Whisky Beats Record Lafite as Single Malt Auctions Draw Fans

Macallan Anniversary Malt
A bottle of 50-year-old Macallan Anniversary Malt, bottle no. 328/500. The bottle was the top lot at Bonham's all-whisky sale in New York on June 22. Source: Bonham's via Bloomberg

Peter Silver, a collector of single-malt whisky, nibbled on cheese and sipped water as bidders pushed up the price of a bottle of Macallan 50-Year-Old Anniversary Malt to $9,250, almost double the record price paid for Chateau Lafite.

Silver, dentist to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and member of the international tasting group Malt Maniacs, was one of three dozen fans at the Bonhams whisky auction in New York on June 22, which also took telephone bids from as far afield as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Europe.

“Prices are fair, and bottles are selling for what they’re worth,’’ said Silver, who scooped up an obscure Braes of Glenlivet 18-year-old 1979 bottling for a more modest $119.

The Macallan $9,250 bid compares with the sale last month at Zachys of a case of in-demand 1982 Chateau Lafite for $58,080, or $4,840 a bottle.

Still, you can get into the whisky-bidding game for a whole lot less. Against a background of ancient maps and a glass case with first editions of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22’’ and Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,’’ auctioneer Rupert Banner fielded hundreds of bids for the 554 lots. Most went for $200 to $800.

“Well over 50 percent of them went to private individuals,’’ said Bonhams whisky specialist Martin Green later in a phone call. “We’re seeing more and more new buyers.’’ What they’re most interested in is single malts, whiskies that come from a single distillery -- in contrast to blends like Johnnie Walker that come from two or more.

New Collectors

At least two newbie collectors walked out happy. A 24-year-old TV producer (“no names, please’’) in polka-dotted bowtie, seersucker trousers and blazer bought a 2-bottle lot of 15-year-old Macallan and Macallan 1990 for $214, bringing his collection to 17 bottles. “I’m not old enough to be a connoisseur,’’ he joked.

Adam Friend, a 37-year-old strategy consultant for private-equity companies, bid on several lots before finally winning two -- a bottle of Bruichladdich 30-year-old 1972 and an Ardbeg 1998 -- both for below the low estimates. Also a wine collector, he left beaming.

Scotland has hosted regular whisky sales for two decades, but in New York, spirit auctions were banned after Prohibition until 2007. Christie’s International rushed in that December with a hoopla-filled sale of rare liquors and prices of the best went into orbit. One New Yorker paid $54,000 for a single bottle of 1926 Macallan.

Bonhams tested U.S. interest last December with a one-off New York sale of whiskies from a famous 3,000-bottle single-owner collection (the rest were sold in Edinburgh and Hong Kong). Its success inspired them to announce twice-a-year dedicated whisky sales in the city.

Cult Following

“Prices really began taking off last spring,’’ said Green. Big distillery names with cult followings lead -- Macallan, Dalmore, Bowmore, Springbank, Glenfiddich. “People are investing as speculation, and if they want they can certainly drink what they buy,’’ he said.

Whiskies have one virtue few wines can match. After you uncork a wine, you need to consume it then. Opened whiskies can be enjoyed for months, even years.

Green was still celebrating Bonhams June 16 Edinburgh auction, where a bidder paid 25,200 pounds ($37,578) for a rare Glenfiddich single malt distilled in 1937, one of 61 bottles produced. When it was released in 2001 as part of a 10-bottle batch, it sold for less than half that. Green said it’s still drinkable, with a taste of toffee and toasted almonds.

Whisky Index

U.K.-based Whisky magazine recently added a Whisky Index that tracks auction prices. The graph in the May issue shows a sharp upward trajectory from May 2009, with prices more than doubling.

The spirit is still a niche market compared to top quality Bordeaux and Burgundy, the mainstays of wine auctions. In 2010, wine prices, which plummeted after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008, have rebounded.

On May 21, Zachys had its most lucrative one-day sale since the market peaked in 2007, while at Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart, prices of 1986 Mouton-Rothschild were up 80 percent from the beginning of 2010. Lafite also continues to pull in the bucks.

June’s New York auctions are more of the same. Sotheby’s June 5 auction ($3,383,100) and Zachys’ two-day sale last week ($4,518,201) were solid, at 98 percent sold and first growths, Ptrus and Domaine de la Romanee Conti going for high prices. Lafite continues to bring in big bucks. Some of the most staggering prices are being set in Hong Kong, where sales are predicted to surpass New York this year.

Will whisky follow the same trend? One obstacle is the high duty and taxes (100 percent) on spirits, which wasn’t removed as it was for wine in 2008.

Even so, Hong Kong’s first whisky auction, held by Bonhams last November, was 100 percent sold. I asked Green whether whisky taxes might go the way of wine.

“It’s under discussion,’’ he said.

Better bid on those bottles of Old Glengargle while you can.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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