Hong Kong sales of rare whiskies set to show spirit's growing appeal

Bottle of a 50-year-old blend of 82 Scotch whiskies expected to fetch up to HK$100,000 for charity; it's one of multiple lots of rare Scotch and Japanese whisky on the block

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 6:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 8:23pm

Scotching the myth that the brown spirits category is dead, rare whiskies are appreciating in value by 25 to 30 per cent a year - and attracting a new fan base. That's expected to be borne out at auctions in Hong Kong later this month.

James Espey, a veteran of the Scotch whisky industry, says he's noticed growing interest in whisky among women. Espey, who's in his early 70s and has been visiting China since 1993, when he launched Chivas Regal whisky there, expects Asia will soon be buying a third of the world's whisky output, and sees that proportion rising.

Espey's daughter Beanie points out women are becoming whisky blenders too - a profession previously an exclusively male province.

Espey, a driving force behind the J&B Rare, Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal whisky brands, teamed up seven years ago with fellow industry veteran Tom Jago - creator of The Classic Malts series, Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Bailey’s Irish Cream - to hunt down rare whiskies. They refer to themselves as "spirit hunters".

One of their releases is among the lots at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong on May 23. Bottle No 1, from a batch of 388 bottles of a 50-year-old blend of 82 Scotch whiskies, which is being sold as part of 50th anniversary celebrations for international moving company Crown Worldwide, is expected to fetch HK$50,000 to HK$100,000. Proceeds will go to the Sunshine Action Charity.

Espey and Jago's company, The Last Drop, sells this particular Scotch for HK$38,888 in Hong Kong through Crown Wine Cellars.  Rich and smooth, it has such a powerful aroma of baking spices that you can smell it before your nose reaches the glass. 

Espey advises you to buy two bottles, one to drink and one to sell. “If you wait a few years and sell one bottle it will have paid for the other,” he says.

The batch was the third of only four the company has released.

Its first release was of 1,347 bottles of a sherry cask finished 1960 blended Scotch; its second was of 478 bottles of a 1950 cognac. More than half of the latter had been lost to evaporation. Its fourth release is a 48-year-old whisky of which there are 592 bottles, 22 of them available in Hong Kong. It’s also marginally cheaper, at HK$33,888.

Rare Scotch whiskies also feature in the second auction this month, along with some rare Japanese whiskies.

That sale, by Zachys Asia, features a lot of whisky from the now-closed Port Ellen distillery on the Scottish island of Islay. It was recorded as 14 years old when bottled in 1979 - meaning that was the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. The single-cask whisky comes in at 43 per cent alcohol and is redolent of peat and very briny.

Port Ellen distillery closed in 1983, but since that time the spirit produced there has taken on a legendary status.

Zachys has a further lot of Scotch from The Macallan, a distillery on the other side of the country to peaty Islay that produces very different expressions of Scotch.

The Macallan travel collection showcases the distiller’s attempt to recreate the taste of a 1920s whisky by blending whiskies from its current stocks. This whisky has lots of Christmas cake spices and is a little tannic and dry.

Whisky in Japan has lately been growing its female fan base, thanks to the popularity of a whisky-based soap opera called Massan.  The story is a lightly fictionalised account of the life of Masataka Taketsuru, sent to Scotland by the Suntory Distillery in 1918 to study whisky making. He came back to Japan with a Scottish wife and a burning desire to make a very Scottish-tasting product ­– not the smoother whisky preferred in his home market.

In real life Takersuru went on to found the Karuizawa Distillery. Zachys is auctioning lots from this distillery, which effectively closed in 2000.

Japanese whiskies can be on the sweet side, says Elliot Faber, the auction house’s senior whisky adviser, as distillers prefer brewer’s yeast rather than then distiller’s yeast used in Scotland.