Money Talks, So Should You

How to buy whisky at an auction

The world's finest bottles of scotch can sell at auction for more than you'd pay in many U.S. cities for a small house.

Jerry Kronenberg
by Jerry Kronenberg

BOSTON (MainStreet) — The world's finest bottles of scotch can sell at auction for more than you'd pay in many U.S. cities for a small house.

"A collectible whiskey's value is based on a combination of things — rarity, desirability and drinkability," says Joseph Hyman, Boston-based whiskey specialist for auction house Bonhams. "Certain distilleries have a higher 'cult following,' so they command higher prices."

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Bonhams and other auction houses typically hold auctions of super-rare bottles of Scotch whisky a few times a year in New York, London or Hong Kong, garnering close to or more than $100,000 for some of the most valuable offerings.

For instance, Bonhams sold one of just 15 bottles of a 1955 Glenfiddich for $75,200 a couple of winters ago, while Christie's recently expected one of only 61 bottles of a 1937 Glenfiddich to fetch as much as $110,000. The most expensive bottle ever sold was apparently a 64-year-old MacCallan that fetched $460,000 in a 2010 Sotheby's charity auction, although that included a one-of-a-kind decanter.

Hyman says people who bid at whiskey auctions range from collectors to investors to Scotch whisky lovers such as himself.

"When I buy something, I want to drink it," he says. "But other people are just speculating on price appreciation, and then you have collectors who have whole rooms-ful of whiskeys that they don't drink at all. They just want to buy something rare, put it on a shelf and look at it."

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Auction prices start at around $40 a bottle for modestly valuable whisky — usually auctioned off in sets of three bottles — but can approach or even top $100,000 for ultra-valuable offerings. And it's not just age deciding it.

"Older is not necessary better," he says. "I've had whiskeys from the same distillery where a younger one was actually better than an older one."

He adds that when collectors talk about a whiskey's age, they mean how long it sat in a barrel — not when it was bottled up. The 1937 Glenfiddich that Christie's plans to auction next month was distilled in 1937, but not actually bottled until 2001 after 64 years of aging.

Hyman says collectors date whiskey that way because the beverage picks up flavor from the wood of the barrel it sits in, a process that stops once distilleries put the drink in bottles.

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"Typically, you're getting upwards of 70 percent to 75 percent of the flavor from the barrel," he says. "It's not like wine, where you put it in the cellar for 20 years and its flavor gets better."

Roughly 2 percent of the whisky a distillery puts in a barrel evaporates every year that the beverage ages, though — what whiskey makers call the "angel's share."

Hyman says that at that rate, more than half of a batch is gone by the time a barrel turns 50. "Therein lies the rarity," he says.