The Nuts And Bolts Of Collectible Whiskey

, | January 5, 2016

Investing in the stock market, especially in the past decade or so, is a risky business. It’s driven some people to drink. In doing so, they’ve come to realize the drink itself may be the only surefire investment in these turbulent times.

In particular, collectible whiskey has seen a massive jump in popularity among investors, with the top 100 whiskies appreciating in value by as much as 530.13% at auction since the 4th quarter of 2010, according to the Investment Grade Scotch Index updated 11/30/2015. It’s no wonder the price of Scotch has risen so high. As long as investors are willing to pay, say, $631,00 for a rare Macallan, mostly for its cut crystal decanter, or at least upwards of $50,000 for a 50-year-old Balvenie or Highland Park, this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Granted, those who are paying such high prices at auctions are people who have the disposable income to spend in the first place. What about the rest of us? And which whiskies should we be looking out for?

Collectible whiskey

Many Dalmore whiskies are considered collectibles. (image via The Dalmore)

For us mere mortals, the biggest factor to consider when investing in whisky is its rarity. It’s important to know how much of it exists, and there are several ways to determine just how rare is rare. (By the way, price doesn’t necessarily determine rarity or value.)

How Old? 

The easiest barometer is age. If something is upwards of 30 years old, it’s automatically rare. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good investment. Do the research and read reviews. An older Scotch might be a distillery release, which is your best bet, but the whisky might also have been held in a “knackered” cask, which dulls the outcome. It might also come from an independent bottler, who purchased a cask and might have given it their own cask treatment and watered it down below cask strength before bottling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Some independent bottlers, such as Samaroli, Signatory, Masters of Malt, Gordon McPhail, Cadenhead’s and others are doing great things with old casks, particularly when they are sourced from closed distilleries or single malts that are usually only found among big brand blends, such as Glenburgie. These are sometimes a fraction of the cost of a mature distillery release, and can be some of the best bargains out there.

Is it still being made? 

Keep an eye out for bottles from closed distilleries. The remnants of anything from a cherished distillery such as Port Ellen or Brora in Scotland, or Stizel-Weller in Kentucky, are automatically rare and collectible because the last drops are just that, at least for now. Get to know these, especially because they might be found under assumed names.

A barrel can only hold so much

Consider that anything labeled “single barrel” means it only came from that one barrel, and the character of the liquid inside is variable. Even if there is a large amount of a vintage single barrel release, such as Evan Williams 2000, there really is only so much of it to be had, and it could potentially appreciate in value later on.

Limited Editions, Experimentals, Collectibles 

Toward the end of the year, particularly at prime gift-giving season, brands tend to release one-offs that usually come in very limited supply for a number of reasons. Some brands such as Compass Box with their Flaming Heart or Jefferson’s Ocean do an annual or semi-annual version of a whisky that differs with each release, which automatically attaches value to the liquid once it disappears from the marketplace. Because it’s part of a series, it’s considered a collectible.

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This also applies to “experimental” or library releases, when there is a finite amount of a whisky that was given a special cask treatment, for example, or a peated version of a usually unpeated whisky. Most recently, Bowmore rolled out the Mizunara cask, finished in rare Japanese oak that’s otherwise only allocated for Yamazaki. Closer to home, there’s Buffalo Trace with their Single Oak Project and other experimentals (generally that word on a label is a good indication it was a limited edition.)

Discontinued Whisky 

With the proliferation of non-age statement (NAS) expressions starting to replace age statements, many whiskies are no longer, and some were discontinued for other reasons. The source may have run out, or there may even have been a labeling issue. A few examples of late include Elijah Craig 12 Year, Hibiki 12 Year, and the Glenlivet 12 Year. A few cherished blends are also gone such as Johnnie Walker Green Label. Personally, I am kicking myself for not investing in original Compass Box Spice Tree or a Dalmore Cigar Malt from the early 2000s.

Your best weapon as a whisky collector, besides the money to spend in the first place, is time and research. Know your whisky and suss out just how much of it exists and whether it’s any good to begin with. Attend as many tastings as possible and join communities to find out the best ways to protect your purchases and resell them when the time is right. Personally, I think whisky is meant for drinking and not to stare at and covet. If at all possible, purchase at least two of everything so one bottle can be consumed and the other(s) saved for later.

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Good luck and happy hunting!

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Amanda Schuster

Amanda Schuster is a freelance writer, marketer and consultant and the Editor in Chief of online drinks site The Alcohol Professor. With advanced training in both wine and spririts, she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." She also makes jewelry and strives to find at least one weekday afternoon...