When the price of the most expensive bottle of whiskey reaches $38,000, one begins to suspect that there are forces at work besides the desire of a single-malt enthusiast to have an interesting dram from his local liquor store to sip while he watches the ballgame on television.
Indeed, that is the case. With the passing of stamp and butterfly collecting into the obscurest realms of irredeemable geekdom, accumulating (and drinking) rare, unusual and generally very old whiskies has emerged as one of the more surprising—if less than headline-generating—trends of the 21st century. Not to mention a very profitable business for the distillers.
"There wasn't even a market for this stuff a few years ago," says Jonathan Goldstein, vice president of Park Avenue Liquors in New York, which specializes in limited-edition whiskies. "It's only in recent times that we've seen these bourbon fanatics starting to come in. They're looking for the rare and hard-to-get, the limited releases, the birthday bourbons and single-barrel bourbons."
However, the whiskies aren't being bought as collectibles and hoarded away. "It's a social phenomenon," Goldstein explains. "A lot of buyers are serious, knowledgeable drinkers, who like to share their finds. They buy two bottles, one to drink and one to hold on to."
Those buyers are supporting the market for high-end whiskies, from the $42 bottle of single-barrel whiskey made by Jack Daniels to the $38,000, 60-year-old Macallan that is, unbelievably, sold out. Both made our list of the most expensive whiskies in the world (see box). Not bad for a drink that comes from a fermented pile of grain.
It's not only superrich who are driving this trend—it's all part of a larger consumer inclination towards what Frank Coleman, vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of America, calls "affordable luxury." More affluent, urban consumers with disposable incomes are moving away from generic products to those with distinctive character and flavor—consider the $4 Starbucks coffee syndrome and the growing popularity of microbrew and imported beers.
It seems as if the days of a guy walking into a bar and demanding, "Gimme a whiskey!"—as they do every other minute in the HBO drama Deadwood—are as much a thing of the past as that grubby, lawless frontier.
The fashion for quality, limited-edition whiskey started in Britain in the 1980s with the rapid expansion in the availability of single-malt Scotches, high-end whiskies made by individual distilleries in Scotland, using only malted barley (see: "Super Single Malts").
When the trend spread to America in the 1990s, bourbon producers began to sit up and take notice. Thus was born the current profusion of small-batch bourbons, boutique whiskies made with at least 51 percent corn (see: "The Kings of Bourbon"). While these, along with single-malt Scotches, still make up only a small section of the whiskey market by volume, they comprise the fastest growing section, and by far the most profitable.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council, in 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, consumption of value and premium American whiskey was up by 3 percent in value, while sales of high-end whiskey increased by 10 percent, and superpremium by an eye-popping 15 percent. The story is similar when it comes to Scotch and Irish whiskey. Sales of less-expensive blended Scotch were flat, while sales of single malts grew at a 7 percent rate and sales of superpremium Irish whiskey soared by 44 percent, albeit from a far smaller base.
Volume numbers paint the same picture. Sales of value whiskey, both domestic and imported, declined by 2.5 percent, to 17 million cases from 2003 to 2004. Meanwhile, sales of high-end hooch increased by 8 percent, to 15.4 million cases.
The ultimate expression of the propensity of distilleries to release limited-edition, old whiskies is Macallan's Fine and Rare Collection. Macallan mined its extensive stock of old casks and chose 37 of their best to bottle as part of a well-defined set. There were about 10,000 bottles in all, the oldest being the $38,000 1926. You may not be able to buy it anymore, but you can still taste it—for a price, of course.
© 2012 Forbes.com