In Whisky, Is Crazy the New Normal?

I’m not big on ranting, and when I do it, I tend to back it up with quite a bit data. Unless I’m ranting on the prices people are willing to pay for whisky, and even then, there’s probably some research there. Thus, today I have a story to tell and it starts in one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, and incidentally, one of my favorites. Non chill filtered, 48% ABV or better on all bottlings, and just really interesting liquid made me a fan. Indeed, my affinity for Glen Garioch is no secret, and I’ve even opened a group on Facebook dedicated to the distillery. If you’re not members of the Glen Garioch Appreciation Society, please do drop by and join.

Photo Credit: welcometoscotland.com

Photo Credit: welcometoscotland.com

There are two basic approaches to special bottlings. Some distilleries (like those owned by the big three: Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi) sell casks to bottlers who then bottle them under their own brands. Other distilleries have a strict no independent bottling policy: BenRiach/GlenDronach and Kilchoman only bottle special bottlings under their own labels (Bottled for XYZ), while a select few refuse to have any independent or special bottlings, teaspooning any cask coming out (Grant’s policy for their malts and Glenmorangie’s “Westport”) or requiring bottlers to use other names for the malt (“Speyside’s Finest” for Glenfarclas).

The early 1990s saw a significant change in the distillery’s cask sales policy, which was finalized with the 1995 refurbishing of Glen Garioch, . If you check Whiskybase’s records, you’ll find an almost complete drying out of casks distilled after 1995, although the errant cask slips out here and there. I say almost, because we know that Douglas Laing’s Timorous Beastie has Glen Garioch in it, and in 2016 there has been a vintage 2010 bottled under the Provenance label , as well as a 2000 and two 1998s that crept up. But in the past four years, between 2012 and 2015, there were no independent bottlings of any Glen Gariochs distilled after 1995. Not one! So I’m not sure if these new independent bottlings are harbingers of a new epoch, or just some surplus casks that didn’t fit the distillery’s plans and were sold off, but this is where things stand.

On the other hand, in the early years of the decade, Glen Garioch was very busy bottling its own vintage series, as well as selling single casks to various retailers bottled as official bottlings (à la BenRiach) and 11 casks, most of them from the late 1990 (1997, 1998 and 1999) were bottled for travel retail as World Duty Free exclusives for the shops in British Airports – including separate casks for Heathrow’s four shops (Terminal 1, 3, 4 and 5), as well as Gatwick (North and South), Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Birmingham and Stansted. Glasgow and Aberdeen, however, got single casks from 1978 and from 1986, respectively. Those of you familiar with Glen Garioch’s vintage line up, will not have failed to notice these same years popping up again and again. I wonder if all those sales to indies up to the early 1990s were a bigger mistake than thought back then….

By the way, my colleague and friend Tom Thomson has further details on each cask, as well as the official tasting notes on a post on his blog.

What does this have to do with us four years later, when none of these casks have been seen anywhere in the stores for a long time? Enter the 65th Scotch Whisky Auction, which closed last night.

Two bottles of the youngest whisky of the bunch, the 12 year old from 1999 bottled for Gatwick North (cask 2906 at 58.2% ABV) were on offer. Both should have sold at about £90-£100 showing a small premium to the seller. Indeed, until about 2pm on the day of the close, both sat at around £65. I bid, and played up to £95, but would not cross the £100 mark. It’s a 12 year old, for god’s sake!

What ensued, however, in the following hours, was nothing less than a bloodbath. I’ll start with the results, though:

Bottle 4/210

Bottle 3/210

If you’re astonishingly rubbing your eyes at this, you’re not the only one.

Moreover, with two bottles available, there were more than two people battling it out and willing to pay significantly more than the 30 year old 1978, sold for “only” £385 when still available.

So what’s going on here?

The easiest answer is that the world has gone crazy, and whisky prices have just shot through the roof even on the most basic things. But that’s not really true. Yes, prices have basically doubled for anything over 20 years old, and some distilleries can even take a premium on that (like Laphroaig’s 21 at £200 per 70cl or Ardbeg’s new 21 reportedly clocking in at $499), but come on, £450 for a 12 year old Glen Garioch….No, that’s not it.

Is it “Auction Fever”? Again, I don’t think so. The Brora 22 Rare Malts Selection, the holy grail of Broras, which closed at £5400 is probably a symptom of that. They’re rare (four in 65 auctions) and the last two closed for £3100 and £3500. Bidders got carried away and basically raised the bar by 60%. It just doesn’t feel right for these 12 year olds. Hey, Glen Garioch is good, but that 12 year old ex bourbon cask can’t possibly be THAT good….

Could there be people trying to complete a World Duty Free collection? At least three of them? Considering that one of the casks only yielded 58 bottles, this would have been an epic battle to complete a collection, if you have the 1978 but not the 1999. To me, this is the only plausible explanation. How likely is it? Who knows….

I’ll end with three thoughts:

  1. This is specific to this one bottle, by people who have 10 others from the same bottling, don’t use this to up your bids on any old Glen Garioch, or any whisky, for that matter. This isn’t a new price level for 12 year olds.
  2. If the previous observation is wrong, god have mercy on all of us 😉
  3. If you’re one of the people who bought this bottle, please contact me – I’d love to interview you for the blog. I’m sure my readers would love to hear about your (probably astonishing) collection.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!

 

 

 

3 comments on “In Whisky, Is Crazy the New Normal?
  1. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    well what can I say? You are probably right – crazy is normal.
    At least there seem to be much more persons out there with much more money than brains.

    I do not move in these higher echelons of collectors item malts or prices.
    But I would say that the craze begins in the realms of standard bottlings as well.
    10-12yo malts cost 40.- + Euros where I live 18yo malts nibble at the 100.- Euro border or have crossed it and everything over 20yo is in the 120-160 Euro range. 25yo and above is …. well crazy pricewise.
    Depending on the greed of the bottler.

    From where I watch it seems you are right crazy is normal.
    And it starts killing the whisky market off because nowhere does the disposable income increase in the way whisky prices do.
    What you saw is extreme but I do not really wonder.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  2. All’s true. I’ll just remind you that this is a cyclical business, and after this boom, there will be a bust. At that point, there will be bargains galore 🙂

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