Opinion: When digging for whisky treasure, pass up on fool's gold

Opinion: When digging for whisky treasure, pass up on fool's gold

Why the best whisky to invest in is one you'd like to drink
Every week, I receive messages asking for advice about buying ‘rare’ whisky. I respond with a polite message to the tune of, “I don’t give investment advice; read these articles about cask scams and fakes; don’t spend money you can’t afford to lose; and only buy bottles you would drink yourself.” Bursting so many bubbles on a regular basis has become wearisome, especially as I sense that some of my correspondents think I’m hoarding knowledge. Truthfully, I take my own advice: I don’t own casks, I only have a couple of ‘old and rare’ bottles, and I don’t own any whisky for ‘investment’ purposes.

In my opinion, making money from cask whisky requires a few things 99.99 per cent of people don’t have: time-sensitive knowledge of the industry’s internal market, strong stock management chops and a decent palate (the skills to know when a cask is ready to bottle, when it needs re-racking, and when it’s a write-off), personal accounts with warehouses (which are usually only granted to businesses), a guaranteed exit strategy (e.g. one’s own brand or signed supply contracts), and deep enough pockets to diversify risk by investing in a large number of casks (to hedge against losses resulting from poor-quality or leaky wood, lacklustre spirit quality, and bad luck). And don’t forget a decent understanding of the regulations governing booze in all the countries in which one owns casks.

Phew. Sounds like a full-time job, right? That’s exactly why cask ownership has always been the realm of businesses, not the general public, and why it should probably stay that way. Simply put, the regulatory checks and customary practices currently in place aren’t set up to deal with Barry Hobblepot from Kirkcaldy or Hermione Proudfoot from Perth deciding they want to risk their rainy-day fund by buying casks of whisky. Because of this, ‘cask investment companies’ offer to do all the hard work and make us easy money. If only it were so simple. While there are two or three companies that, following close inspection, I’m almost convinced are doing things responsibly, it’s taken me two years to reach that conclusion.

Unfortunately, articles in the whisky press highlighting bad practices and news stories in mainstream media about outright scams have led many of the suspected bad actors to adjust their sales materials and techniques to counter the common criticisms and side-step the few ‘proofs’ there are.

My gut tells me that, for most people, most of the time, bottles are the way to go – though perhaps not those that might first spring to mind. The likes of Macallan, Springbank, Glenfarclas, Brora, Port Ellen, Ardbeg, Daftmill, and, across the water, many of Buffalo Trace’s brands (Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, etc.) have become ‘flipper’s gold’, for the very good reason that they’re fantastic whiskies and everyone (really, everyone) knows it. Rather than chasing bottles that are often impossible to get hold of, surely the real trick is to consider what made these whiskies popular and identify which distilleries or brands might be following a similar course. Apart from being easier and often cheaper to buy, under-the-radar bottles are also far less likely to be faked.

Common threads seem to be: traditional production practices (floor malting, direct firing, worm tubs, sherry casks, peat), small to moderate production capacity, heritage grains or mash bills, close links to farming, and very distinctive profiles (such as waxy, herbal, oily, sulphury, and cereal), which are often considered to be ‘old school’. In Scotland, a process of elimination leads us to a short list of active distilleries that tick most of these boxes, but the list gets longer if we include older bottlings from less ‘hyped’ distilleries containing spirit from before the waves of modernisation in the 70s and 2000s.

I’m also closely watching distillers in the Nordics (Aurora, Stauning, Thy, Kyrö), Central Europe (Basque Moonshiners, Millstone), Japan (Hombo Shuzo), Tasmania (Hellyers Road), and the USA (Ironroot, Distillery 291, Frey Ranch, Bainbridge, Westward), to name a few. Who knows if any or all will skyrocket in value? What matters is these whiskies are great examples of distinctive, flavourful spirits crafted with attention to detail, so I’m tracking the bottles down now, and opening them, while there’s still enough to go around.
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