Take a scroll through auction sites like Sotheby's and you're bound to come across a section for whisky. Here, you'll find ‘holy grail’ and sought after whiskies often selling from the low thousands to some rare bottles selling for millions. But it's not always obvious what's worth a bid. And then there's the age-old question; should you keep hold of the bottle or cask as an investment – or crack it open to enjoy it as it was intended?
To answer all of our whisky questions we turned to The Fife Arms' whisky ambassador Katy Fennema. The Highland hotel's whisky bar, Bertie's, is possibly one of the best places on the planet for whisky fans to gather. Their dimly-lit and easy-going whisky library holds over 400 bottles of whisky, bourbon, Scotch, and rye from all over the world and the ‘whisky sommeliers’ there are not scared to pour a dram of the rare stuff as much as they're genuinely excited about affordable pours. Most recently they've released their first-ever single malt. There are only 348 bottles of the 14-year-old single cask scotch whisky, matured in an ex-sherry cask at the acclaimed Dailuaine distillery north of Braemar. Read on for Katy's wise advice.
Don't invest in a cask that you wouldn't enjoy sharing with friends
'I'm afraid you're generally going to find me quite hesitant to suggest investing in whisky is a good idea,' Katy explains. 'It's your rate of return not being guaranteed. It's also the investment companies out there that are promising enormous gains, which they often don't deliver on. They talk about whisky being tax-free, which is absolutely correct. There is a tax-free investment, but the moment that whisky goes into a bottle that tax-free claim is no longer valid, and they rarely mention storage. They rarely mention the costs of insurance and unfortunately, we do have a lot of whisky brokers who are less than scrupulous. They're giving out things like certificates of ownership of a cask, which actually then if that company doesn't survive that, that certificate means nothing. So I've heard so many horrible stories from friends, from people I've met who have really had their fingers burnt in this industry and their bank casks of whisky being put under real pressure to buy, being told what you've got 12 hours to make a decision.
'My advice is to never buy a cask that you wouldn't enjoy just bottling and sharing with friends. These whiskys have been made with love and passion. It's been made by people to be enjoyed with other people, to be shared with friends, and that's a real investment in a way. My husband's recently opened a cask with six other friends that they bought 13 years ago and the deal was that when they bottled it, they would cheers over those bottles and they would all meet together as friends. And that's what it should be about when it comes to investing in whisky.'
'I was really privileged to interview Dennis Malcolm from Glen Grant Distillery. He's an extraordinary man. He began working with Glen Grant as an apprentice in 1961 (he was actually born on the distillery grounds, too) and on his first day he went and worked at the Cooper Ridge at Glen Grant and aged, I think a 15-years-old whisky. And he worked his way up, becoming the distillery's master blender. To celebrate Dennis' sixty years in the industry, Glen Grant bottled a 60-year-old whisky and the thing that I find terribly sad about that is I wonder how much of that whisky will actually be drunk and enjoyed? And that's our philosophy at Bertie's, too. Any bottle we get, no matter how rare, is opened. It's enjoyed and it's talked about and the narrative is talked about and I think that that's what whisky's really about. I can open a bottle and hand it to a guest slightly nervously. They know they're going back in time with their dram. It's a time capsule of what whiskey was like. That's, that's for me. What investment in whisky is about.'
How to find a rare or unique bottle of whisky at auction
Not buying a whisky as an investment purchase doesn't mean not buying unique and rare casks. ‘We do buy a lot at auction,’ Katy explains. ‘They can be a fascinating glimpse into the past. I quite often say to people when they're saying 'what can we get that's a little bit different to take home?' I have a several suggestions for them. The first is to focus on single-cask whiskies, considering cask size and how long the spirit has been in the cask.
Uniqueness is also a factor that should be considered. ‘I really like what Glenmorangie Distillery is doing. Their master blender's name is Bill Lumsden but he's known as the 'Willy Wonka of the Whisky World'. He loves to think outside the box. He released Signet which is made with barley that's been partially roasted like a coffee bean would be roasted giving you actually the flavours he thinks of his morning coffee. He looked at the problems with using peat in whiskey and he released the Tale of the Forest using botanicals that have been thrown into the kiln. That's unique whisky.
Then there are the trends. 'I think we'll start to see a real increase in distilleries producing whisky made from rye and getting those wonderful kind of peppery, gingery flavours coming through. It could be quite a big thing actually in the industry in the next 5-10 years. We're already seeing new distilleries like Inchdairnie in Fife releasing great flavours like their Ryelaw single-grain rye whisky. So I think to get in there at the start of that game is quite an interesting one too.
And finally, don't leave that last third of a rare bottle for too long
When you open a rare bottle and you get down to about the last third, you need to start drinking it because it will start to oxidise once it's down to about the last third or quarter of the bottle. I have guests coming in and saying 'I've got loads of whiskey and I've been storing the last little portion for that special occasion' and you can see their eyes kind of get gradually wider and wider as they realise. They're going to have to go home straight away and drink all of the stuff.
This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.