© The Speyside Way |
If you think Burgundy’s dominance of the various lists of most expensive wines is impressive, Scotland’s grip on the equivalent list of whiskeys is positively vise-like.
While wines from the Côte d’Or comprise 80 percent of the top 10 most expensive wines, a wider view shows that wines from nine other regions crop up in the top 25, including growing areas as diverse as California, Portugal and the Rheingau. Have a look at the list of most expensive whiskeys and the outlook is bleak for non-Scottish producers – only two names in the top 25 are not from Scotland.
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This is understandable. For many years, the Scotch industry was the one leading the way when it came to variety, quality and price. The single malts of the highlands and islands had formidable names, formidable palates and, yes, formidable price tags. What they also had was a marketing mindset that told them that rarity drove prices up, so to achieve ever-greater returns, it was necessary to innovate.
This is how Scotch came to dominate the whiskey world in the first place; through innovation. In the 19th Century this meant creating blended whiskies, which appealed to the masses because they were consistent in taste and color, and had been engineered to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Then, in the 20th Century, the same industry made a virtue of single malts and marketed them (at a suitably inflated price) to a world no longer looking for homogeneity, but character.
Other countries weren’t as fast on their feet when it came to cranking up their whiskey industries. Ireland’s was almost wiped out by the introduction of Prohibition in the US, and struggled along for 60 years with ever-diminishing returns until the turn of the 21st Century, when interest revived. But interest hasn’t revived enough to push prices into the stratosphere, like Scotland’s drams – the only really expensive Irish whiskeys listed on Wine-Searcher are one-off offers of tremendously rare bottlings, like the Midleton 26-Year-Old Pure Pot Still at a laughably low $2856.
The US and Japan have fared slightly better. Japan’s malts have always been rare, with most disappearing into that country’s blends. Recent interest in them (led by Yamazaki’s successes in recent years) has led to a rare 35-year-old Hibiki bottling making the top 25 list at #19, with an average pre-tax price of $15,006. Rarity has also helped ensure the appearance of the Old Rip Van Winkle 25-Year-Old Straight Bourbon as the only American bottling to appear, making #20, with an average price of $14,841.
The development of the single malt Scotch market further led to a competitive element arising among distilleries. It wasn’t simply good enough to produce a single malt anymore, it needed to be rare. Older expressions were released in tiny quantities, pushing prices even further north.
Then special bottlings were developed. Before long, big name distilleries were releasing minute consignments of ultra-rare spirit onto the market, and this found a ready audience both from collectors and investors. As prices skyrocketed (and continue to do so), there is even more interest in the category from investors – after all, a really old bottle of wine will have rarity value, but won’t necessarily be drinkable; whiskey effectively lasts forever as a beverage. This helps explain the vast gap in prices between wine and whiskey; the world’s most expensive wine would only figure at #19 on this list, pushing the aforementioned Hibiki down a place.
And then, as though being a well-regarded distillery with a small available output and a series of rare bottlings wasn’t enough, one producer in particular then went further again, teaming up with another producer of luxury objets d’art, to wind up up with the top three most expensive whiskeys available: the Macallan Lalique expressions, which make up the top three.
Closer inspection of the list shows that when it comes to whiskey, what the vast majority want are the rich, fruity malts of Speyside, that have rested in a barrel for at least 50 years. And preferably with the word «Macallan» written on the front.
© William Grant | 1. The Macallan Lalique 57-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside
2. The Macallan Lalique 62-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside
3. The Macallan Lalique VI 65-year-Old Single Malt, Speyside
Macallan has marketed itself as «the Rolls-Royce of single malts» for decades and it’s kind of hard to argue. It’s been a superstar distillery since its foundation in 1824, and one of the few to have never closed in the intervening 193 years. It built its reputation on the quality of the spirit flowing from its small stills, and the use of Oloroso Sherry casks for maturation. They don’t just use Sherry casks anymore, but the spirit in these bottlings, presented in specially designed Lalique decanters, were and they have set a new standard for (relatively) readily available whiskey prices at $54,848, $53,077 and $44,793 respectively.
4. The Dalmore 50-Year-Old Single Malt, Highlands Dalmore is based in Alness, overlooking the Cromarty Firth in Scotland’s northern Highlands and is one of the most respected distillers in the country, providing the base for the popular Whyte & Mackay blend for almost 150 years. The average price has more than doubled in the past year to $44,226, but it does come with its own decanter.
5. The Balvenie 50-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside The sister distillery to the more famous Glenfiddich, Balvenie refuses to take second place when it comes to price. The vast majority of Balvenie has been gobbled up by blends down the years, before being launched as a single malt in 1973. This expression has become gradually more available over the past five years, but it has also climbed to an average price of $35,526.
6. Gordon & MacPhail Generations Mortlach 75-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside An independent bottling of one of Scotland’s great distilleries – it was where Glenfiddich founder William Grant learned the whiskey trade – bottled by one of Scotland’s oldest independent bottlers. Probably the oldest whiskey available on the open market, this comes in a crystal teardrop decanter and will set you back an average of $32,200.
7. Johnnie Walker 1805 The Celebration Blue Label Scotch At last, a blend – and what a blend. A cask strength bottling, made from 45-70-year-old malts, this was originally intended as a special bottling produced for people the company deemed had made an extraordinary contribution to modern life, which explains its $30,689 average price tag.
8. Glenfiddich Rare Collection 50-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside It wouldn’t be a whiskey list without some mention of Glenfiddich, the pioneers of the single malt category. This is a ridiculously well-presented package, with the bottle decorated with Scottish silver and housed in a leather and silk case; with only 500 bottles released, it’s surprising value at $27,644.
9. The Glenlivet Winchester Collection 50-Year-Old Single Malt, Speyside The Glenlivet was the first licensed distillery in Scotland and this 1966 vintage bottling is a nice tribute to the trailblazers. It is named for the Glenlivet’s master distiller and limited to 100 bottles, hence the $25,515 average price.
10. The Macallan Fine & Rare Vintage Single Malt, Speyside The fourth Macallan entry is available in a variety of vintages going right back to 1937. Curiously, even though it is the most widely available bottle on the list, it has continued to shoot up in price, rising from an average of $6884 in 2012 to $27,784 today.