Whiskey as an Investment

Photo by John Griswold

 

 

We have an old bottle of Macallan whisky given to us by my in-laws, who were Scottish immigrants in the 1950s. They told us that a family friend was a foreman at the Macallan distillery, and he gifted them the bottle on the eve of the Japanese buying the distillery, because everything was about to change for that most traditional of processes.

The Japanese did not buy Macallan; they bought a share in the parent company. Despite the worry this caused some Scots, it did not change their whisky. But it was at the start of an investment boom that led to the Japanese having great success making their own whiskies in the Scots fashion, which could not have gone down well in Speyside. Our bottle has no date on it, and the story about the Japanese seems to play no role in its value. Still, it is worth between $500 and $2,000.

Though I just manage to invest in my future through a traditional retirement account, some who have more disposable income have made whiskey an investment in the last decades.

The records lately for the most expensive bottles of wine or spirits ever sold have gone to Macallan, including the first bottle ever to top a million dollars, and a bottle from 1926 that went for $1.9 million in 2019. (They were from the same cask.)

In 2020 a young man put up for sale his collection of Macallan that his father built for him, by gifting him a bottle of 18-year-old single malt every year on his birthday until the boy turned 18. It cost dad a total of about $7,000; his son bought a (cheap) house with the proceeds.

According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report, “When we introduced rare Scotch whisky into our luxury investment index (KFLII) at the end of 2018 it immediately overtook classic cars as the front-running passion asset.” Scotch’s value in “ten years growth has been a staggering 586%,” outpacing diamonds, art, and coins.

That has dipped some since COVID, when auctions were canceled. “People are still getting in touch with us every day about bottles and casks, although there is a certain nervousness about spending too much on a single bottle,” says a “sector specialist.” “People don’t want to be seen to be vulgar at such a time.”

One can buy casks through a broker: the casks stay in Scotland in a bonded warehouse; profits are said to be exempt from capital-gains taxes and have been an average 20% annual return; and there are “multiple exit strategies”—that is, the broker buys it back or sells it at auction or on the market if you want out.

With bottles or casks, there is a physical asset. At worst, you have whiskey to toast your financial downfall, if it comes to that. But there are other, perhaps riskier, investments in whiskey.

In the US, small and craft distilleries sometimes turn to peer-to-peer/crowdsourced funds in order to expand. Wefunder (“We’re here to fix capitalism”) shows some of that activity.

Cleveland Whiskey, for example, did a big investment push on the promise to “push the boundaries of convention.” They raised $2.7 million on the very American idea of speeding up the aging process of their whiskies with technology. Annual sales, they say, increased 63% in 2017, their most recent figure, though they projected at the time $1.5 million gross in 2020.

The Florida Cane Distillery, a “micro-distillery with the largest craft spirits portfolio in the nation,” raised $194,000 on Wefunder and reported 20% growth from 2019 to 2020—to a little more than half a million dollars.

The Lost Spirits Distillery, by contrast, run by “the Willy Wonka of booze,” raised $2.9 million, expanded into Las Vegas, and was hoping at one point for $30 million in annual revenue. On their Wefunder page, they have included about 3,000 scary but realistic words on risks to investors, which add up to this:

“Our limited operating history makes it difficult to forecast our future results…. Our business objectives must be considered highly speculative, and there is no assurance that we will satisfy those objectives. No assurance can be given that the investors will realize a return on their shares, if any, or that the investors will not lose their entire investment.”

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