For some, the lure of owning the rarest spirits in the world is worth almost any price. While astronomical sums for fine wines have made headlines for years, a small but growing group of distilled liquor aficionados are spending up to US$250,000 to get their hands on a prized bottle. Rare whiskies easily top the spending scale, with spirits such as Cognac, rum and tequila also fetching big sums. Collectors have also created a much more affordably priced market for niche liquors, such as byrrh, vermouth and Curaçao sec.
The most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold is The Macallan six-litre "M" Decanter by Lalique, which fetched HK$4.9 million at auction in Hong Kong in January 2014. But the jaw-dropping price was as much about the bottle - only four crystal decanters were made, each one taking 17 craftsmen more than 50 hours to complete - as it was the contents. But for aficionados, fancy packaging is just a distraction. It's owning - and often drinking - liquid history that counts.
"The holy grail of whisky is the 1926 Macallan Fine & Rare, of which a measly nine bottles were ever produced from the last remaining liquid in one of the oldest casks at the distillery. This whisky is north of US$250,000 per bottle when it can be located," says Gil Lempert-Schwarz, founder and director of Hong Kong-based Dragon 8 Auctions, which held an auction of fine and rare spirits last month. The auction included a bottle of the 1962 Macallan as part of a complete set of all 51 bottles released in the Macallan Fine & Rare 1926-1990 collection. Other sought-after whiskies include the Spring Bank 1919, of which only 24 bottles were made and which is valued at around US$75,000 per bottle, and the fabled Highland Park 1902, again of which only 24 bottles were produced. A bottle certified by Oxford University was auctioned for the first time ever at last month's auction.
Most collectors are men, aged 30 to 60, and wealthy enough to spend US$20,000 to US$50,000 on a bottle to open with friends. These connoisseurs then often share their stories with whisky clubs and on blogs and other social media.
"Once a pinnacle has been reached, it's about tasting them and drinking them, rather than just collecting them," Lempert-Schwarz says. "There's a certain amount of reverence one feels in the presence of such great bottles made 200 or more years ago. It's the taste of history and craftsmanship, from the distillation process to the meticulous maturing in cask. Every time I drink one of these rare old whiskies, I reflect on many things in life, and on how lucky I am."
The United States has the highest number of collectors, followed by Germany, Italy, Taiwan and Hong Kong. A new breed of collector has also emerged on the mainland, where the rarest 50-year-old and even 100-year-old mou tai fetches astronomical prices on the home market.
Japan has its own market centred around its whiskies. The most sought-after Japanese single malts are from "lost" or "silent" distilleries - those that have closed down, leaving aficionados around the world fighting over the few precious bottles that still remain.
"There's a cult following for certain Japanese distilleries, such as Karuizawa and Hanyu," says Kiran Kumar of London-based spirits retailer The Whisky Exchange. "There's always a flurry of interest when new bottles of whisky from these lost distilleries go on sale."
Bonhams Hong Kong set two world records at its whisky sale in August last year: a bottle of 1960 Karuizawa "The Cockerel" sold for HK$918,750 - a new world auction record for any single bottle of Japanese whisky - and Hanyu Ichiro's Full Cards Series (52 cards and two jokers) went for almost HK$3.8 million, a record for any Japanese whisky series. Both lots were bought by an anonymous buyer from Southeast Asia.
While these whiskies are undoubtedly excellent to drink, many buyers today are also motivated by investment. The economic downturn in 2008 and volatility on the stock market was a boost to the rare spirits market, according to Kumar, as investors turned away from traditional stocks to alternatives. Investing in whisky is especially popular in Hong Kong, with the emergence of so-called whisky funds. Investors pool capital and buy rare and prized bottles of whisky, which are then kept in the fund to appreciate over time.
While Lempert-Schwarz says that the market for collecting these is growing fast, he does warn caution. "The market for spirits investing is in its nascent stages compared with the established and trackable wine market," he says. "You could 'invest' in some Japanese whiskies from a defunct distillery and hold them for a few years and not really get a return on them, despite the rarity, but then you could also suddenly be in possession of something very valuable. There's currently no real rhyme or reason for this, other than we know how many bottles were made and the fact that it cannot be reproduced ever again. It's quite difficult to predict what will happen."
As investment choices, Lempert-Schwarz recommends steering clear of white spirits, no matter how much marketing is behind them, and also whiskies which have no age statements or are mass-produced.
"But as with wine, don't forget it's always a double-liquid investment, as you can always drink the stash should the rest of your portfolios of stocks and bonds go down the toilet," he says.
There are some spirits that promise immediate returns, however. Only a few thousand bottles of Pappy van Winkle American bourbon are bottled each year by the respected Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, with the 23-year-old costing around US$210 per bottle. On the secondary market, it fetches more than US$3,000 per bottle, meaning they have an immediate return of 10 times their value or more. The only barrier to this seemingly sound investment is getting your hands on a bottle.
Knowing which distilleries, brands and age statements are the most rare and prized is important - like with any fledgling economy, it pays to do your homework before you invest. For those looking to learn more about rare spirits, a growing number of high-end bars and clubs in Hong Kong have impressive spirits selections, especially of whisky and rum, which can be sampled.
To start a collection, head to a duty-free shop - most Asian countries have prohibitive taxes on spirits, including Hong Kong, which has 100 per cent duty. The duty-free shops in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul have large and impressive selections of rare and expensive spirits, mainly of the brown variety.
Collectors then generally supplement their airport purchases by going to auction, almost exclusively in Hong Kong, which has quickly emerged as a world leader in whisky sales.
A growing number of distilleries are offering whole casks for private purchase by individuals or bars. Emmanuel Dron (below) of The Auld Alliance in Singapore last year bottled two casks of old Irish whiskey for his specialist whisky shop. The 1988 27-Year-Old, and 1991 24-Year-Old, he says, are now some of the best-selling malts at the shop.
Unlike with any other drink in the world, casks of whisky come with naming rights, so anyone who buys a cask can label the resulting bottles as they see fit. Gil Lempert-Schwarz recently set a new auction record of HK$1.35 million with the sale of a full cask of Macallan 1990 still ageing at the distillery.
"Whoever buys a cask can bottle it and name it, which is a considerable prestige, not to mention the coolness factor of owning your own entire cask, with however many remaining bottles left," he says.
"I can assure you this market is going to be the next best investment-grade action."
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