Robertson of RareWhisky101 sampling from the cask.


Isabel Graham-Yooll, auction director of London-based Whisky.Auction, confirms this and also shares her own advice regarding choosing an auctioneer. “Any reliable auction house or retailer should be inspecting bottles on your behalf before sale. Each lot should include clear images as well as a brief condition report to demonstrate that the bottle has been checked.

“If you’re using a retailer or auction you’ve not used before, look at an auction’s track record for past sales of items similar to what you are buying or selling. You quickly get a feel for whether the auction specialises in the sort of bottles you’re interested in.”


The issue of commission is one that often confuses inexperienced potential buyers, as they are unsure just what the final bill, beyond the hammer price, will be. Writer, bottler and consultant Angus MacRaild explains: “Buyer commission is much better at the dedicated online auctions (10-15 per cent) than at traditional houses like Bonhams or McTear’s, where commissions often go over 25 per cent and can appear borderline insulting. The only benefit here is that sometimes you can get bargains, although rarely these days.”

Isabel Graham-Yooll notes that Whisky.Auction’s website has a feature that allows bidders to estimate the total payment live during the auction, so additional charges and the final price are clear at every stage of the process – though an account is required to access this service. She also notes that buyers should plan to pay for delivery and extended storage, if required. Overall, make sure that any auction you use publishes all costs clearly in advance. If you are buying across an international boundary then you should familiarise yourself with local import taxes, too.
If you happen to be in the business of selling rather than buying, commission should again be something to take careful account of, as are the track records of various auction houses. Ask yourself which house seems most likely to give you the largest return – this will likely be the house that is best marketing itself to the most likely audience for your bottles. Additionally, it may be advantageous to choose an auction house within relative proximity to your location so that you can easily deposit your bottles.

Isabel Graham-Yool of Whisky.Auction


In terms of that seller’s commission, the general feeling is that, due to increasing competition, no one selling whisky should be paying more than 5 per cent commission, plus listing fees and VAT. “The only room for manoeuvre auction companies have now is really around whether to charge commission or not, and the levels of service they are able or willing to provide,” says Angus MacRaild. “If you have a good-sized collection of top-quality, valuable or rare bottles, there is no reason for you to pay commission anymore. Even the top auction houses that achieve the best prices will be flexible in these instances on commission.”

For sellers in the EU, Brexit has added extra complexity relating to customs charges and VAT, and Whisky Auctioneer now operates a dedicated office in Germany for the convenience of EU residents. On this topic, Anthony Sheehy, founder and managing director of Dundalk-based Irish Whiskey Auctions, notes: “Brexit has seen regulations on the import and export of whiskey tighten up from the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. This is a challenge that all auction houses now face regardless of being based in the UK or not. Luckily, we planned for this eventuality and have the processes and steps in places to combat a tough Brexit. We have yet to see a decrease in buyers and sellers dealing with us from the UK. We are an Irish company but, through our extensive planning, we continue to be well known in the UK and further afield.”

Angus MacRaild concludes that the best places to sell whisky now are the United Kingdom’s online dedicated auctions: “They are mostly good companies that make a real effort for their customers and achieve good prices. Most of them will provide a good service to sellers and give clear advice about how to get bottles to them.”

FAKES AND FRAUDS



Given the amounts of money for which the best bottles change hands at auction, it is hardly surprising that some of them are not quite what they should be. Andy Simpson of Rare Whisky 101 asserts that bottles of purported 19th-century provenance should be closely investigated: “Anything meant to have been bottled during the 1890s or turn of the century: assume it’s fake until you prove it’s genuine. Guilty until proved innocent!”

Rare Whisky 101 was responsible for uncovering counterfeit rare Scotch whisky with a nominal valuation of US$1 million in 2016, including a 1903 Laphroaig that was subjected to the most rigorous analysis possible. As Simpson and business partner David Robertson reported, “We assessed the glass and labels and were satisfied the ‘packaging’ was of its era. But what of the liquid? We decided to open and assess the liquid and were disappointed to find (both organoleptically and via technical analysis) that it was a young blended Scotch, with no phenols (weird if it was Laphroaig!) and had it carbon dated to confirm it was distilled in very recent times.”

A bottle of Laphroaig which RareWhisky101 proved not to be genuine.


It is not just rare, expensive bottles that are faked, either, with Simpson confessing that in November 2019 he bought a ‘fake’ bottle – even though he’s been collecting for 32 years. “It was a physical auction and I bought a 1970s Johnnie Walker Red Label for £30,” he recalls. “When I came to open it there was no ‘crack’ as someone had apparently drunk some, watered it down and carefully matched up the ring and the cap and resealed it. It was a schoolboy error. I bought it on a photograph, without seeing the actual bottle. So, there are even low-value fakes out there.”

Simpson notes that Rare Whisky 101 has a ‘hit list’ of whiskies the duo advise clients never to buy at auction. One example is The Macallan Robert Burns Decanter, which was launched in 2008 and had no seal, be it foil or plastic closure. As a result, lots have been refilled and offered for sale. “Only 250 were released and we calculated that 105 have sold at auction! That seems an awful lot. It originally sold for £199 and, in April of this year, one went for £4,000, so the temptation to fill an empty decanter with something and colour match it to the original is strong. As values continue to rise, we will see more and better fakes,” he explains, describing The Macallan as “the classic replicated brand” and noting that The Macallan Gran Reserva bottlings are some of the most regularly faked whiskies in circulation.

But all is not lost and the canny buyer can protect themselves against fakes to a reasonable extent when buying at auction, with application of proper due diligence.


Isabel Graham-Yooll offers some handy tips that include spotting spelling mistakes on bottle labels – yes, they really do occur occasionally – and examining fonts and typefaces carefully, paying attention to word and line spacing. Likewise, Andy Simpson urges prospective buyers to do their research and compare the bottle in question to images online. “Does it look right? Does the printing look pixelated, for example? If so, it’s digital printing, so it’s not genuine. Look for the quality of print and colour,” he suggests.

Graham-Yool also has good advice about careful examination of closures. Steer clear if the capsule looks loose, the wax sealant is clumsily applied or there are tool marks on the screw cap. Simpson draws attention to a 40-year-old Dalmore that had its capsule sliced open at the back to facilitate refilling, before being re-sealed and entered at auction. The colour of the liquid can be a giveaway when it comes to refilling genuine bottles, so, if possible, compare the bottle in question with another from the same batch, and while doing so check the fill levels.

If the bottle you are considering bidding on has a significantly higher or lower fill level, it is reasonable to be suspicious
.

When considering spending serious money on an old, rare bottle, carbon dating is an option worth considering. It may be something of a blunt instrument, as it cannot tell you if an 1888 whisky, for example, was produced in that year, but it can tell you if it was produced from the 1960s onwards – if it was, it will contain radioactive carbon-14. As most fakes use ‘modern’ liquid, it is a way of determining if an old bottle really is old, but the process is expensive, costing around £600 per bottle. However, if you are a serious player, it may well end up saving you from a costly and embarrassing mistake.

“People have been going around asking barmen for empty bottles, and eBay has had empty Macallan 30 Years Old bottles on offer for £1,000,” adds Simpson. “One empty bottle I spotted there was actually a fake. So, somebody who bought it was actually going to be faking a fake!”

FLIPPING HECK!



Apart from concerns regarding potential fakes, one of the most talked-about issues related to buying bottles of whisky at auction is that of ‘flipping’. This is the practice of buying new limited releases from desirable brands and then selling them on at inflated prices through auctions almost immediately. Unsurprisingly, this causes frustration and even anger amongst drinkers and genuine collectors, who find these whiskies priced beyond their reach.

Some ‘flippers’ are highly professionalised. Their methods include trawling internet forums for leaked information about unannounced new releases or restocks at retailers, using automated monitoring software to alert them to upcoming releases when announcements go live, and creating multiple fake email accounts to register multiple times for ballots using falsified names to escape detection (a process that can also be automated). This then allows them to get in ahead of other buyers when limited-release bottlings go on sale.

The scale of ‘flipping’ is well illustrated by the fact that one major online whisky auction site, which does not go out of its way to court ‘flippers,’ as some actively do, sold just under 4,000 full bottles at one recent monthly sale – approximately one-third of those were ‘flipped’ recent limited editions. As Angus MacRaild says, “There are a lot of people who have formed almost another micro-industry around this practice utilising the secondary market. It has happened because whisky as a product is highly influenced by the laws of supply and demand.

“There’s a big, general consensus on quality and the types of whisky that are most desirable around the world. There’s a massive new, connected and educated global audience for these bottles. And as such the secondary market exists by there being an excess of demand over supply – and of course by technological virtue of the internet.”

One company making clear its opposition to ‘flipping’ is Royal Mile Whiskies (RMW), which operates a scheme it calls Drammers Reward. This involves adding £5 to the recommended retail price of selected limited editions under £100 and £10 to the RRP of selected bottles priced at more than £100. If the purchase is made online and the buyer agrees to have his or her name and order number written on the bottle, then a voucher for double the difference will be emailed to the buyer for future use on the company’s website. For physical sales, after the purchase the buyer can open the bottle outside the shop, go back inside to show a member of staff and receive a voucher for double the difference to spend on a return visit. Importantly, RMW also operates a policy of not allowing staff members to buy allocated stock or limited editions, does not offer pre-launch sales or ‘favours’ to major customers or friends, never hoards stock against future price rises, and maintains strict ‘per household’ limits on the especially desirable bottles on offer.

RMW’s purchasing and sales director, Arthur Motley, explains, “Over the last few years, we have seen a huge increase in people buying up limited releases. We’ve come up with Drammers Reward to provide a bonus for drinkers who’ve had a terrible time of it competing against highly professionalised re-sellers.”

Another way in which ‘flipping’ can be discouraged is by the use of ballots, which is an approach that’s been adopted by the trainer industry for the release of highly desirable limited editions such as those from Nike’s Jordan and Air Yeezy lines. However, there are mixed feelings in the whisky scene about this approach; as a leading retailer puts it, “That feels a bit like giving up, and can foster the attitude that you’ve ‘won’ something, so it shouldn’t be opened.” This opinion is certainly backed up by trends seen in the sneaker scene, where ‘hyped’ editions are often kept unworn and then hoarded by resellers before being sold on for huge mark-ups via resale sites such as StockX or Klekt.

Stepping back in the whisky world, one producer and bottler that is now taking the ballot concept to a whole new level is Thompson Bros. Distillers of Dornoch. According to co-founder Simon Thompson, “Bottles are numbered, so we know who got each bottle and we have developed a tier system, which uses custom software. There are eight tiers, and the lower the tier status the better chance you have of getting a bottle.

“People we know are selling bottles will get taken off the ballot and people who email us photographs of opened bottles will have their tier status improved. It’s about giving the best chance to the people who buy bottles and drink them.”

Simon Thomson, co-founder of Thomson Bros. of Dornoch


However, not everyone associated with whisky auctions is opposed to flipping. “We can discuss whether buying a bottle of whisky at one price then quickly selling it at a profit is ethical if you like, but isn’t this what retailers do?” asks Isabel Graham-Yool. “Why can’t individuals be allowed to do it, too? Whisky isn’t a human right, like potable water or a nutritious diet. At its most basic, whisky is still a luxury item.

“Some auctions do encourage flippers, and that is their decision to make. Some park themselves outside distilleries or whisky festivals to encourage people to queue up to buy distillery or festival exclusives, then ‘flip’ them straight into the waiting auction van! It’s not illegal or even immoral, of course, but I would have to agree with anyone who found it a little vulgar.”

Angus MacRaild observes that the vast majority of people with an interest in whisky are a combination of drinker, collector, flipper. “Most people seriously into whisky have also sold some bottles at auction and made some money. A lot of them (myself included) sell some bottles in order to ‘upgrade’ to better bottles off the back of the profits, often motivated by desire to drink those better whiskies. These things are
more complex than we often give them credit for.

“I think there is something of a pushback among whisky companies to try and re-balance things by making more bottles preferentially available to customers who will open and enjoy them. Lots of shops, bars and bottlers are looking into this and so, while I don’t think flipping or auctions are going anywhere any time soon, I do think this is a phenomenon that will become slightly more redressed over the near-medium term.”