A few weeks ago, I and many of my esteemed Whisky Magazine colleagues were on the staff at Whisky Live London, the annual tasting show organised by our parent company. Over two days, hundreds of whisky fans walked through the doors of the Honourable Artillery Company and had the chance to sample whiskies from more than 30 global companies.
I spent most of the show’s second day, which comprised two packed sessions, behind the World Whiskies Awards bar (playing skipper to our editor-at-large’s captain). We had a great selection of whiskies to share with ticket holders, crossing continents and a variety of styles. It was the first time I’d served at a whisky show of any kind, and aside from many more requests for ‘smoky’ whiskies than I’d expected, one thing that struck me was the frequency with which I was asked for the ‘most expensive’ whisky we had behind the bar.
Of course, it could be considered a natural request to make when in the presence of such a diverse bunch of award entrants and winners, including rare limited-edition and single-cask releases. And indeed, we did have a few such drams to share: Teeling 32 Years Old, 25-year-olds from Glenlivet and Glengoyne, Midleton Very Rare 2023, the ruby port-finished Redbreast 27 Years Old, and a Colonel E.H. Taylor bourbon, to name a few.
There are some logical reasons why older whiskies command a higher price tag, including the relatively low proportion of whisky that comes out of the cask compared with what went in, the years of storage and maintenance as required, and the careful monitoring by expert noses and palates to determine the right time to bottle. Recent high-profile collections by Dalmore (Decades) and The Macallan (The Red Collection) demonstrated the power that ultra-high age statements can wield, fetching enviable prices at auction: a full set of The Red Collection was sold by Sotheby’s for £756,400 in October 2020, while a complete set of Dalmore Decades bottlings set a record for the luxury malt sector when it sold for £830,000 through the same auction house a year later.
However, the quality of scarcity is not unique to older expressions. Younger distilleries, as they build up their stocks, play a delicate balancing act between how much liquid they bottle youthfully to start making sales, and how much is held back for further maturation or monitored for single cask potential. As a result, their first batches of (necessarily) younger whisky can be hard to get hold of. Initial releases from Torabhaig and Lagg in Scotland, for example, both relatively new players on the field, sold out at a blistering pace.
Other than age and rarity, what else do we prize in whisky? Rare casks could be counted, too. The latest release in Glenfiddich’s Grand Series, the Grand Yozakura 29 Years Old, became the first single malt Scotch whisky to utilise ex-Awamori casks for finishing. This traditional Japanese rice-based spirit is generally stored in clay pots rather than wood, so the occurrence of ex-Awamori casks is in itself rare – let alone finding any to purchase and ship to Scotland to finish a whisky in. Down the decades, there has been notable remuneration for distillers that have claimed the ‘first-ever’ finishings in casks from famed rum producers (such as The Balvenie 27 Years Old A Rare Discovery, which was finished in casks that formerly held sought-after Caroni rum), Cognac houses, or wine estates (Glenmorangie has a solid track record in this, quite possibly influenced by director of whisky creation Dr Bill Lumsden’s knowledge of and love for fine wine).
You may have noticed, but all these examples equate the concept of worth to price, or commercial value. In reality, the two are not synonymous – we can recall an old proverb (generally attached to the miserly) about knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. While price is determined by a number of external factors and does, to some extent, have an objective quality, value is more subjective, more ephemeral. We determine what is valuable to us – and that’s something I’ll bear in mind if I find myself behind such a well-stocked whisky bar again, deciding which bottle to reach for.