If one trend dominates the Scotch whisky market, it would seem to be the ineluctable march toward older—and more expensive—expressions. In fact, it may be that only an act of god would suppress it. When bidding stopped short of the $160,000 reserve for the 54-year-old Bowmore 1957 (pictured) at Bonham’s New York auction house in November, experts laid the shortfall to misfortune: Super Storm Sandy was about to lay waste to the coast and many prospective buyers understandably had their thoughts otherwise occupied. Still, a bottle of the oldest Islay whisky ever made (and its magnificent packaging) has since sold (at the second highest price ever), and nine await buyers willing to make a pilgrimage to the Scotland distillery and pony up £100,000 for the privilege. (All net proceeds are to be donated to five Scottish charities.)
Age in terms of cask maturation—as well as the attendant rarity—is the quality that continues to dominate the auction market. And what is considered really old keeps climbing ever upward. Of the 10 top sales, seven are 50 years or more, with the 55-year-old Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve occupying five spots. And the oldest on the list is the positively ancient 64-year-old Macallan. But that’s not even the most-matured ever bottled. That distinction belongs to the 70-year-old Mortlach. And while hyper-aged Scotches have popped up over the years as severely limited edition, brands like Glenfiddich and The Dalmore have now put out 40 and 50 year olds as parts of their permanent collections (that is if you’re lucky enough to find and afford them).
If old whiskies command such high prices, you may well ask, why don’t all Scotches mature that long. The answer is complex. First of all, every barrel is different and some don’t continue to improve (or worse, turn bad) with hyper age. Second, only certain distilleries such as the above named and others like Glenlivet and Highland Park anticipated much of a market for old whiskies years ago. And third, is economic: as the whisky ages (and accrues taxes) it also is slowly evaporating.
The anomoly is that whiskies of 20 to 30 years old, which a few years ago represented the outer limits of aging, now seem like youngsters in a market that worships old age. The other oddity is that, while they are undeniably delicious, some of them may not taste like what you’re used to in a Scotch—especially if it is peat you crave. Even the normally peaty Islay whiskies like Bowmore lose much of their smoke to the barrel as they age and at four decades old most of the the peat has transformed into such flavors as cinnamon, honey, tangerine, flowers and Christmas cake. Oh, wait that’s not such a bad thing after all.