Ten Bottles That Are Worth More Than Your Car
By Richard Thomas
We often say at The Whiskey Reviewer that one of the objective strong points for American whiskey is that it’s usually as good as Scotch whisky, and often much cheaper as well. That said, a combination of climate and long decades of international primacy have endowed Scotch with potent, top tier expressions that are truly the stuff of legend, beyond even the most fabled bourbon pours, like A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Old.
As a result of these considerations and the Scotch industry’s export-driven orientation, the world’s wealthy have pursued aged and excellent whiskies for years, driving the extreme end of the Scotch whisky price range to towering heights. To a certain extent, the Japanese have been able to piggy back, as fellow whisky (sans “e”) makers working with a similar and related style.
Consider that the aforementioned bourbon, (perhaps over-) hyped as the “best bourbon you’ll never taste,” is listed by Wine-searcher.com at an average retail price of $2,900, roughly the same as an inferior used car. The same website’s list of the Top 25 most expensive Scotches starts at almost five times as much, $11,865 for The Dalmore Constellation. *
Here we look at just the Top 10 from Wine-searcher.com’s list, and examine the background of each of those prized single malts for clues as to just why the whisky is held so dear.
10. Johnnie Walker 1805 Blue Label, $28,475
This Johnnie Walker, marking the brand’s 200th anniversary, should in no way be confused with any idea of the standard Blue Label that you might have. For starters, it’s a blend of nine casks of 45 to 70 year old whiskies, with a yield of just 200 bottles. Contributing to its rarity and price is that the whisky was not really made with an eye on even ultra high end sales, but as a publicity item and prize to be given to those the House of Walker (i.e. Diageo) decided had made a significant contribution to modern life. Strictly speaking, if a bottle is on the market it is because a prize recipient chose to sell it on.
9. The Yamazaki 35 Year Old, $28,927
When this Japanese whisky was created, it was with special 90-liter second-fill sherry cask stock distilled in 1966 and 1970, and bottled a decade ago. The yield was a mere 200 bottles. If the second-fill sherry cask part throws you, keep in mind those are small barrels, with much greater wood influence potential than the 500 liter sherry butt. This is a Japanese experiment of a kind, started in the post-war boom era, and it just kept getting better as the decades rolled on.
8. The Macallan Millennium 50 Year Old, $30,160
This Macallan single malt was distilled in 1949, and bottled from three casks in 1999 in a Caithness Glass decanter for the dawn of the 21st Century. Many experts consider it a better whisky than any in the Lalique series or the other 50 year bottlings that followed.
7. The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 1, $30,551
This price is for the complete set of five 350 ml bottles, each filled from cask selected by David Stewart, the living legend Master Blender for William Grant & Sons, back in 2005. He knew which ones to pick too, because he was around when they filled most of them (the oldest was 46 years)! A complete set is a major collectors item.
6. The Balvenie 50 Year Old, $34,044
Filled in 2002 from a 1952 vintage sherry cask, it was the oldest cask The Balvenie had in stock at the time, and the first time they did a single barrel from a sherry butt. Those characteristics would make it a classic, mega-aged sherry bomb whisky, but as if that weren’t enough, only 83 bottles came out of it.
5. The Macallan Lalique IV 60 Year Old, $37,304
The Lalique series is so named because they are bottled into crystal decanters made by that company. This particular version is drawn from sherry casks filled in 1950 and bottled at cask strength, and was noted for being noticeably peatier than modern Macallan whiskies.
4. The Macallan Anniversary 50 Year Old, $37, 587
Distilled in 1928, the bottle styling should be a clue that the whisky was bottled in 1983. Originally it sold for £50 a bottle in a 500 bottle run, and was something of an oddball for being cask strength at below 40% ABV.
Can you guess that 1983 was still in the dark years of the world whisky crash? My rough guess is that £50 in 1983 might be worth $250 today, and its unimaginable that a new 50 year old single malt bottling of any description selling for so little today. The reputation of this understrength, aged beauty made it a classic and a collectable.
3. The Macallan Lalique 62 Year Old, $39,272
2. The Macallan Lalique 55 Year Old, $43,987
1. The Macallan Lalique 50 Year Old, $69,298
Why these three single malts top the list should be obvious: they are Macallans that are, in all likelihood, older than the people buying them. The real question is why the 50 Year Old is worth so much more than the 55 and 62 Year Old. The answer is simple, easy to understand, and not particularly rational: the 50 Year Old was first in the series. This list is based on averages, and the early auctions for the 50 Year Old Lalique fetched very high prices because of its initial novelty.
Two interesting observations can be made about this list as a whole. First, it is dominated by The Macallan, with six of ten entrants. Second, not a single Islay whisky made the Top 10. Indeed, only one Islay made the original Top 25 list.
* These figures are based on averages. Peak prices may be much higher. For example, a bottle of our #4 listing, The Macallan Anniversary 50 Year Old, sold at auction in New York in 2013 for $49,460.