Top 10 Scotch whiskies at auctionBy Rupert Millar
Scotch whisky as an investment has yet to really take off but as a collector’s market it’s thriving.
While anyone with a passing interest in Scotch might be able to reel off a handful of well-known distilleries, the true extent of Scotch production is simply staggering – once the number of different cask bottlings, vintage bottlings, limited edition bottlings and any other permutation one cares to thinks of are taken into account, the number runs to many thousands.
As with anything from cars to historical periods to Star Wars it evokes passionate interest and emotions, with collectors of all degrees searching for a bottle of that special something to complete their library of malts.
Some collect alphabetically, some only Speyside, some only certain years or decades, there’s no limit to what people are after and as the number of collectors grows and the supply of whiskies they’re after dwindles, when a sought-after bottle appears at an auction it’s bound to generate interest.
The results can be truly impressive, Glenfiddich’s 50 year old Janet Sheed Roberts Reseve (although sold for charity) has broken numerous records at its appearances so far, notching up £59,350 for a bottle in New York in March this year.
Similarly, a bottle of 1933 Glenfiddich sold for over £40,000 in London this month, although this was shy of the £50,000 low estimate.
And there is the danger of Scotch investment or indeed any investment. Don’t automatically assume or expect you’re onto a winner.
Data from Whisky Highland, which runs the auction evaluation used to compile this list, shows that while the top 10 performing whiskies averaged a peak rise of 302% between 2008 and 2011, the bottoming performing 10 went down by some 70% over the same period.
Age, rarity and a price able to appreciate are key to success (so Dalmore’s Trinitas at £100,000 a bottle is out even if only three were produced) as is the benefit of being a single malt (so don’t bank on those bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue – even the Jubilee bottling, which at £100,000 is too much anyway).
Here follows in ascending order the top 10 best performing malts at auction.
Water: Clynemilton Burn
A relative newcomer to the world of distilling, Clynelish was built in 1968, although another brewery and distillery had been operating in Brora a lot earlier also known as Clynelish.
The founder was the first Duke of Sutherland who evicted several thousand of his tenants to plant barley for use in his new distillery in around 1817.
To confuse matters a little further, Clynelish was built next to the old distillery which at the time was closed but was then reopened again in 1969 and produced peated whiskies for use in blends until the 1980s.
This was known as Clynelsih No. 2 for a while but as people began to get confused it was named Brora Distillery instead – the whiskies from that distillery are increasingly rare and also worth looking out for.
Owned by Diageo, a lot of Clynelish’s fame is derived from its role in supplying whisky for Johnnie Walker blends and it has gradually courted greater attention thanks to bottlings produced for Diageo’s “Whisky Fan Club”.
For an east coast whisky it is surprisingly peaty but also characterised by a waxy aroma and texture.
Water: springs in the Conval Hills
Another Diageo-owned distillery and another Johnnie Walker contributor that is gradually getting out and about, mostly through Diageo’s “Flora & Fauna” range.
Founded in 1823 (on the back of smuggling activity, a theme that will become commonplace as this list goes on) it was the first distillery in Dufftown – there are now seven.
The style is quite hefty with Christmas cake and Madeira notes. One driver of its success at auction, rumour has it, is that there isn’t much of it left and once it’s gone it may not be coming back. Collectors, stock up while ye may.
Interestingly, it was one of the few distilleries allowed to stay open during world war two.
Port Ellen, Argyll
Water: Loch Arinambeast and Loch Uigidale
Ardbeg was established in 1794 in the days when whisky trod a line usually outside the law, a matter which came to a head when excise men overran the place, destroyed the buildings and arrested or drove off the smugglers they found there.
Ardbeg became a lot more respectable in 1815 when its current distillery was properly (and legally) built by John McDougall.
From 1976 it was owned by Hiram Walker and then Allied Domecq. It has been closed three further times in its history in 1981, 1989 and 1996. It was bought by Glenmorangie in 1997 and now is part of the LVMH group.
Its whiskies are greatly sought after and renowned for their gloriously tongue twisting Gaelic names such as Uigeadail and Airigh Nam Beist as well as their signature peaty character – the distillery likes to claim it makes the peatiest whiskies in the world.
Off the island of Jura there also exists the world’s third largest whirlpool, Corryvreckan, again immortalised in malt form.
Loch Indaal, Argyll
Water: Laggan River
Another 18th century veteran, founded in 1779 when a merchant named John Simpson managed to persuade his local laird to build some houses and “other dwellings”, the latter of course swiftly becoming a distillery, making Bowmore the oldest on Islay and one of the oldest in Scotland.
The distillery (like most others in Scotland) closed during the wars and in WW2 was one of the headquarters for RAF Coastal Command, which was running flying boats on anti-U Boat missions from out of Loch Indaal.
Today the distillery is part of Morrison Bowmore, which also owns Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch, itself a subsidiary of Suntory.
For many years the distillery has used a waste heat recovery system to heat the local swimming pool.
The whiskies are of course characteristically peaty but not to the same extent as fellow Islay resident Ardbeg, taking instead lightly floral notes and fruits in place of sea salt and smoke.
6. The Glenlivet
Water: Josie’s Well
Again, there is an official founding date for this distillery and one from a little while before where the truth becomes a little murky.
Nonetheless, founder George Smith ensured that he acquired a licence at the first opportunity in 1823 upon the passing of the Excise Act of that year and was a fully fledged distiller in 1824 – not that illegality had apparently stopped George IV asking for Glenlivet by name on a visit to Scotland in 1822.
Sadly the original distillery was destroyed by a fire in 1858 but another was rebuilt soon after and the name Glenlivet became so synonymous with Speyside that other producers would put it on their labels.
So widespread did this become that in 1880, John Gordon Smith, the son of George, was forced to take legal action to protect the name.
The courts ruled in his favour, stating that no other distilley could term itself “The Glenlivet” but that “Glenlivet” could be used as a suffix.
Glenlivet amalgamated with Glen Grant in 1953 and Longmorn in 1970. It became part of Seagram in 1977 and passed to Pernod Ricard when that company was broken up in 2001.
The Glenlivet is often described as one of the more complex Speysides with aromas of tropical fruit, nuts and biscuits.
5. Port Ellen
Port Ellen, Argyll
Water: Leorin Lochs
Although other distilleries on this list may have been burnt down, closed down or dismantled by the law at some point in their lives, this is the only one that is currently closed – and to many whisky lovers’ chagrin too.
Having been founded in 1823 by Alexander Ker Mackay, the distillery shut its doors in 1983 amid a wave of distillery closures across Scotland – 23 in total.
Diageo, which used to own it, occasionally releases the odd bottling from its supplies although there are other stockists out there and it is the Holy Grail of some whisky collectors or occasionally their white elephant.
Diageo closed the distillery because it was thought it was the lesser of those the drinks giant owned already on the island and the peaty Islay style wasn’t particularly popular a the time.
However, with peaty, medicinal whiskies such as Ardbeg, Bowmore, Highland Park and Laphroaig growing in popularity, might it be time for a resurrection?
4. The Balvenie
Water: The Robbie Dhu Springs
The Balvenie is kith and kin to Glenfiddich, built in 1892 next to its sister distillery by whisky legend William Grant, who’s family went on to build another distillery, Kininvie, next door as well in 1992 – maybe it’s something in the water?
Balvenie’s production is now quite sizeable, although it touts itself as being small and hand-crafted, but its origins were distinctly hand-me-down, with the first stills being second-hand deliveries from Lagavulin and Glen Albyn which at one time were heated using the waste steam from neighbouring Glenfiddich.
Today Balvenie is apparently the only distillery to grow and malt its own barley for at least some of its production.
Despite growing in size, Balvenie is justly renowned for exceptional malts and has a particular line in using peated barrels or barrels previously used in Rum, Sherry, Madeira and Port production, from which it produces limited edition bottlings.
Water: Robbie Dhu Springs
The original William Grant distillery founded in 1886, which quickly became one of the best selling malts in the world – as it still is.
Not bad for a distillery built with £120 capital and using second hand equipment from Cardow (like its little sister Balvenie see previous).
Glenfiddich is special in the way it can pull off producing a crowd pleasing malt whisky drunk around the world (its visitor centre sees roughly 125,000 people through its doors a year), while still beguiling whisky drinkers and collectors with rare releases such as the Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve – which has the record for the most expensive single bottle of whisky sold at auction.
It might be the biggest, some may sneer in error that its too ubiquitous to be great but Glenfiddich is one of the best and a true classic.
Water: River Alness out of Loch Morie
The distillery was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson of the famous firm Jardine & Matheson of Hong Kong who traded in tea, opium and whisky.
The business was bought by the Mackenzie family in 1887 and their close links with messrs. James Whyte and Chales Mackay was to lead to Dalmore’s incorporation into their eponymous company in 1960.
During the first world war, while the distillery was closed, the US navy used it a as a base and the office buildings were accidentally burned down (history doesn’t relate if any of the US personnel hailed from Kentucky or Tennessee) but production began again in 1922.
The stag’s head on the bottle is attributed to an ancestor of the Mackenzie family. The story goes that in 1263, Colin Fitzgerald saved the Scottish king Alexander III from a stag while out hunting.
As a result the king decreed that he could bear the emblem of a 12-pointed stag on his coat of arms. The clan motto Luceo non Uro, also makes appearances on the bottle from time to time.
Dalmore is known for highly collectable whiskies, eye-catching packaging and often wince-inducing prices – such as the aforementioned “Trinitas”. Nonetheless it is one of the best performers on the auction market and consistently in the upper echelons of Whisky Highland’s lists.
1. The Macallan
Water: bore holes
The Macallan began life on a farm, which stands to this day, centred around Easter Elchies House (pictured).
As it was on a crossing regularly used by farmers herding their cattle to new pastures it was an obvious business opportunity and one eagerly embraced.
The first legal distillery was established in 1824 by Alexander Reid. The distillery has changed hands several times but was finally taken back completely from Suntory and a partnership of Highland Distillers by the Edrington Group in 1999.
The Macallan has always made great use of Sherry barrels in its production and it was only in 2004 that some Bourbon and other European butts were added to complement the core range – which is still Sherry barrel focused.
The whiskies are rich, robust and sometimes oily in texture, while the really classic Sherry influenced whiskies are nuttier, spicier with traces of orange peel.
It is one of the most sought after and successful whiskies at auction with the current record being a crystal decanter of 64-year-old which sold in New York for US$460,000 in 2010.
Meanwhile, before it was displaced by the Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve late last year, a bottle of Macallan 1926 held the record for most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold from a 2007 Christie’s auction, when it went for US$54,000.