Not Really a Rant: Addressing the Whisky Pricing ‘Crisis’ of 2017

I don’t know about you, I hate admitting that I’m wrong.

Ranting about whisky prices, especially on the secondary whisky market is nothing new. Everybody has done it. I’ve done it, hell, I even had a beautiful Port Ellen price chart tracing bottle prices in 2013 (here) and 2014 (here). While in the first one I ranted about the pricing of the Port Ellen Special Release, in the following year I realized that those ‘legendary distilleries’ will command that price in the secondary market anyway, and thus, it makes sense for producers to price their products in such a way as to keep that profit in their hands. I still thought that the pricing of the other Special Releases was out of whack, and might even claim that the fact that they’re not sold out even two or three years later is proof of that. But I’m not as certain as I was.

Last year I wrote about a crazy 12 year old Glen Garioch bottle that went for £450 and £440 in the August auction (that’s touching the £500 mark with buyer’s fees – see here) and for £85 in the September round of the same auction (and here). While we recently saw a 1971 Samaroli Glen Garioch 1971 in sherry – definitely a coveted bottle, one of 2280 which even in 2014 could command a solid £1400 (see here) – sell for a mind blowing £7100 (with a reserve set at £7000!!!).

Not even to mention the Karuizawa releases in the UK, that have gone from under £400 a bottle to £2000 in just one year (2014 Geisha bottles to the 2016 Golden Samurai, (sold in flimsy cardboard boxes), the OB Littlemill 2015 and 2017 editions priced at over £2000 (in an admittedly stunning presentation),  or two SMWS releases announced the other day in an “ultra premium” fancy black bottle with gold lettering and a (truly) lovely presentation box The Vaults Collection: An £875 26 year old Rosebank and a £980 27 year old Macallan.

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But I was wrong.

It’s not only the Karuizawas, Port Ellens, Broras, Macallans and Yamazakis that have gone bonkers. It’s whisky that has transformed from one thing to another. Whisky is not a drink. I mean, You can drink it, and you probably will be drinking “regular” whisky, but it’s not a drink. It is a coveted possession, a thing. And in the market of “things”, right now we’re at a point where producers are trying to keep as much of the secondary market markups for themselves, and I can’t really blame them.

Thus, you get GlenDronach releasing a 25 year old in conjunction with a high power box office movie for £550, and it’s an instant sellout. Now there are 2000 bottles of it, there’s other 1991s out there, and a single cask of the stuff sold in batch 9 for around €150, so what’s the rush? Who would run to pay £550 for a bottle? I can tell you that it’s not me, and not because I won’t shell out the cash. I’ve bought a 33 year old single cask bottling of my favorite distillery for £330, and promptly opened it. I have friends as far away as Scotland who have tasted it, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! At one point it will be empty, and I’ll move on to another single cask of that distillery (I’m sure you know which one it is), and go on to enjoy it too. And yet, the GlenDronach Kingsman, like so much of the whisky being released nowadays, seemed to me to be priced way out of its range.

I was obviously wrong. This is the market of things, and as a ‘thing’ that beautifully crafted bottle in the pretty box IS worth £550.

Well, lo and behold, it’s only been a few weeks, and guess what’s happening in the secondary market…..

I used to self righteously rant that “whisky is for drinking” and we, the aficionados and drinkers, who open our bottles and share them, are being “priced out of the market”. In fact, it led one of my favorite bloggers to stop blogging about whisky. But I was wrong.

I now realize that SOME whisky is for drinking, and some isn’t really whisky. It’s a thing. To own, to flip, to covet. As such, pricing is irrelevant and can’t be compared to that drink (the real drink), that produces 410 liters of new make out of a ton of barley that costs £85, and sits in a £80-£800 cask for a time, in a warehouse that costs, on average, £10 per year per cask. Gone are the days when George Grant of Glenfarclas could smile at the whisky show in the old Vinopolis and say “pricing, well it’s £10 per year on the special ones, much less on the regular bottlings”.

For now they all sell “things”…..

In case you’re wondering if I’m going in Oliver Klimek’s footsteps and stopping my blog, the answer is no. I’m intrigued by whisky and love it, and will continue to strive to taste, experience and report to the best of my ability. But I’m releasing my frustration with prices, releases and the industry. They’re businesses, and the market is throwing stupid money at them. They’d be fools to let flippers make that money instead of them. I also know that inevitably a day will come when we’ll get to enjoy all that whisky cheaply. I know it doesn’t look that way now, but in the 1890s people were building distilleries faster than they are today, and nobody in 1971 had an inkling that the loch was on its way. Markets are fickle, and business is cyclical. If you enjoy whisky, drink some of your sizable stash for the next few years. The proportion of ‘whisky’ to ‘thing’ in the market will change, and it will happen in our lifetimes….



In a Facebook conversation about this post it dawned on me that the distinction between ‘whisky’ and ‘thing’ is that a ‘thing’ is a bottle too expensive for you to open and drink. Thus, it’s not so much the cost of the bottle, but the question of you popping the cork on it….

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post  🙂

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