Whisky auctions are booming. Bottles from distilleries such as Karuizawa, which were a couple of years ago selling in the low hundreds, are now selling for the thousands. Old and rare bottles that were once the domain of exclusive retailers are now exchanging hands at both surprisingly low and high prices. You can find brilliant bottlings that are no longer available at retail (such as, in my opinion, Ardbeg’s Airigh Nam Beist) going for pretty reasonable prices.
So I thought it would be fun to interview one of the vibrant whisky auction houses, Just Whisky Limited, to see what life is like at one of these places. It was also a chance to get some front-line opinions on the state of the whisky industry – certainly at a unique end of the business. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a part of the whisky industry that’s significant, especially for collectors, but which little is known about. So Graham, Yuri and Matteo of Just Whisky were brilliant enough to spare a little while from their day to tell me more about the auction scene.
The company is owned by 3 of us here at Just Whisky. Graham (myself), Yuri & Matteo. Yuri and I have been friends for years and originally met through a shared hobby: motorbikes. Since then, a mutual interest in Whisky saw Matteo being introduced to me. We were all very passionate on the idea of running an online whisky auction, and in April 2013 we began to put the wheels in motion to make this happen.
Our backgrounds are actually quite different, which makes for a good range of skills when running Just Whisky. Yuri was involved in home renovations and improvements through his own business. Matteo was previously a Restaurateur, who previously ran a successful Italian restaurant in Fife and I have been involved in IT Support, Systems Administration and some Web Development for many years.
For those who follow the online auction scene, it’s notable how many different auction sites there are. So how did you go about establishing yourselves as a unique name in this marketplace? How many bottles are you selling per auction now as opposed to a year ago, and how did you get that initial stock together to sell?
Nobody is more aware of the online auctions that have started recently. What we set out to do, and the overall focus that drives the company forward is to provide the absolute best service for our buyers and sellers at the most competitive rates.
We all had experience with the existing ways to trade in Whisky both online and in physical auction houses. We looked at all the things we would find desirable when buying and selling whisky and implemented them when starting the company. Examples would be fast payments for sellers. We don’t hold onto customers money for any longer than is necessary to pay out. This invariably means customers who sell with us are very surprised how quickly they’re paid after the auction end. We also like to advise our sellers if their bottle will be a duplicate, and give them the option to hold it until the next auction when their bottle may obtain a better price for them.
Our initial stock was sourced from a small group of key sellers, who were known to us from previous whisky deals. A year later and the source of our stock is now a mixture of repeat customers, and new sellers every month who are trying us for the first time.
Prices of whisky seem to be rising – not just for what’s being released by distilleries, but what people are prepared to pay at auction. Do you think people paying too much for their whisky above the quality and rarity value? And by that I mean: is there a bubble and is it going to burst any time soon?
In any market, whether it’s house prices, FTSE companies or oil prices, investors try to predict which way they’ll go and often get it very wrong. I’d not find it possible to predict where the Whisky market will be in a years time, 5 years or even 25 years time. What I would say is that there are a lot of markets in the World, which I believe Whisky can tap into and grow. Based on that factor alone, the demand for the precious liquid is likely to increase.
You’re at the forefront of seeing what people are paying for whiskies rather than buying at the retail price. With regards to newly released whiskies, do you think distilleries are charging the right prices given what bottles are re-selling for? Ardbeg in particular is famous for seeing its immediate releases double in value. Which distilleries are getting it about right (or who’s getting it wrong…)?
There are certain releases, which indeed usually command an instant price rise. Not only Ardbeg, but selected limited edition releases from other distilleries can also rocket: think Macallan Easter Elchies, Coronation et al. There are other releases which are slower burners, but often see steady price rises. Without naming names, I notice some distilleries tend to get a little carried away with ‘special’ releases, and maybe when everything is ‘special’, nothing is?
It’s quite possible that some collectors prefer bottles with an age statement, however as previously mentioned an age statement isn’t always necessary for a bottle to be collectable. In the long run, I think anything of rarity is much more valuable. And if in time that means that aged statement bottles become much more rare, then I would expect to see the prices rise over their NAS cousins. Having said that, even a young age statement bottle can be collectable and fetch a premium (think Octomore 5yo and others).
One of the things that stops me – on occasion – from committing to a purchase on any site is concerns about fake whiskies. How serious a problem are fakes, and what precautions do you at Just Whisky take when you get a suspect bottle to look at? Are there any types of classic fakes that people can look out for?
Absolutely. Fakes are something not just us, but other auction houses take very seriously. We handle bottles every day, so having hands on experience with legitimate bottles makes spotting a fake easier. We take extra care when handling very old, rare bottles and pay close attention to ensure all bottles sold through us are genuine. We share information with other auction houses, but we also work closely with distilleries and independent bottlers – often getting a second opinion from the original bottler. If in doubt, any bottles we are concerned about will not make it to sale. Fortunately that number has been very low so far.
I think collecting can be a very personal thing. A bottle that someone likes may not float another’s boat. Therefore I’d recommend buying what you like. I’d advise to study the auction prices and look for trends. On our website for instance you can view all our past auction data and use the search function to view previous sales prices. Is this a bottle continuing to rise year on year? Is it a one-off spike?
Anything Feis Ile is usually very collectable, as are well aged bottles from the silent distilleries you mentioned. As the likes of Port Ellen become out of reach for some collectors, I see the attention being turned to other closed distilleries – Saint Magdalene, Brora, Hillside, Rosebank and others.
We actually have a 3 part guide on how to invest in whisky on our blog, which can be viewed here.