Ah, a whisky on the rocks. Order that at any bar and your cool points immediately rocket (as your wallet rapidly empties.) But no more does whisky hold the image of an old man in a velvet smoking jacket on an old leather chair lighting his cigar in the open fireplace… Well, unless that’s the aesthetic you’re going for. In any case, whisky is hot on the tails of the becoming the ‘drink du jour’ amongst us hideously-named millennials, while at the same time replacing art as the next great investment.
It is little wonder then that specialist shops like Hard to Find Whisky in Birmingham can have a £30 bottle of Johnny Walker on its shelves opposite a whisky on sale for £50,000, such is the wide spectrum of demand.
We stock such a wide range of whiskeys, one of the best collections of saleable whisky in the country I think.
What makes a whisky rare?
There are a variety of factors: it can be anything from age to the number of bottles released, the market is quite volatile on what is the best, so you have to swing with the punches a little bit, especially these days where there is much more of a focus on collections and investment, which is why we stock such a wide range of whiskeys, one of the best collections of saleable whisky in the country I think.
So it’s very much like the art market in that respect?
Absolutely. We have to stay one step ahead if we can. It’s making us have as broad a range as possible. There are so many great whiskeys being produced, so many distilleries, so many countries now making whisky these days which makes values fluctuate depending on what’s available at any given time.
Japan is now producing some of the best whiskeys on the market now?
Incredibly in the past six years or so we have seen huge growth in people buying, drinking and collecting Japanese whisky, so much so that the Japanese industry is struggling to keep up! There has been a real rise in prices in the last five years in terms of bottles due to what is still available. The market has really shrunk so they are very collectable, especially older whiskeys with age statements, so whiskeys that have a 10-year-old or 12- or 15-year-old label. They are very sought after, especially as there is a limited stock. You can’t create a whole new batch of 10-year-old whisky without waiting 10 years. There is no magic ageing tap!
The Japanese industry is struggling to keep up!
How would you start a collection from scratch?
Well, there’s no hard and fast rule with investment. There are a number of ways of doing it; the bigger well-known distilleries are always going to affect prices such as Macallan who is one of the great whisky producers, along with one of the Japanese distilleries – Karuizawa – the two most collectable whiskeys in the world with bottles reaching thousands of pounds.
With a collection like that, would you actually drink the whisky or just admire your ownership of the bottle? I know what we would do!
Not at that level, no. What I’ve found is that if you are collecting and want to drink the stuff, then start with a distillery that you know and like and start your portfolio there. It will give you an understanding of what kind of whisky they produce. Look for first editions or sets, so a set of four is more desirable from a collecting point of view. Look also for limited releases, and do your homework. There are a lot of auction websites out there too.
Do you not think it is a shame that there is all this incredible whisky out there not being drunk?!
Yes, I do! It is something that has crept into the industry in the past 10 years or so, but most whiskeys produced are to be drunk so most of our stock is under four figures. Depending on who you are there are whiskeys for everyone. What we like to do in-store is show people the accessibility of these whiskeys via our various tasting classes. It’s a great opportunity to try some special things.
So what causes a whisky to be worth £50,000?
Number of bottles, primarily. In our £50,000 bottle here, there were only 150 produced in that particular batch. It’s the 5th and final release in a series of that particular Bowmore, all casks from 1964. The first release was in the 90s when it was a 34 year old, a big sherry Bowmore. As the releases kept coming the reviews of the first whisky were so high it generated a lot of interest, so as fewer bottles became available the value increased. The first bottle was about £90 when it was released! There’s a whisky shop in Scotland where they were sampling one of the editions and it was £200 for a single measure.
What affects the flavour of whisky? There are so many kinds!
The biggest factor for flavour is the wood of the barrel. About 70% of the flavour comes from the cask you use, traditionally bourbon casks used in the American whisky industry, or sherry casks. There are multiple casks being used now from IPA casks, port casks, different wine casks. The industry is really playing around with what you can do with flavours now. The length of time in wood and the different uses of the wood – whether the casks have been used once or multiple times – depending on how old the casks are, impart different flavours at different rates to the spirit.
Is there a particularly strong whisky scene in Birmingham?
It has been noticeable that the drinks industry in Birmingham has really grown in the past 3-4 years. Alongside us, there are a couple of really nice whisky bars in Birmingham, and more artisanal spirit bars and restaurants opening up as well. It seems to be a real growth time for the spirits industry in general. There is a real interest in spirits at the moment from a younger generation who are willing to spend more on a single bottle, more concerned about the quality of the drink.
About 70% of the flavour comes from the cask you use…
And as a non-whisky drinker, where would you suggest I start? As someone who winces at even the smell of Johnny Walker…
The first answer we try to ascertain is what style of whisky you might like; peated or non-peated (so smokey or non-smokey), which comes from how you dry your barley at the early stage of whisky production. Peated whisky can be a bit divisive as it’s quite pungent, so we start on the non-smokey side as it’s more accessible. Johnny Walker is a blended whisky, so why don’t you try some of this 50-year old single malt and let me know what you think….!!