What makes a whisky worth collecting? That depends partly on whether you regard a bottle strictly as an investment, or if you intend to imbibe, enjoy, and share. Your budget will affect what bottles you can chase in what has become an annual battle of wits to score limited edition or single barrel releases. Collectability in part is in the eyes, nose, and taste buds of the collector, but it also comes down to the kinds of things that mark any object collectible: scarcity and quality.
A bottle of whisky can adorn your liquor cabinet, resting in caramel-colored majesty until its value soars to heights that create an irresistible urge to sell it at auction. Collectors may start simply by finding a label they love, and delving deeper into the other offerings of the distillery behind the bottle. According to Andy Simpson, one of the founders of the consulting business Rare Whisky 101, collections can center on a theme – he started his first collection focusing on bottles from his birth year. Other collectors zone in on bottles from closed or “silent” distilleries, or every distillery in a region like Speyspide or the famed Scottish island of Islay. Soon, collectors gather more than they can drink and begin to regard most of their stash as a showpieces or investments. Whatever got you started on collecting rare spirits, we think you’ll be interested in this list of rare whisky to add to your collection.
Yamazaki 18 Year Old
From Suntory, this smooth and slightly fruity whisky aged in sherry casks carries notes of chocolate. More attainable than the 18 year Mizunara bottle or the Yamazaki 55 offered at auction for the equivalent of $27,600, you can still expect to pay a pretty penny for spirits from Japan’s best known distillery.
Redbreast 21 Year Single Pot Irish Whiskey
Voted “Best Irish Whiskey of the Year” and touted in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible as the second finest overall in the world, Redbreast is a stellar example of sherry style whiskey. It offers deep and complex flavors to the discerning palate.
This ever-popular Speyside single malt frequently creates new and limited bottlings, and collectors snap them up. Estate, Rare, and 15 year versions display mastery in barrel management. Depending on the bottling, The Macallan may have aged in European or American seasoned sherry casks, or American ex-bourbon casks, or some combination of both, as in the 15 year.
Midleton Very Rare 2019
A master blend of single pot still and single grain Irish whiskies aged between 13 and 34 years, Midleton Very Rare 2019 uses the oldest whiskies ever blended for the Midleton Rare series. Aged in charred American oak ex-bourbon barrels, this edition of the series will be a standout in your collection.
Known to Game of Thrones enthusiasts, the news on Clynelish is that this Diageo-owned distillery is a partner to “silent” distillery Brora, which Diageo is in the process of reopening. The beverage behemoth also plans to revive another “ghost” distillery, Port Ellen, sometime around 2022. This will likely make bottles from vintages prior to 1983, when Port Ellen closed, even more valuable.
The Balvenie 21 Year Portwood
A very unusual single malt aged in former port wine casks (or pipes), with a beautiful deep ruby color, this bottle was introduced in 1996 and has been winning awards ever since.
High West – A Midwinter Night’s Dram
Limited yearly release makes this tasty blend of straight rye whiskies finished in French Oak and port barrels a collectible. Its sumptuous flavors suggesting vanilla, cinnamon, and caramel with spiced fruits provide a warm glow on a cold night, along with a label identifying the bottle by “Act” and “Scene.” This is a perfect gift for the Shakespearian drinker in the family.
Hibiki 21 Year
Another exceptional offering from Suntory, this deep bronze-amber blend is described as starting with notes of cooked fruit and caramel, and proceeding on the palate with flavors of honeycomb, apricot, fragrant sandalwood, and Japanese oak. The glass bottle alone is a fluted work of art, while the whisky inside is an example of blending mastery.
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection
Bourbon is true American whiskey, and no collection is complete without an array of bottles from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The annual release of its Antique Collection sells out reliably and quickly each year. Home of the legendary and incredibly scarce Pappy Van Winkle straight bourbon whiskey, Buffalo Trace consistently produces some of the best bourbon on the planet.
The Antique Collection includes five bottles:
- George T. Stagg, uncut and unfiltered whiskey, aged in charred oak barrels for at least 15 years. The distillery’s press release introducing the 2020 collection reports that the 2020 bottle packs 130.4 proof of powerful, straight from the barrel flavor.
- William Larue Weller: a wheated bourbon, also barrel strength, a twelve year old whiskey bottled for 2020 at 134.5 proof and described as offering a “caramel chew, spearmint, and cinnamon” experience for the palate.
- Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye: the beloved taste of New Orleans distilled in 2014, coming in at 129 proof, bringing flavors of honey, anise, and cinnamon.
- Eagle Rare 17 Year Old: actually distilled in 2002, the bottle for 2020 is a 101 proof charmer with a fruity and vanilla nose, flavors of caramel and coffee, and a spicy finish with notes of fresh herbs.
- Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old: flavors of caramel, dark chocolate, and oak, and a finish of oak and dark cherries, 2020’s bottle comes in at a gentler but still powerful 90 proof.
Diageo Special Releases
Each year Diageo puts forth a collection representing selections from its roster of Scottish distilleries. The 2020 collection repeats a “Rare by Nature” theme, and includes eight cask-strength single malt whiskies. Nearly all are the same labels featured in 2019. But in a first, the 2020 collection features a Talisker eight year old finished in pot-still Caribbean rum casks. In addition to the eight year old Talisker, the remaining featured distilleries provide a tour of some of Scotland’s best:
- Cardhu 11 year old – Speyside, aged in refill, new, and ex-bourbon American oak barrels;
- Lagavulin 12 year old – Islay, out of refill American oak casks;
- The Singleton of Dufftown 17-year-old – from the Highlands, aged in refill American hogsheads;
- Cragganmore 20 year old – Speyside, from new fresh-charred and refill casks;
- Mortlach 21 year old – Speyside, aged in ex-sherry casks;
- Dalwhinnie 30 year old – the Highlands, out of refill hogsheads; and
- Pittyvaich 30 year old – Speyside, the only ghost distillery featured in 2020, from first-fill ex-bourbon casks.
As with any special release, the number of bottles is limited. It’s hard to predict how big a scramble there will be for these bottles this year, as the theme and labels are very similar to the 2019 collection, but the novelty of the rum cask finished Talisker and the rarity of the Pittyvaich will certainly draw interest from collectors. If you’re not fond of camping out to wait for special releases, you can buy rare whiskey online. You’ll still have to be quick, do your research, and shop around, but adding rare whiskey to your collection will set you apart as someone who is serious about appreciating fine spirits.