Auction prices for rare and vintage whiskies are climbing fast - and it's not just the traditional Scottish brand, says Jonathan Ray
"The water of life" has been distilled in Scotland since the 15th century, and there can be few finer ways of getting to know this wondrous spirit than by cruising the waters of western Scotland, hopping between the islands of Mull, Jura, Islay and Skye.
Here, you can drop anchor before a backdrop of rugged but exquisite scenery and visit distilleries such as Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Talisker and Tobermory to discover first-hand how, despite the simplicity of the ingredients (water, barley and yeast), such single malt whiskies taste so special.
Whisky is all the rage at the moment. Auction prices for old and rare single malts are going through the roof as canny investors turn away from fine vintage wines and rush to invest in uisge beatha. Scotland does not have a monopoly; with the Old Bushmills Distillery, Ireland boasts what is generally acknowledged to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world (first recognised by James I in 1608), and the country has other first-rate brands such as Midleton and Redbreast.
The US possesses the great bourbons of Kentucky such as Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses; maverick producers such as the pioneering and wonderfully eccentric Chip Tate of Balcones in Texas; and, of course, the world’s best-selling whisky itself: Jack Daniel’s of Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Canada’s whisky heritage is an impressive one too; favourites of mine include Pike Creek, Lot 40 and the long-established Crown Royal.
Most exciting for me, though, are the whiskies of Japan, notably those made by Suntory at its Hibiki, Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. I’ve tasted them in situ and was immediately smitten. And I’m not alone: the Yamazaki 25-year-old was named World’s Best Single Malt at the 2012 World Whisky Awards and a bottle of its 50-year-old equivalent sold at auction at Bonhams Hong Kong in August for just over £20,000.
Scotch, though, remains (for the time being) king. The star performer at the HK auction was a Macallan 55 -year-old limited edition in a Lalique crystal decanter. It fetched almost £23,000.
Buyers and cellars
Whisky is fast becoming a valuable asset. Recently, Bonhams sold a single bottle of Japanese Hanyu Ichiro Ace of Spades single malt for £6,815, more than was paid at a recent Sotheby’s sale for 12 bottles of 1982 Château Margaux.
“As with most products, reputation, scarcity and exclusivity are very important when investing in whisky,” says Martin Green, head of whisky at Bonhams. “Look for a unique maturation story or limited productions run.”
A great example is the imminent release of The Balvenie 50-year-old in two expressions. There are just 131 bottles from cask 4,567 and 128 from 4,570, with each bottle priced at £26,500 – a major but canny investment.
Whiskynomics: How to spend £15,000
One bottle of Glenlivet Winchester Collections 1964, of which only 100 exist. £15,080, harrods.com
One barrel of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Standard Tennessee Whiskey. £15,000, whiskyshop.com
Highland and Island-hopping whisky tour for four with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and dream Escapes. £15,000, dreamescape.com
Three crystal decanters of Glenfarclas Single Malt 50 Year Old, aged in a single refill sherry cask. £13,500, thewhiskyexchange.com