When Aaron Chan heard that a liquor store in Athens might have a rare Hanyu Ichiro Malt Japanese whisky, he phoned the shop from Hong Kong. Unable to make himself understood in English, he e-mailed photos of the distillery's distinctive playing-card labels. The owner replied with a picture of his bottle. It was the Ace of Spades.
"That was my Eureka moment," said Chan, who paid about HK$6,000 ($774 U.S.) for the bottle two years ago. "The Ace of Spades was very, very rare already."
Last week, a similar bottle went for $11,064 at a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong, 14 times what Chan paid and slightly more than the price of an entire case of 1982 Chateau Margaux that Sotheby's sold in New York seven weeks earlier.
Forget Bordeaux first growths. Investors are falling over themselves to snag iconic single-malt scotches like Macallan, Bowmore and Dalmore and Japan's rare Karuizawa and Yamazaki whiskies. Bars dedicated to the amber liquid have sprung up from Manhattan to Singapore, and prices are rising to dizzying levels. Sotheby's sold a six-litre Lalique decanter of Macallan "M" single malt in January for a record $632,253.
"I'm not really an advocate of buying whisky and flipping it," says Heather Greene, director of whisky education at the Flatiron Room in Manhattan, a haven for spirit lovers that offers tasting classes to aspiring connoisseurs. "But I'm getting questions from people asking if they should buy a couple of cases and sell them for double."
Beating stocks double?
Try quintuple. According to the Investment Grade Scotch index, published by Whisky Highland in Tain, Scotland, the top 100 single malts delivered an average return of 440 per cent from the start of 2008 till the end of July this year. That compares with a 31 per cent gain in S&P 500 stocks index and a sobering 2-per-cent drop in the Liv-ex 100 Benchmark Fine Wine Index.
The surge in prices is great news for Mahesh Patel, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has amassed a collection of more than 5,000 bottles over the past 25 years.
"Everything I have is appreciating," says 47-year-old Patel, whose cache is insured for close to $6-million. "I am a believer of buying two of everything. One to open and enjoy, the other you put away if it's rare."
One exception to his two-bottle rule is a Dalmore Trinitas 64 Year Old, which he bought in 2010 for $166,455. Only three were ever made.
As the value of top malts rises, the temptation to keep bottles for investment gets stronger.
"Current prices make me hesitate about drinking as freely as two or three years ago," says Chan, whose 500-bottle collection includes all 54 of the Hanyu playing-card series (including the two Jokers).
One reason for the surge in prices is that distillers simply can't react to the increase in demand fast enough because whisky takes so long to age. Even a standard duty-free Glenfiddich or Glenlivet spends 12 years in the cask, and investment grade scotches many more. The 1962 Macallan the villainous Raoul Silva offered James Bond in "Skyfall" was aged for half a century.
Whisky, derived from the old Irish phrase for "water of life," is made from a mash of fermented grain, yeast and water that is distilled and then aged in oak casks. A single-malt is produced from malted barley at one distillery.
As each cask ages, some of the spirit evaporates, a loss known as the "angels' share." A 50-year-old barrel can lose as much as 60 per cent of its contents.
Some of the most-coveted whiskies come from casks left over from "silent distilleries" that ceased operation decades ago. A batch from Port Ellen on the Scottish island of Islay, which was shuttered in 1983, is still releasing vintages as they come of age. The 1978 sold last year, one bottle per customer, for $24,869.
If you like your scotch with ice, there's a box of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt that was exhumed in 2010 in the Antarctic, where it had been left by explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Protected by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the 11 bottles will never be uncorked, but a wee dram was drawn from one by syringe and a replica produced by Whyte & Mackay in Scotland.
"I'd like to taste the original," says Mark Gillespie, who runs virtual tastings on WhiskyCast from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and sampled the reproduction.
The rising demand for rare malts prompted Rickesh Kishnani, chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based Platinum Wines, to launch the world's first whisky fund in June after raising $4-million in the first round of financing.
"There will be a gap in the market for 10-15 years between the supply of rare old single malts and growing demand, particularly in Asia," says Kishnani.
Part of that demand is coming from wine collectors who are switching to the hard stuff after a 35-per-cent decline in the Liv-ex 100 from its June 2011 peak.
"My wine portfolio is not doing very well right now so I am diversifying into whisky," says S.K. Yu, who attended the Aug. 15 Bonhams auction of Japanese single malts.
He's entering a more exclusive arena. There are only about 100 single-malt distilleries in Scotland according to the Scotch Whisky Association, compared with more than 8,000 winemakers in Bordeaux, which produces less than 2 per cent of the world's wine.
Whisky Highland founder Andy Simpson estimates the auction market for whisky in the U.K., where the bulk of trading occurs, will reach $11.2-million this year, up from $8.3-million last year. In 2013, wine auctions raised about $278-million worldwide, a decline of 15 per cent.
Added to the mix are whiskies from Japan, which opened its first commercial distillery – Yamazaki – 90 years ago. Japanese malts have been made more popular in the West by films like "Kill Bill" or "Lost in Translation," featuring actor Bill Murray touting Suntory's Hibiki 17-year-old blend.
"They made it easier for Japanese whisky to cross the floor from the New World to the Old World," says Marcin Miller, managing director for Europe at Number One Drinks Co. in Norwich, England, which distributes Karuizawa, Hanyu and Chichibu single malts.
The holy grail of Japanese whiskies is the Karuizawa 1960. Released in 2013, only 41 bottles were produced after 52 years of aging in the cask, and each cost about $20,723. It has an aroma of scented wood, dark chocolate, orange peel, citrus and honey, and tastes of pepper, malt, orange marmalade and liquorice, according to Chan, who tried it at an exclusive 12-person sampling at the Auld Alliance whisky bar in Singapore.
Inevitably, whisky's popularity is spawning counterfeits, says Luigi Barzini, spirits specialist at London-based merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd. "There are a lot of fakes across Asia and some in Italy," says Barzini. "It's a big problem for all of us."
Others are getting nervous about the growing number of speculators. "A lot of people are jumping in now who didn't think about whisky as in investment four or five years ago," says WhiskyCast's Gillespie. "The needle is getting closer to the bubble."
That doesn't bother Patel terribly much. "I don't see this as a paper investment, it has inherent value," he says. "At the end of the day you can still open the bottle and enjoy it."