A little more than two years ago when the gavel went down on a bottle of Macallan 1926 for $54,000 at Christie’s auction house in New York City, the sale hammered in a new era for spirits buying in America. Until that landmark sale, spirits had not been sold at auction in the city since Prohibition began in 1920. Now, with in-town rival Bonhams joining the fray and a recent charity sale of 50-year-old Glenfiddich for $38,000, this avenue for distribution, which had been largely relegated to European events, is off and running.
Predictably, the American auction market has been dominated by Scotch whisky, but it has also been a conduit for interesting bottles of Bourbon (such as pre-Prohibition brands and whiskey legally sold for medical purposes during Prohibition) and Cognacs that may date back as far as 200 years ago. The first Christie’s auction was also where the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) chose to sell a bottle of rye it had distilled as part of the rebuilding of George Washington’s still at Mount Vernon. DISCUS also had been instrumental in the movement to reinstitute spirits auctions.
If you’re not ready to meet bids in the umpteenth-thousand-dollar range, consider that while such sales as the lot of three Bowmores, all more than 40 years old ($21,500 at Christie’s in October) snatch all the press, many excellent buys are to be had among the lesser lots. For instance, at a Bonhams sale in December, a bottle of 25-year-old single malt from the now-shuttered Port Ellen distillery went for $250. Even the Dalmore Fifty Years Old, which master distiller Richard Paterson describes as a “multiple orgasm” in a bottle was sold for $6,000—a bargain if you apply the right kind of Freakonomics.
The auction spirits market is driven on several levels. As in the wine market, investment is an obvious inducement, and Caspar MacRae of Glenfiddich says that demand for rarified malts is outperforming stocks. But part of the appeal of purchasing spirits is that with minimal care they will keep virtually forever in the same condition. Unlike with wine, you can also open a bottle, pour a sip and expect the remainder to remain unchanged for the next sampling.
As well as the history-in-a-bottle market, the auctions also make available to vigilant buyers new bottlings that are released in such small quantities that they never appear on your package-store shelf.
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