Why Asian investors are going mad for malt whisky

Single malt whisky is increasingly being seen as an investment of passion by high-net-worth collectors, particularly in Asia. The Wealth Report heads to Scotland to get the lowdown for would-be investors.

Words: Andrew Shirley, Editor, The Wealth Report

At a glance

  1. Rare whisky is emerging as the latest alternative asset class to excite high-net-worth investors, particularly those in Asia.
  2. Reflecting this trend, the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index (KFLII) now includes whisky among the asset classes that it follows.
  3. New direct flights between Edinburgh and Beijing have contributed to annual growth in sales of Scotch to China.
  4. The Knight Frank Rare Whisky 100 index, which tracks auction sales in the UK and was created for us by Rare Whisky 101, rose 40% in value during 2018 and has increased by almost 600% over the past 10 years.
  5. A single bottle of The Macallan sold for over £1 million at auction in London last year highlighting how much collectors are prepared to pay for the rarest whiskies.
  6. Casks of maturing single malt Scottish whisky are increasingly sought after as an investment and status symbol.
  7. Supply is extremely limited, especially from the most iconic distilleries, and casks can easily command six-figure sums, if not more.
  8. There has been a surge in the value of whiskies distilled in many other countries including the US, Taiwan and Japan. A Japanese 50-year-old bottle sold for almost US$350,000 at auction last year.
Sales of Scotch whisky to India, China and Singapore rose by 44%, 35% and 24% respectively in the first half of 2018 according to the Scotch Whisky Association, with single malts totalling almost 30% of total exports.
The full read

Pop stars and actors might have groupies, but whisky experts? Seriously? I wouldn’t have believed it either until I witnessed first-hand the adoration reserved for Charles Maclean, the “godfather” of whisky and author of numerous books on the subject.

I’m with Mr Maclean and Charlie Beamish, a former investment banker who now runs a private client business that brings together high-end single malt brand owners and wealthy collectors, on a private tour of the Glenfiddich distillery in Speyside when two other visitors run up excitedly. They chat animatedly to Charles for a few minutes before, visibly star-struck, continuing with their tour.

It turns out they are visiting from Asia where Mr Maclean frequently does speaking tours. When I ask if this is a common occurrence he demurs modestly – but I later find out that there is a chain of whisky-themed bars named after him being developed in China.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, the value of the new Knight Frank Rare Whisky Index, compiled for us by consultancy Rare Whisky 101 and featured for the first time in the latest Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index has risen by more than 400% over the past ten years.

Some of the world’s wealthiest people, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, are reportedly big collectors. But it’s in Asia where the trend seems to be accelerating fastest. Chinese tech entrepreneur Jack Ma’s private jet has been spotted at Aberdeen airport, while whisky tourism was apparently one of the drivers behind the launch of a new non-stop flight from Edinburgh to Beijing in 2018.

Sales of Scotch whisky to India, China and Singapore rose by 44%, 35% and 24% respectively in the first half of 2018 according to the Scotch Whisky Association, with single malts totalling almost 30% of total exports.

The Macallan 1926 enjoys legendary status among collectors. Only 40 bottles of the record-breaking whisky, 60 years old at the time of bottling, were produced, the most famous being the editions – 12 of each – illustrated by artists Peter Blake and Valerio Adami.

Sukhinder Singh, who started his career working in his family’s west London off-licence, probably knows more than anybody about rare whiskies and has amassed one of the world’s largest collections – 10,000, he tells me – as well as creating The Whisky Exchange, an online trading platform and chain of shops.

We meet at his newly opened store on Great Portland Street, surrounded by thousands of different types of whisky from all over the world. It’s not just Scotch that is in demand, he points out: a bottle of 50-year-old Japanese Yamakazi fetched US$343,318 at Bonhams in Hong Kong in August 2018. Mr Singh has just returned from the Christie’s sale and recounts how he sold a bottle of The Macallan 1926 for “just” £5,000 about 20 years ago.

He must wish he’d hung on to it, I sympathise. “I don’t feel too bad; I’ve still got a few bottles. We’re not in a hurry to sell. It’s important to us that they’re placed in the hands of customers who will appreciate them.

It’s amazing how quickly prices and demand have risen over the last few years in particular.” This explains why distilleries like Glenfiddich and The Macallan are investing heavily to boost production and why a select band of advisers such as Mr Beamish are increasingly criss-crossing the world helping collectors to source hard-to-find whiskies.

For some collectors, however, tracking down individual bottles is not enough. They want their own casks, and are prepared to pay six- or even seven-figure sums to get them. “Putting your own whisky into customised decanters created for you by a premium crystal-maker and giving them to your friends in a stunning presentation box really is the ultimate gift,” points out Mr Beamish.

But even for those with the deepest pockets that’s easier said than done. Given the rising value of rare whisky, selling older casks is now viewed by most distilleries as a bit like selling the family silver. “If you know the right people it is possible to track down casks, but distilleries are generally very reluctant to sell,” says Mr Beamish.“You can’t just turn up on the doorstep waving your chequebook.”

Diageo, which owns 28 single malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, is unusual in that it runs a formal programme called Casks of Distinction. But this is open only to selected private clients and involves a very limited number of casks, emphasises James Mackay, Head of Rare and Collectable Spirits. “It offers our most passionate customers a very special opportunity to share a stake in some of our most iconic brands such as Brora, a ‘silent distillery’ that shut in 1983, but which we’re reopening next year,” he says.

"We are often approached, but our response is always a polite ‘no’,” Stuart Cassells, Prestige Channel Development Manager at The Macallan, tells me during a visit to the company’s recently opened £140 million distillery and visitor experience. The Macallan does, however, “sell” a limited number of casks of newly distilled spirit through its new En Primeur programme.

Legally, all Scotch whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years, but the En Primeur casks must be matured for a minimum of 12 years. Costs start at £35,000 for the invitation-only programme, which is available only to selected clients. “The programme was created to encourage enjoyment of The Macallan Single Malt, rather than as an investment or speculation opportunity,” explains Mr Cassells.

“At the end of maturation, clients have the rights to the spirit in the cask and will also be offered the opportunity to collaborate with us on a customised design for their unique collection of The Macallan that they can enjoy, share and give away.”

A more cost-effective option for investors or aficionados unable to get their hands on a cask of aged whisky or new spirit from a brand like The Macallan is to head to one of the new generation of craft distilleries opening across Scotland and hope that one day their whisky becomes collectable.

The distillery, for example, set up in 2017 by the McKenzie-Smith family on the site of Lindores Abbey, which some historians believe to be the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, sells a small number of casks of new spirit each year, starting from around £1,100 for a 50-litre firkin to almost £10,000 for a 500-litre butt.

“It helps to maintain cash flow and build brand awareness until we can begin bottling our whisky in a few years’ time,” explains Drew McKenzie-Smith as he proudly shows off his new stills. “We get a lot of visitors and have sold casks to people from all over the world. Although it’s still early days, we’re confident our whisky is going to taste pretty good.”

There is also a secondary market for casks sold off by distilleries before the value of single malt whisky started to rocket, but buyers should exercise caution, says Andy Simpson of Rare Whisky 101. “We’ve helped people to acquire some amazing casks, but there is no guarantee that just because a barrel is old or from a well-known maker that the whisky will taste amazing or even be drinkable.”

For pure investors it’s the age and rarity of a bottle, rather than the contents, that counts. But most collectors are also passionate about drinking whisky, says Cecily Chappel, Commercial Director of the Last Drop, a company that over the past ten years has been doing the hard work for collectors by scouring distilleries for old casks that are then bottled and sold as limited releases for upwards of £2,400 per bottle.

“The youngest whisky we’ve bottled was 45 years, but it’s not just about age – it has to taste delicious,” she enthuses. But as I’m fast discovering, gaining access to the rarest whiskies is not easy. “Our smallest release was just 32 bottles and was offered to only our most loyal buyers,” confides Mrs Chappel.

Clearly, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters in this rarefied world – which explains why experts like Charles Maclean are so revered by their fans around the world.