Call it the comeback kid of the spirits world. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, whiskey had fallen so far out of favor that distilleries were shuttering. But over the past decade, the drink playwright George Bernard Shaw called “liquid sunshine” has enjoyed a dizzying 582% rise in asset value—with a 40% spurt in the past year alone. In fact, high-end whiskey topped the Luxury Investment Index in the 2019 Douglas Elliman/Knight Frank Wealth Report.
Whiskey’s surge in asset value is driven by single malt Scotch, but Japanese whiskey, American bourbon, and even Irish whiskey have contributed, too. Not surprisingly, rarity is at the heart of the trend: Demand for whiskey continues to rise among impassioned collectors, and there is only so much of the stuff left from the past. Happily, present-day limited releases—which include startlingly old age statements and young, experimental cask finishes—offer a range of prices for new collectors. This means there are plenty of opportunities for those looking to experience the fervor.
“I’d start with your local specialist whiskey store and speak to their whiskey expert, who can source good single malts for you,” suggests Lorne Cousin, associate brand manager for Glenfiddich. With prestigious brands putting out limited releases that have potential for longterm growth, “It doesn’t have to be old whiskey,” he says. Just “buy one to collect and one to enjoy yourself.” This sentiment is echoed by Grisa Soba, cofounder of Flaviar, a members-only community for fine-spirits enthusiasts. “The best and happiest whiskey collectors are those who build for pleasure, not profit,” Soba says. “If you love whiskey, you’ll want to open those bottles and enjoy them, so try and get two bottles of the whiskies you have been searching for.” It protects against opening all your bottles and pulling a wee dram.
Over the past decade, the drink playwright George Bernard Shaw called “liquid sunshine” has enjoyed a dizzying 582% rise in asset value.
“Read up on the most critically acclaimed expressions, hidden gems, and sought-after limited editions,” Soba adds. “Find unbiased advice from trusted sources and maybe join a community of fine-spirits lovers, like Flaviar.” He also encourages fledgling collectors not to fall for hype: Education should come first, then acquisition. “Once you’ve discovered the spirits you love, find a way to get ahold of the finest and rarest whiskies without paying overinflated prices on the secondary market,” he says. Travel to auctions and distilleries, and talk with people you meet. The more you learn, the smarter your investments will be.
Martin Green, Bonhams whiskey specialist in Edinburgh, and Daniel Lam, director of wine and spirits for Bonhams Asia, say there are no absolute rules for starting a collection. People collect for many reasons. One good approach is to develop a niche—whiskey from a particular area perhaps or from distilleries that have closed down—and then buy the best you can afford.
The most popular whiskies among collectors tend to be established names like Glenfiddich, The Macallan, and Dalmore. Reputation for quality, scarcity, and exclusivity is also important. Many leading distillers produce special limited editions of their finest whiskey, which become collectors’ items—and the limited supply affects prices in the secondary market. Special editions sometimes involve collaborating with another premium brand, as The Macallan has done successfully with Lalique and, more recently, with Douglas Elliman—a partnership established in tandem with the launch of The Macallan Estate.
In 2018, Bonhams broke the world record for a bottle of whiskey sold at auction on three separate occasions. Only in December would Christie’s overtake the record with the $1.5 million sale of a 60-year-old Macallan. World records grab the headlines, of course, but very few of us have pockets that deep. The good news is that you can build an interesting and rewarding collection even with a modest budget. There are fascinating bottles to be had for a few hundred dollars. Auctions often start around $200, and a good proportion of bottles sell for under $1,300. Whether it’s a light Speyside or a heavily peated Islay Single Malt, an oaky American bourbon or a lightly spiced Japanese whiskey, opportunities for aspiring collectors abound.