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For most of us, so-called premium whiskies remain firmly in the realms of fantasy, whisky jewels to be enjoyed vicariously through shop brochures, product images and tasting notes. But who buys these bottles, and who, if anyone, actually drinks them? Richard Jones finds out more.
By Richard Jones
It was perhaps an apocryphal tale, a mythical story handed down between generations of Oddbins store staff. The kind of thing that would happily wile away a quiet Monday morning or, on occasion, provide a source of comfort in the face of dreary wages and the daily working hours.Around the turn of the millennium Oddbins released an exclusive Bowmore 1964 single Oloroso sherry cask bottling at the dizzy price tag of £995. Just 95 bottles of this ridiculously rare malt were made available; a further four bottles were retained by the distillery as museum stock. One bottle was purchased by the father of a member of Oddbins staff at a store somewhere in the South of England (it’s not in the nature of these tales to be too specific on details).Legend has it that when said father arrived at the store to collect his bottle he did a truly remarkable thing. Rather than covertly stuffing the whisky inside his jacket and retiring to the safe confines of his home, he decided to crack open the bottle there and then. Nearly one thousand pounds worth of whisky was shared between father and Oddbins staff that evening in the spirit of generosity, education and conviviality. Allegedly.However if Mr Oddbins Father could have gazed into the future he might not have been quite so charitable with his precious bottle.According to Martin Green, whisky consultant and author of Collecting Malt Whisky A Price Guide, today the market for high end whiskies is ‘extremely buoyant’.Prices have risen significantly for many bottlings over the past few years and the aforementioned Bowmore 1964 now retails at upwards of £2000 a pop. Martin Green was holding the hammer at a recent McTears auction in Glasgow when a W & J Mutter’s Bowmore Circa 1850 (whose cork had recently dropped into the spirit) sold for a world record whisky auction price of £29,400 including premium. While auction prices continue to escalate, the number of new top end whiskies released by distilleries is also on the increase. As Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange observes: “There has never been so many premium whiskies available; the market is really very strong at the moment.” There are no prizes, however, for guessing that the majority of these bottles are not bought and drunk in your local Oddbins the self same evening. How many, in fact, are actually consumed at all? Martin Green acknowledges that most of the lots at a typical McTears auction are not bought to drink, although he also points out that many purchasers are retailers looking to sell the product on. Retailer Sukhinder Singh is far more bullish in his assessment, “I’d say that 90 per cent of bottles are bought to be opened. Without people consuming the product there simply isn’t a market for collecting and speculating in whisky.” Talking to Martin Green, you quickly become conscious of the rarefied world in which he works. To him ‘top end’ means just that, the ultimate in premium whiskies such as the aforementioned Bowmore circa 1850 (with cork in the liquid) or Dalmore 62 Years Old which has fetched as much as £32,000 a bottle (and then drunk immediately from the hotel where it was purchased, a story that kind of puts our Oddbins tale to shame).However the whiskies within the scope of this article have been arbitrarily defined as ‘anything more than £200’, an approximate average price for a lot at McTears.And who buys whisky more than £200 a bottle? “At the absolute top end of the market the buyers are obviously extremely affluent,” explains Martin Green. “I would say that they also have a passion for whisky or a respect for the rare. Many of them also have a real love for Scotland and enjoy visiting distilleries.” One of the explanations given for the growth in the market is the influx of new wealthy buyers in the far east, but Sukhinder Singh isn’t so sure. “I’d say it’s a little bit early to be talking about Russia, China and India particularly for malt whisky,” he remarks. “At the moment they’re principally about blends.” Sukhinder is fortunate to have a number of wealthy malt whisky clients including some who no longer drink anything under £200 a bottle. “A typical drinker of high end whiskies will have money and a certain class,” he notes. “The sensible clients will start at the bottom learning about the product with more mainstream bottles before they move upwards.” Sukhinder has a customer who typically buys one £500 bottle a week. “He really understands whisky and can afford to indulge his passion. He has very diverse tastes and is always looking for recommendations from us.” Not a bad customer to have, then.Kate (not her real name) lives in Staffordshire and is one of the few buyers of premium whisky prepared to talk about her passion (albeit anonymously). She first became aware of whisky following a visit to Talisker Distillery on Skye, but this only turned into a passion around four years ago. “I started calling into The Wine Shop in Leek and attending their whisky tastings,” she states.“My ceiling was probably around £40 at first but as I started to try more bottles the price slowly began to increase.” At the moment Kate’s most expensive whisky purchases are a rare distillery bottling of Ardbeg 1972 and a 1965 Bunnahabhain at around £450 each. Like many buyers, Kate acquires bottles to both open and collect. “But I’d never buy anything that I wouldn’t want to drink,” she remarks.And would she ever consider raising her price ceiling higher? “I didn’t think I’d ever spend £450 on a bottle of whisky so it’s difficult to know, but ‘never say never’!” Kate would appear to be typical of the new educated and affluent consumer that appears to be responsible for much of the growth in the market for premium whiskies. These are people with a developing passion for the product with the means to indulge their interest with some of the finest examples available. Certainly they are savvy enough to know that their purchases have the opportunity to accumulate in value, but would not be too disconsolate if they were ‘forced’ into drinking them. For those of us without the financial clout to dip into the premium end of the whisky market, it somehow seems preferable to think the bottles are destined to remain gathering dust in a collector’s cabinet rather than being poured down the necks (perhaps mixed with coke) of the uninformed, undiscerning nouveau riche.Don’t you just hate them?