Single malt whisky is not simply a drink. The world of marketing that we live in means that from your clothes to your choice of alcoholic beverage, it is likely that many of your purchases are both consciously and subconsciously chosen to say something about you, your values, your persona etc. Day to day it can be unconscious as your choice of coffee or the type of shoes you wear, but on a larger and more conscious scale there are things that we choose because we like how it looks or what it says about us.
Telling the story of you without words
A Rolex doesn’t tell better time than a Casio, but a Rolex, and even the type of Rolex (e.g. a 18ct gold Datejust vs a vintage Submariner), says something about the wearer. Through branding and heritage Rolex has become a status symbol. The same transformation has happened to single malt whisky over the last 20 years.
Whether you are drinking in a bar or creating a collection, single malt whisky is not simply a drink. Just like you might buy (or aim to buy) a Rolex rather than a Casio even though the latter tells better time, so too you might spend £285 on a Macallan 18 year old rather than £80 on a bottle of Old Particular Dailuaine 18 year old even though the Dailuaine has won the Master Taste award at the 2022 Scotch Whisky Masters. On the collecting side of things, you might purchase a Bowmore DB5 collaboration for £115,900 (inc. premium) even though you could buy the exact same whisky, just in a different bottle for £11,760 (inc. premium).
Whisky vs. Wine
Examples like those above are not exclusive to whisky. However the whisky market is often mistakenly considered similar to that of wine, where quality and reviews impact value. Within the secondary whisky market there is very little value placed on the quality of whisky as a drink. Consistently it is not the most highly rated whiskies that achieve the highest price. It is not always even the scarcest or the oldest either. In fact, to the untrained eye the whisky market can seem completely unpredictable, with the same whisky achieving vastly different prices depending on the bottle that it is in, and modern relatively common bottles going for two to three times that of much scarcer vintage releases.
Think we are exaggerating? Or that the Bowmore example is a fluke? Check out these other examples.
One 50 year old, Two decades, Two hundred thousand pounds difference!
In 1919 Springbank laid down a cask that would mature for 50 years before being bottled in 1970. It was released by the distillery in a stunning pear shaped bottle, unfortunately it was ahead of its time; an aged single malt in a time when blended whisky was the preference. A few bottles reached lucky buyers, and even less were kept, making these very rare on the secondary market. Despite that they are reasonably priced (for what they are) and in February 2022 you could pick up a bottle of this incredible whisky for your collection for just £21,840 inc. premium.
Back to the 1980s, single malt was becoming more popular and Springbank rebottled their remaining stock of the 50 year old into 24 hand numbered, classic glass bottles and gave them an attractive wooden box. With just 24 of these originally available they are correspondingly much rarer at auction today, even so the difference in price between the two versions is staggering. The record auction price for the 1980s rebottled version is £226,200. That’s over two hundred thousand pounds more for something that is, at its essence, the same thing.
It doesn’t look the same though. Both are recognisably Springbank, but the later version with its box and hand numbered label, has much more presence to someone who doesn’t necessarily know the difference. It is the 18ct gold Rolex compared to the Cosmograph Daytona; one sends a clear message to everyone who sees it, whereas the vintage Cosmograph is only a signifier of wealth to those who have the knowledge.
The Macallan, Long Live The King
The Macallan are the king of the rebrand, and they have a few examples to blow your understanding of value out of the water. First let’s look at the relatively modest 1937 37 Year Old. Depending on whether you go for the original Macallan-Glenlivet from the 1970s, the Fine and Rare version rebottled in 2002, or the Lalique decanter rebottled in 2018, you can expect to pay either £4,312, £36,400 or £53,428 for the exact same whisky in three different bottles.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise when Macallan’s most famous bottling, the world record holding Macallan 1926 60 year old, is four different bottles of the same whisky. The rarest, one of one bottle hand painted by Michael Dillon broke the world record for the most expensive bottle when it sold in November 2018. It held the crown for less than a year before the record was broken by the same whisky, but in its far more common Fine and Rare livery, which still holds the record at just over £1.5million inc premium. Going to show that in the secondary whisky market, even scarcity isn’t the ultimate definer of value.
Interestingly the world record price Fine and Rare 1926 60 year old had an initial RRP of £20,000, and was released somewhat after the other three bottle designs. There are 12 bottles with a Peter Blake label, 12 with the Valerio Adami label and one Micheal Dillon design. Apparently Macallan kept the rest of the bottles back to offer customers the chance to design their own labels; two were sold without labels and (of the remaining 13 by our calculations) 12 were eventually released with the Fine and Rare label.
With hindsight, of course people don’t want to design their own labels; they want their Macallan to look unmistakably like a Macallan – especially if you’ve just paid over a million pounds for it.
Not scarcity, vintage, age or brand alone
Finally, let’s round up not with a rebottling, but a reminder that for whisky it is not one thing you can look at and say, ‘that is how value is added.’ Instead it is some combination of scarcity, age, vintage and brand, combined in some slightly unfathomable way that dictates value on the secondary market. We say unfathomable because there are always exceptions that break expectations and create a demand and market of their own.
In May this year, someone paid over £17,000 (inc premium) for a Macallan Archival series Folio one. Folio one, is 43% ABV, non-vintage, non-age statement whisky which was a limited edition of 2,000 bottles and had an RRP of less than £300 when it was released in 2015. In May 2020 you could buy the Folio one for as little as £2,400, in fact you could buy Folio 1-5 for less than £7,000.
It isn’t just Folio one either, over the last 12 to 18 months the Folio series has continued to climb in value, continually breaking expectations. Which is to say, who are we to claim to understand the whisky market, when the market is driven not by whisky, but by people.
So who cares about whisky?
It would be easy to say that no one cares about the whisky. To a degree it is true, as the examples above show. It is important to note that this is very collector centric as a view.
There are huge swathes of the whisky market that are designed for drinkers, as well as incredible people doing fantastic reviews of old and new releases that you can go out and try at incredibly reasonable prices (take the Dailuaine 18 year old example above).
But! Of course there is a but, because it is important to realise that even at a drinking level, single malt is still a status symbol.
James Bond doesn’t drink beer, he drinks dry martinis and whisky. When you go to buy your tipple at your local whisky store or supermarket, the designs, markers and associations that attract collectors to certain brands are the same ones used to make you pick one bottle over another, whether it is whisky, beer, wine or even soft drinks.
Whisky is an established, global status symbol, with a multi billion dollar drinkers market backed up by a secondary collectors market. And in reality, everyone in the industry cares about whisky.
While it may not always make sense, it is overly simplistic to say the whisky doesn’t matter. Suggesting that collectors don’t care about whisky is akin to suggesting that diners at Michelin Star restaurants don’t care about food. Service, presentation, and setting are an integral part of the experience of dining and add value above what the food might be worth elsewhere. So too the packaging and experience of a whisky adds value to the liquid inside.
Whisky isn’t just a drink, it’s a brand, it’s a status symbol, it is packaging and it is an experience. It is also a huge part of the UK economy. In 2021 the scotch whisky industry added £5.5bn to the UK economy and accounted for 22% of all UK food and drink exports. The industry employs huge numbers of people in immediate and secondary industries. Values in the secondary and primary markets are intrinsically linked, so that the value of one helps maintain the value of the other. And thus, everyone cares about the whisky.
Whether a different bottle can add £200,000 of value is maybe still up for debate, but putting something in a pretty box doesn’t mean the creators, or the purchasers, do not care about the whisky inside
Editor’s Note: This guest column comes to us from Mark Littler, an independent whisky broker, market analyst and consultant with over a decade of experience in the industry. Each week he publishes new videos on his YouTube channel about topics such as cask investment fraud (and how to avoid it), the history of distilleries and bottles, debunking whisky investment myths and much more. For more information visit www.marklittler.com