What’s the most expensive whisky ever sold? The answer might surprise you… The brand is one of the usual suspects and one of the most famous whisky brands around: Macallan. What was special about this record-breaking sale in 2021, was that it was a cask of whisky tied to an NFT, which surely caused some additional hype and drove up the price.
But this record-breaking sale isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Whisky as a whole is one of the alternative asset classes that has appreciated most in value over the past 10 years - well before the rise of NFTs. The combination of increasing global consumer demand, the finest whisky taking years to mature in its casks and new distilleries being difficult and expensive to set up needing at least £5 million in setup costs, prices have been on the rise.
We’ve seen interest in both investing in whisky casks as well as whisky bottles increase and in this post we’ll give you a short introduction to the whisky market.
Whisky is a distilled spirit made from grains and aged in wooden casks. Aside from different ingredients used in whiskies, the time it ages and the type of cask it’s placed in all affect the taste. In addition, whisky will undergo six processes which will all have an impact on the final product: extraction, evaporation, oxidation, concentration, filtration, and colouration.
Often for whisky to carry a specific name or type it must meet specific criteria. For example, scotch whisky will always come from Scotland and will have to be aged for a minimum of three years; American bourbon whisky is made from mash that consists of at least 51% corn (maize) and aged in new charred oak barrels; and single malt whisky will always come from a single distillery using only one type of malted grain. It is typically these single malt whiskies, coming from the best distilleries, that carry the highest value compared to blended whiskies which are more commonly seen in mass production.
The increase in demand is the most important reason for whisky to go up in value. According to statistics by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) on premium whiskies, scotch whisky has shown a 20% growth rate in 2021; Irish whisky a 19% growth rate and while Japanese whisky saw a small decline, it grew by 14% annually over the past 5 years. Part of the recent growth has to do with a removal of tariffs on scotch whisky, lowering the final consumer price.
In more emerging markets, the opportunity for growth is potentially even stronger. A market like China currently consumes more than 10 billion litres of baijiu - its local spirit - more than all whisky, gin, tequila, rum, and vodka consumption globally, combined. If consumer tastes change just a little bit, that can mean huge growth. Euromonitor predicts a 38% growth between 2018 and 2022 in whisky sales and particularly for the most expensive collectible items. Asia is becoming increasingly important as a market, with many of the world’s most expensive whiskies sold at auction all having sold in Hong Kong. ~
In terms of historical price appreciation, rare whiskies have shown strong performance. According to the Knight Frank Index, overall rare whisky has gone up in value 478% in the past 10 years. Rare whisky 101 which has created various whisky indices puts its “Rare Whisky Icon 100 index” at a 70% increase over the past 5 years and its “Japanese 100” at a 210% increase in the same period.
There are 3 main ways to make money with whisky:
Flipping whisky bottles is similar to a market that many might be more familiar with: sneakerheads flipping sneakers. (Semi)-professional flippers are online all day to get access to in-demand releases and buy it up the second it gets released. They then sell those bottles for an immediate profit in the secondary market. Specialist newsfeeds and communities around this have popped up, such as MaltReleaseRadar, to keep on top of the latest releases. Depending on the bottle, the entry prices for flipping bottles that have potential to make profit are relatively accessible, starting from around a hundred euros.
For those with a bit more patience and looking for a more passive investment, older, collectible bottles might be a favored approach. Unlike fine wine, whisky doesn’t change taste or age anymore once it’s been bottled, but exclusive collectible bottles still have the potential to go up in price. This price increase is caused by collectors wanting to own the item for the sake of drinking or collecting it, and as some of the bottles get drunk over time, a specific batch will become increasingly rare.
Bottles containing whisky that havehas aged for years are usually more expensive than the modern ones, due to their scarcity and the time the distillery had to invest in aging it. A 78-year Macallan for example, will set you back around €120,000. To access data on collectible bottles, Rare Whisky 101 is a good place to start.
Another popular way for investors to make money with whisky is investing in casks. Starting from a few thousand euros, a cask usually contains 200-250 liters, meaning it’s good for more than 250 standard bottles. The idea behind cask investing is that distilleries need working capital as they can only bottle the whisky they put in their cask today in 3, 10 or sometimes 20+ years. Aside from working capital, some distilleries also let people invest in a cask directly with them as a brand building initiative and to foster a community of whisky lovers.
Cask investment businesses typically position the cask investments as a more stable and “risk-free” investment due to a predictable increase in price as whisky matures, but this isn’t always true and there are specific risks associated with investing in casks which we will discuss below. To start off with, here’s a handy whisky cask calculator to help you value the price of your cask.
These are the most popular collectors would typically go for when looking to make a return on their whisky.
What makes these whisky brands stand out from others is their quality, sometimes long history as well as limited production, with some distilleries such as Port Ellen and Karuizawa having closed down, and therefore fetching top-dollar as no new whisky can be produced anymore.
Special & Limited Editions
Rarity is the most important driver of high prices and the reason why some bottles appreciate in price over time. Aside from looking at the general production capacity of the distillery which can often be found online, some bottles which have seen great returns include limited & special editions. For instance, take two of Suntory’s 2021 limited editions: Hibiki Blossom Harmony 2021 and Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky Limited Edition 2021. Both came out last year and retailed for around €70. Today, the bottles sell in the open market for over €600 and €800. An example on the more high end side of things includes a 55-year old Yamazaki bottled in 2020. Limited to 100 bottles, the bottle had a recommended retail price of $60,000 but is currently available in the open market for almost $1 million!
The difficulty is of course getting access to these limited editions at retail price. Often limited stock is allocated to top clients and dealers, but sometimes there are lotteries where everyone has a chance to get access to a new limited release at original price. These lotteries are usually hosted either by the brand itself, or by resellers. If you don’t get access to the bottles at retail price, they can still make a good investment because if there are only a few hundred or thousand bottles of a desirable whisky, it is likely prices will go up as some of the bottles get consumed.
A few of the distilleries in our list above are now longer active and are sometimes referred to as ghost distilleries. Some of the most famous ones include Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa, Littlemill and Rosebank with most of their whiskies now costing a few thousand euros for a single bottle. With the booming whisky market, some of these distilleries are now being restarted with conglomerates like Diageo investing tens of millions of pounds into their restoration and the first whiskies are expected to hit the shelves in 5-10 years from now and much longer for the most premium bottles that will have to age longer. So, iIn the short term, these restorations will likely not have an impact on the prices of older bottles today, but it remains to be seen what effect it will have longer term.
Many collectors who aren’t in it (purely) for the money might be looking to collect a specific range, for example one bottle from each distillery in a region or one bottle from each year. Because collectors value these “complete” collections they can go at auction for higher prices than the sum of the individual bottles. The image above, for instance, shows Hanyu Ichiro’s Full Card Series, consisting of 54 bottles, each representing a playing card in a deck. The collection was sold in 2019 for $600,000 only to be sold again in 2020 for $1.52M.
The effect of critic scores seems to be less prominent in the whisky market compared to the fine wine market, and even academic research suggests that ratings in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible –- one of the most important whisky publications -– are not a powerful predictor of investor ask prices. That being said, while a (small) difference in rating might not be a powerful price predictor, it is of course key for an investment whisky to be considered as “premium” and be at least considered by critics. A whisky that meets some of the earlier criteria such as being a limited edition, but is from a highly unknown brand and not of high quality will unlikely be suitable for investment purposes.
Too much supply
Over the past 10 years, due to strong prices and demand, we’ve seen many new distilleries appear. In Ireland - which aside from Scotland and Japan is promoted heavily by various whisky investment businesses - the number of distilleries has risen from 4 in 2010 to 38 today. In Scotland numbers have grown from 45 to almost 200 over the past decade. While the growing supply hasn’t yet resulted in prices dropping, one could argue it’s only because it will take a few more years for some of the new distillers to be able to present their products to the market. Similar to investing in other luxury goods like watches, it’s important to distinguish between “mass-market” vs exclusive brands which are likely to always keep their supply highly limited.
Countries imposing protectionist measures such as tariffs can have a huge effect on the whisky market. For example, India currently imposes a 150% tariff on scotch whisky, meaning the UK only has a 2% market share in this large market where whisky is widely consumed. These types of tariffs pose both a risk and opportunity: a country imposing new tariffs can greatly reduce demand, while a country suspending its tariffs - such as the US did earlier in 2021 for UK whisky exports - can boost it.
Unfortunately, various scams have come to light where whisky investment businesses sold casks that never existed or were not in their possession. Legitimate businesses will always tell you exactly what whisky you’re buying and where the whisky is stored and we’d recommend you to check out the distillery online: one of the biggest scams in the 90s involved someone claiming to own whiskies from a non-existing distillery.
Another thing to be wary of is businesses promising guaranteed returns. As with any investment, no one can predict the future, so especially if the guaranteed returns seem too good to be true, they probably are. Sky-high guaranteed returns could point to either a scam where the fraudster will simply walk away with your money, or a form of ponzi scheme where the scammers will try to pay back your returns with new investor money. It’s always wise to do basic research and due diligence before going into business with any firm.
There are many offline and online channels where you can buy whisky bottles. Some of the most popular whisky auctions and online merchants include The Whisky Exchange, Whisky Auctioneer, McTears or Whisky Hammer
For cask investing, the two main ways to get involved are to look for a broker / investment business or invest directly with the distillery. Brokers will often tell you that they can get you better prices because they get bulk discounts. From our experience, however, this isn’t always the case so it’s important to double check with the distillery whether they do direct sales and what the pricing looks like to get yourself the best deal. Investing in casks typically starts from a few thousand euros.
If you’re looking to invest in high-end collectible bottles but don’t have >€100,000 to spare for a rare Macallan or Yamazaki, fractional investment with an app like Koia is the perfect solution. Fractional investing makes these types of super expensive bottles accessible to anyone. The idea being, that instead of buying the entire bottle by yourself, you invest in a fraction of the bottle. The main advantage of doing this via Koia, is that we also take care of storage, insurance and authentication so that the process of investing is as simple as investing in a company via a stock investment app.
Whisky is one of the strongest performing alternative asset classes, with the right bottles having doubled or tripled in value over the past few years. However, as with any investment there are risks, in case of whisky these include demand slowing down or prices decreasing due to too much supply flooding the market. It is important to do your research before making your first whisky investment and make sure you’re buying the right brands. Flipping or investing in bottles, cask investment or fractional investment are all options and what’s right for you depends on factors such as the amount of money you want to invest, how soon you want to see your return and the time you want to spend on actively researching and managing your investments.
At Koia, we allow you to buy, trade and collect fractions of iconic assets, starting from $60. Our experts make sure to source and buy the best assets, and we take care of authentication, storage and insurance. All of the benefits, with none of the hassle.
The articles and information made available on Koia are provided for information and educational purposes only and do not constitute financial advice. You are advised to consult with an independent financial advisor for advice on your specific circumstances.