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Luxury whisky: latest market report and tasting notes

Sought-after releases of top-end whisky are now selling for millions of dollars at auction. Richard Woodard assesses the market for these collectable bottles, with a round-up of the best-sellers, including exclusive tasting notes on a selection of special releases 

The world of high-end whisky is running at breakneck speed. In the space of 24 hours in Hong Kong last week the oldest whisky yet bottled was auctioned by Sotheby’s, as was a one-of-a-kind collection of six single malts spanning six decades from the early 1950s to the turn of the millennium.

Also newly launched are a 60-year-old release celebrating a Scotch whisky legend and an ultra-rare range of eight single malts that are the first – or last – of their kind. Not to mention an US$18,000 Glenfiddich that can only be purchased via a non-fungible token (NFT).

Leading the charge is independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s (G&M) Generations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery, the oldest whisky yet bottled. It’s an illustration of the remarkable stocks of aged whisky held by this family-owned company in Elgin.

As any whisky lover will tell you, age isn’t everything. The most remarkable aspect of the Generations Glenlivet is the fact that the whisky is still so damned good after spending eight decades in an ex-sherry cask. The first Generations decanter fetched HK$1.5m (US$193,000) when auctioned by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on 7 October. The remaining 249 are priced at £80,000 each.

Some 21 years after that Glenlivet cask was filled, a 15-year-old boy started work as an apprentice cooper at the Glen Grant distillery. Dennis Malcolm’s father and grandfather had also worked there; he was even born on the distillery site. Now, 60 years on, Malcolm’s career is celebrated by The Glen Grant Dennis Malcolm 60th Anniversary Edition Aged 60 Years. This €25,000 single malt is the oldest in the distillery’s 181-year history.

A sip of history

Six bottles of Dalmore whisky

The Dalmore Decades No 6 Collection

These whiskies are as much about the people who made them, and the stories behind them, as they are about age or price. The Dalmore Decades is another: six single malts from the celebrated Highland distillery, representing each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. The whiskies were selected by current Master Distiller Richard Paterson OBE, who joined The Dalmore as long ago as 1970. But they are also a homage to the families that shaped the distillery’s history: the Mathesons and the Mackenzies.

The only set of The Dalmore Decades No 6 Collection, comprising all six whiskies from 1951 to 2000, was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on 8 October for HK$8.75m (US$1.1m). There remain 15 sets of the No 5 Collection (five malts from 1967 to 2000, £200,000 each), and 25 of the No 4 Collection (four malts from 1979 to 2000, £100,000).

These are but a few examples of recent releases of rare and collectable whiskies. If you want to acquire a bottle of Glenfiddich’s 1973, 46-year-old Armagnac cask finish, you’ll need to buy one of 15 non-fungible tokens (NFTs), priced at US$18,000 each and available from 19 October. Each NFT is a digital receipt confirming ownership and authenticity, and NFT marketplace partner BlockBar can resell it, transfer it or redeem it for the physical bottle, handling storage and delivery.

Fine and rare

Nobody owns more Scotch whisky distilleries than Diageo, and the company is exploiting that strength with a welter of new high-end releases. They include the second in its Prima and Ultima series – cask strength single malts that are either the first or last bottling of their kind. This year there’s a whisky from ‘ghost’ distillery Convalmore and a bottling of the first cask filled at Auchroisk. There are also releases from Talisker, Mortlach, Brora, Lagavulin, The Singleton of Glendullan and Linkwood.

The advent of Prima and Ultima, with its unashamedly luxury focus, has made Diageo’s long-running annual series of Special Releases more accessible than in the past. The 2021 roster includes eight single malts, of which seven are priced at £200 or less, running the gamut of styles from meaty Mortlach to floral Royal Lochnagar.

If this cornucopia of rare and collectable whisky releases is enough to make your head spin – and we haven’t even mentioned December’s ‘The Distillers One of One’ auction from Sotheby’s and The Distillers’ Charity, which includes a Talisker cask from 1978 with a pre-sale estimate of £350,000-£500,000 – then maybe a liquid tutorial is in order.

Learn more

Wine and spirits merchant Justerini & Brooks, also owned by Diageo, has launched The Art of Collecting Rare Whisky, a three-part online video masterclass designed to help people to start their own whisky collection. For £500 you get access to the masterclasses, a particularly swanky journal and a tasting kit containing samples of four diverse whiskies, including Talisker, Mortlach, Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare and single grain ‘The Cally’.

With the obvious caveat that it focuses exclusively on Diageo-owned products, the masterclass is an entertaining and informative introduction to the world of collecting rare whisky. It mixes pragmatism with the passion and enthusiasm that are a prerequisite to enjoying this noblest of spirits to its full.

Luxury whiskies to try and buy

Gordon & MacPhail Generations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery

There’s something awe-inspiring about a single malt distilled in the early months of the Second World War, and the liquid here is a frankly miraculous combination of structure, finesse and a surprising vibrancy. The whiff of glowing embers, coal smoke and tobacco leaf evoke a different era of whisky-making. The zesty fruit is pure Glenlivet to this day. Alcohol 44.9%

The Dalmore Decades 1980

The most alluring whiskies are often those that take a different path. This 40-year-old Dalmore spent five years in ex-bourbon casks before bottling, flipping the distillery’s typical maturation template on its head. There’s all the rich figgy depth of sherried Dalmore, but lifted by notes of butterscotch and light honey. An old whisky, yes, but one with lingering memories of youth. Alc 40.8%

The Glen Grant Dennis Malcolm 60th Anniversary Edition Aged 60 Years

Old whiskies are often fragile and ephemeral, but this sexagenarian is still fighting fit and richly robust. There’s bitter chocolate and dark treacle, but plenty of light with the dark: zesty orange marmalade, a nutty tang reminiscent of aged palo cortado, and just a whiff of coal smoke. A great tribute to a Scotch whisky legend. Alc 52.8%

Royal Lochnagar 16 Year Old (Diageo Special Releases 2021)

Bottlings from this near neighbour of Balmoral are rare. The joy here is to find Royal Lochnagar’s sometimes shy distillery character front and centre: lightly aromatic and evoking a flower-filled summer meadow, then a traditional sweet shop, melding into a French pâtisserie. There’s some peppermint cream and just a hint of something richer and darker from European oak maturation. Alc 57.5%

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