Historically, the major whisky companies were focused on high volume blended Scotch whisky brands. As single malt whisky grew in popularity and became a significant portion of the industry’s revenues, those companies also began to focus on expanding their single malt ranges.
Odd lots of barrels however, those whose taste and aroma profile didn’t really fit the template of the single malt brand or whose numbers were so small, typically ultra-aged barrels, were usually sold off to specialty bottlers.
Starting with Diageo’s launch of its Rare and Exceptional Group, about five years ago, the major beverage companies began to bottle their rare and exceptional casks themselves and selling them to consumers. Although this business segment is still relatively small, it is growing rapidly; propelled by the continuing drive toward premiumization of Scotch whisky and other spirits.
William Grant & Sons has now launched a similar program. Its Global Private Clients Service searches the company’s extensive stocks of maturing whiskies for exceptional barrels that it can bottle for sale to enthusiasts and collectors alike.
Recently, I sat down with Jonathan Driver, a leading authority on whisky and Managing Director of William Grant and Sons’ newly organized, Global Private Clients Service, to talk about their new initiative and the market for ultra-rare whiskies. Driver is also Master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers.
JM: Historically, the major spirits companies didn’t usually bother with specialty releases. Exceptional casks either ended up as special bottlings for directors or family or were sold off to independent bottlers. This policy is now changing.
Diageo launched its “Rare & Exceptional” group to cater to private clients several years ago. Pernod-Ricard has also recently launched a similar service. Now William Grant & Sons is also launching a Global Private Client service. What’s driving this trend? Is this the inevitable result of the skyrocketing prices for rare, ultra-aged whiskies?
JD: As a family business our Private Client service is an important way for us to forge direct, long-term relationships with a new type of collector who has started to emerge; these are discerning individuals who desire a unique, personal relationship direct-to-the-distillery and are partial to mature, limited and sometimes obscure, rare whiskies.
They want to collect and enjoy the rarest releases from the likes of Glenfiddich and Balvenie, but also special bottlings such as our Ladyburn ghost distillery; when it comes to the rarest, finest and oldest we know collectability and appreciation is not going to disappear.
Stocks are limited so it is not surprising that we’re seeing burgeoning interest in private clients, as well as an elite band of rare whiskies commanding high prices on the secondary market.
JM: Some of the whiskies you plan to offer, like the Glenfiddich bottlings from the 1950s, have been aging for more than half a century. Was there a plan to age these whiskies for this long when the casks were first filled; a final, intended purpose? Or was this simply a case that, as long as the whiskies were improving, they were left to continue aging?
JD: It is safe to say the process is always carefully curated and nurtured, yet precious little amounts of the liquid remain today. Our craftspeople, following Grant family tradition, would have been dedicated to creating the most exceptional whisky, as part of a rich whisky-making heritage, but in the 1950s would have more likely anticipated they were making for consumption alone, which is an extraordinary thought today.
One-off bottlings from Glenfiddich distilled in the 1950s come from some of the oldest reserves in our stocks. Nurtured over generations by the family and selected for the inaugural Worshipful Company of Distillers Sotheby’s auction by malt master Brian Kinsman, the Glenfiddich expressions from 1955, 1957, 1958 and 1959 capture a sense of time and place.
In the 1955 a sense of smoke echoes the era in which it was distilled, whereas the 1959 offers the most complete, classic sherry cask character and richness of flavour. We’re confident these one-off bottlings are a truly historic donation that will raise considerable interest.
JM: The oldest whisky ever released was 80 years old. There have been less than two dozen whiskies released that are more than 50 years old. Beyond the obvious financial contribution that their sales provide, what role do these ultra-aged whiskies play in the whisky industry?
Is this a way of underscoring the quality of the younger bottlings in the range? Will ultra-aged whiskies ever be numerous enough or sufficiently expensive to move the revenue needle at a company like Grant in a meaningful way?
What other exceptional whiskies are lurking in Grant’s vaults that could make a splash in the ultra-aged Scotch whisky category?
JD: The Balvenie 1964 has been maturing in warehouse for 56 years, and the remarkable complexity it offers is very much a reflection of the long-term vision of the Grant family company. This is one of the oldest and rarest expressions of the Balvenie to be available, and when considering its impact, you have to look at the market dynamic.
Ultra-rare whiskies are limited by two factors; firstly, not all whiskies will take age and grow better, and secondly not every company has the patience or the ability to curate, build, maintain such stocks.
By placing the highest level of integrity on custodianship and curation of the casks in our vaults, we are proud to offer the unseen wonders of the whisky world such as the Balvenie 1964 and Glenfiddich The 1950s, both featuring at the forthcoming Sotheby’s auction on 3rd December. They offer snapshots to another time and are a way for buyers to really understand heritage and provenance.
JM: You are donating several exceptional whisky expressions to the inaugural Distillers One of One charity auction being conducted by Sotheby’s on December 3, 2021. These include a collection of rare Glenfiddich expressions from 1955, 1957, 1958 and 1959, a 54 YO Ladyburn, from the now closed, distillery, which features a rare 1965 photograph of John Lennon by David Bailey, and a 1964 Single Bottle release of The Balvenie. How were these bottles chosen?
JD: We wanted to give collectors a preview of the rare and valuable stocks we hold for the Private Clients market and have chosen three one-of-a-kind lots from the family archive. Heritage, insight and extreme collectability are the golden threads.
The never seen before Glenfiddich expressions from the 1950s give a heritage led snapshot of the origins of the modern Glenfiddich Single Malt.
The David Bailey John Lennon comes from one of Scotland’s shortest-lived distilleries, Ladyburn, and was put in cask just as rapid change was taking place in art, music and fashion – the lot includes a highly rare, era defining Bailey image of Lennon, taken at the height of Beatles fame.
The extremely collectable 1964 Balvenie is one of the oldest released before The Balvenie sold as a Single Malt and chosen in appreciation of the evolution of The Balvenie distillery’s character.
JM: Glenfiddich recently released 15 bottles of a 46 YO, 1973 single malt Scotch bottling that had been finished for 21 years in an Armagnac cask, which were sold as a limited edition NFTs (Non-Fungible Token). The NFT is intended to be a proof of authenticity and can either be sold or redeemed for the actual bottle of whisky. This sale represents the first time that a collectible whisky was sold as an NFT and the first time that such purchases were, mostly, made with a cryptocurrency.
Do you think such NFT-based sales will become more common or was this case more of a novelty? What impact will pricing rare whiskies in cryptocurrencies have on the whisky industry, if any?
JD: This is most certainly an exciting new area for rare spirits and collectibles, as custodians of one of the oldest reserves in industry we were the first luxury spirits brand to be available on NFT platform BlockBar. Our release of a series of limited edition NFTs that each represent a physical bottle of 1973 Glenfiddich was priced at the market value of the whisky and has struck a chord with both digitally-savvy twenty-first century collectors and whisky aficionadas.
We are watching with interest as the cryptocurrency space is maturing, but NFTs can complement our well established and trusted channels such as private sales and auctions; digital-first allows us to build in more Glenfiddich experiences, from expert advice to virtual distillery tours. Luxury brands only stand to gain from developing relationships in this way and we’re already seeing they can extend long after the purchase.
JM: Rare, ultra-aged whiskies have been promoted as an alternative asset class to traditional financial market offerings. Do you see many of the offerings from the Grant’s Global Private Client Service destined for investment purposes or consumption? Do you think the securitization of collectible whiskies is good for the Scotch whisky industry over the long term?
JD: Amongst our Private Clients there is a sense of enormous passion and enjoyment in the collecting of these rare whiskies. The growth of super premium and rare whiskies is a relatively recent phenomenon and industry data would certainly support a strong value point.
One of the highest value estimates at the forthcoming auction is for the highly rare 1950s Glenfiddich four-decanter prelude set, as these come from an age that the business has never commercialised before. The whiskies are from the last remaining 1950s casks from the world’s most famous whisky house.
Could whisky be an alternative asset class? We do not offer investment advice but are pleased if buyers see potential in our whiskies – the Private Client business curates an ongoing portfolio of rare expressions for people to enjoy, collect, gift and perhaps build a small legacy to pass on one day.
Every single sale is grounded in provenance, rarity and the uniqueness of presentation, in the end the whisky needs to be appreciated organoleptically through the smell, appearance and taste, and not just financially for this to make sense.
JM: How many different whisky expressions do you envision making available every year through the Global Private Client Service?
JD: There is no precise science here. Perhaps a handful as there is not a lot available and what there is needs careful management, monitoring and to be brought to market in the right way that allows a full appreciation and understanding of what’s being offered.
In the world of ultra-rare whisky expressions Private Client management is a relatively new capability. Akin to the mature Fine Wine and Art markets, availability is not an indicator – it is not about the number of expressions it is about their contribution to the burgeoning ultra-rare market from the point of view of provenance, rarity, market landscape and authenticity.
JM: Thank you.