The glint of liquid gold

The glint of liquid gold

For $2.7 million (about 22.5 crore), you could buy a sprawling farmhouse in Alibaug, a private jet maybe, many Aston Martins, perhaps a Bhupen Khakhar painting. Or you could just buy a bottle of whisky.

But there is more to the Macallan Adami 1926 than meets its price tag.(Unsplash)

When a bottle of Macallan Adami 1926 sold for $2.7 million last weekend in a Sotheby’s auction in the UK, it set an auction record, beating the previous one of $1.1 million set in 2018. That previous record owner: another bottle of The Macallan Adami 1926.

While it may seem like an unusually high amount to pay for a bottle of alcohol, considering it can be emptied over an evening of joyous revelry, an expensive, rare bottle of whisky is much more than a deliciously aromatic, divine spirit.

“There is no rational decision-making really involved at all,” said Daryl Haldane, a private client director (working with high net-worth individuals and collectors) at Beam Suntory. “People invest a lot of emotional energy into the things that they collect. They have this desire, this burning desire, which is often quite unreasonable and quite irrational.”

But there is more to the bottle than meets its price tag.

Only about 40 bottles of The Macallan 1926 were bottled in 1986 after being aged in sherry casks for 60 years. Twelve of them had labels designed by Italian painter Valerio Adami. There are other variations to the 1926 collection, including by artist Peter Blake.

One of the most recognisable brands in the world, Macallan is renowned for its quality. The whiskeys usually trade-off of the legacy explained Haldane, who has worked with the Scottish distiller for five years. “The 1926 is a great example. Who knew all those years ago that we would still be talking about that bottle of whiskey today, and it would still be breaking records,” he said over a video call.

“When you compare it to art or sculpture, with that lens on, it may seem absurd to pay this kind of money,” said Hemanth Rao, the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club, based in Bengaluru. “When you put the age from when it was distilled, like a (Pablo) Picasso painting from 1926, would this $2.7m look absurd? Probably not. Macallan is the Rolls Royce of whiskies. You are looking at a mature segment of alternate investment that becomes a collectable.”

What adds to the rarity of this bottle is scarcity. According to a Guardian article, only one of the 40 bottles is known to have been opened and consumed. Then there’s the bottle design, who’s collaborated on it.

What collectors get out of rare bottles of whisky, like a piece of art, is bragging rights. “The two that seem to rank highest in terms of emotional commitment to what they collect are sports memorabilia and whisky,” Haldane said. To wit: a Michael Jordan 1997-98 Upper Deck Game Jersey game-worn patch card, with an on-card autograph, sold for $2.7 million in 2021, breaking the all-time record of $2.1 million held by the same kind of, but differently numbered, card, ESPN had reported.

“Why do you have a painting in the living room? Because it boosts ego and adds a sense of achievement,” Rao explained. “It offers satisfaction without consumption. If you consume it, it’s gone and you will never get it again. If there are three bottles of a kind and one gets drunk, the value of the remaining two goes up.”

Rao spoke of whisky indices, banks, fund managers and auction houses for whisky. Since there are regulations in India about stocking a limited number of bottles at home, Indian collectors fly under the radar, but they exist. Organised sales through auctions and indices have been happening for 15 years and at scale, he said. The UK and Europe, including Germany, Sweden as well and the United States are primary markets; Hong Kong and Singapore catching up. China is also a thirsty market but is under-exposed due to information restrictions in the country. A Chinese millionaire bought a dram (a small measure) of vintage 1878 Macallan in a Swiss bar for £7,600 six years ago, which turned out to be a “fake”, the BBC reported in 2017.

While one can only imagine what a 1926 Macallan tastes like—unless the anonymous buyer has taken a sip and can offer an opinion—is that like all aged whiskies, it will probably start to layer. All of its flavours will not be revealed in a sip. It needs to air in a glass or decanter before it starts revealing the notes. “It has been in a barrel for years,” said Rao, who has tasted vintage whiskies like the 1938 Cockburns and a 1939 (Dewar’s) Victoria Vat. “You put it in a cask, there is an exothermic reaction, a lot of movement inside. The whisky is adjusted to water, alcohol, and fats. When you mature it for 10 -12 years, an equilibrium builds up. When you do that for 60-70 years, it becomes a well-established relationship that’s cohesive, like a marriage.”

It may start faint and then reveal citrus notes, vanilla, and sherry notes, Rao ventures about the Macallan 1926, before adding that the colour may depend on the cask. Usually, when whisky is kept for a long time, it stays lighter if it’s in a bourbon cask, and gets darker in a sherry cask. There is also a newly discovered phenomenon known as the old bottle effect—or OBE as the knowledgeable would say—which changes the flavour over time when bottled.

“What you need to do is make sure that the wood doesn’t dominate the spirit,” added Haldane, who believes that bottling the beverage stabilises it and has no continuing influence on taste. “So at some point, whiskey makers will have to make a decision as to whether or not it’s okay (to bottle it). The risk is when you start moving things around between casks you start to lose more alcohol (or angel’s share as it is known as in Scotland, which is the whisky lost due to evaporation).”

All old is not gold

“Older whiskies generally are perceived to be more valuable, but that doesn’t mean they’re better. The only other part of this, that doesn’t happen all the time, is the collaboration (whisky brands with others). I think we’re seeing more of that happening,” Haldane said. Beam Suntory’s Bowmore collaborated with Aston Martin a couple of years ago for their Black Bowmore DB5 1964, with just 25 bottles on sale.

The recently sold vintage bottle is most likely appreciated in cost, if it were to appear at an auction a few years down the line.

“The idea of investment doesn’t sit quite right with me, in terms of someone buying this purely to make money,” said Haldane. “A lot of people open them, but what we try to do is focus on people who drink and love to collect.

“I don’t think anybody buys that bottle of whiskey to lose money,” he added, “or for it to feel that it’s worth less the day you buy it versus the day after. So a small motivation will always be a bit about investment.”

The Macallan 1926 may yet make an appearance down the line, selling for an even higher price, unless the current owner succumbs to temptation and takes a celebratory swig. In which case, anyone else who might have a bottle of the same vintage might celebrate an appreciation in cost with, hopefully, a swig from a more common bottle.

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