Single malt whiskey is not just a drink. The marketing world we live in means that from your clothes to your choice of alcoholic drink, chances are that many of your purchases are both consciously and unconsciously chosen to say something about you, your values, your personality, etc it might be unconscious like your choice of coffee or the type of shoes you wear, but on a bigger, more conscious scale there are things we choose because we like how it looks or what it says about us .
Tell the story of you without words
A Rolex doesn’t tell the time any better than a Casio, but a Rolex, and even the type of Rolex (eg, an 18k gold Datejust versus a vintage Submariner), says something about the wearer. Thanks to its brand image and heritage, Rolex has become a status symbol. The same transformation has happened to single malt whiskey over the past 20 years.
Whether you’re drinking at a bar or building a collection, single malt whiskey isn’t just a drink. Just as you could buy (or aim to buy) a Rolex rather than a Casio even if the latter gives better time, you could also spend £285 on an 18 year old Macallan rather than £80 for a bottle of Old Particular Dailuaine 18 years old even though the Dailuaine won the Master Taste award at the 2022 Scotch Whiskey Masters. On the collection side, you can buy a Bowmore DB5 collab for £115,900 (bonus included) even if you could buy the exact same whisky, just in a different bottle for £11,760 (including premium).
whiskey versus wine
Examples like the ones above are not exclusive to whisky. However, the whiskey market is often mistakenly viewed as similar to the wine market, where quality and reviews impact value. In the secondary whiskey market, very little emphasis is placed on the quality of whiskey as a drink. Constantly it is not the highest rated whiskeys that fetch the highest price. It’s not even always the rarest or oldest either. In fact, to the untrained eye, the whiskey market can seem completely unpredictable, with the same whiskey fetching vastly different prices depending on the bottle it’s in, and relatively common modern bottles costing two to three times those of much rarer vintage versions.
Do you think we are exaggerating? Or that Bowmore’s example is a fluke? Check out these other examples.
A 50 years, Two decades, Two hundred thousand pounds difference!
In 1919, Springbank deposited 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, sadly ahead of its time; a single malt aged at a time when blended whiskey was the preference. A few bottles have reached lucky buyers, and even fewer have survived, making them very rare on the secondary market. Despite this they are reasonably priced (for what they are) and in February 2022 you will be able to pick up a bottle of this incredible whiskey for your collection for just £21,840 including VAT. prime.
By the 1980s the single malt was becoming increasingly popular and Springbank rebottled its remaining 50-year-old stock in 24 hand-numbered classic glass bottles and gave them a nice wooden box. With only 24 of them originally available, they are therefore much rarer at auction today, although the price difference between the two versions is staggering. The record auction price for the refurbished 1980s version is £226,200. That’s over two hundred thousand pounds more for something that is essentially the same thing.
It doesn’t look the same though. Both are recognizable in Springbank, but the latest version with its hand-numbered box and label has a lot more presence for someone who doesn’t necessarily know the difference. It’s the 18k gold Rolex versus the Cosmograph Daytona; it sends a clear message to all who see it, whereas the vintage Cosmograph is only a sign of wealth for those who have the knowledge.
The Macallan, long live the king
The Macallans are the king of rebranding, 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 opt for the original 1970s Macallan-Glenlivet, the 2002 rebottled Fine and Rare version, or the 2018 rebottled Lalique decanter, you can expect to pay either £4,312, £36,400 or £53,428 for the exact same whiskey 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, is four different bottles from the same whiskey. The rarest, one of Michael Dillon’s hand-painted bottles, broke the world record for the most expensive bottle when it was sold in November 2018. It held the crown for less than a year before the record is not broken by the same whisky, but in its far more common Fine and Rare livery, which still holds the record at just over £1.5m inc premium. I will show that in the secondary whiskey market, even rarity is not the ultimate determinant 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 a Micheal Dillon design. Apparently Macallan kept the rest of the bottles to give customers the option of designing their own labels; two were sold unlabeled and (of the remaining 13 by our calculations) 12 were eventually released with the Fine and Rare label.
In 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.
No rarity, vintage, age or brand alone
Finally, let’s not end with a rebottling, but remember that for whiskey, it’s not something you can look at and say, “that’s how the value is added”. Instead, it’s a combination of rarity, age, vintage, and brand, combined in a slightly unfathomable way that dictates value in the secondary market. We say unfathomable because there are always exceptions that shatter expectations and create a demand and market of their own.
In May this year someone paid over £17,000 (including premium) for a Macallan Archival Folio one series. Folio one, is a 43% ABV, non-vintage, ageless whiskey that was a limited edition of 2,000 bottles and had an RRP of less than £300 when released in 2015. In May 2020 you could buy the Folio one for as little as £2,400, in fact you can buy Folio 1-5 for less than £7,000.
It’s not just Folio One either, over the past 12-18 months the Folio series has continued to climb in value, continually shattering expectations. That is, who are we to pretend to understand the whiskey market, when the market is not driven by whiskey, but by people.
So who cares about whisky?
It would be easy to say that nobody cares about whiskey. To some extent this is true, as the examples above show. It is important to note that this is a very collector-centric point of view.
There are huge swathes of the whiskey market that are geared towards drinkers, as well as amazing people doing fantastic reviews of old and new releases that you can pull out and try at incredibly reasonable prices (take the example of Dailuaine 18 years old above).
But! Of course there is a but, because it is important to realize that even at the level of consumption, the 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 glass in your whiskey shop or supermarket, the designs, markers and associations that attract collectors to certain brands are the same ones used to make you choose one bottle over another, whether it’s be it whiskey, beer, wine or even soft drinks.
Whiskey is an established global status symbol, with a multi-billion dollar drinker’s market supported by a secondary market of collectors. And really, everyone in the industry cares about whisky.
Although it doesn’t always make sense, it’s too simplistic to say that whiskey doesn’t matter. To suggest that collectors don’t care about whiskey is to suggest that diners at Michelin-starred restaurants don’t care about food. The service, presentation and setting are integral to the dining experience and add value beyond what the food might be worth elsewhere. Likewise, the packaging and experience of a whiskey adds value to the liquid it contains.
Whiskey isn’t just a drink, it’s a brand, it’s a status symbol, it’s a package and it’s an experience. It is also an important part of the British economy. In 2021, the Scotch whiskey industry added £5.5 billion to the UK economy and accounted for 22% of all UK food and drink exports. The industry employs a large number of people in immediate and secondary industries. Values in the secondary and primary markets are intrinsically linked, so the value of one helps maintain the value of the other. And so, everyone cares about whiskey.
Whether a different bottle can add £200,000 in value may still be up for debate, but putting something in a pretty box doesn’t mean the creators or buyers don’t care about the whiskey inside .
Editor’s Note: This column comes to us from Mark Littler, an independent whiskey broker, market analyst and consultant with over a decade of industry experience. Every week he posts new videos on his YouTube channel on topics such as cask investment fraud (and how to avoid it), the history of distilleries and bottles, debunking investment myths in whiskey and much more. For more information visit www.marklittler.com