Records have been smashed and jaws have been dropped as Ardbeg Distillery on Islay has sold a 46-year-old cask of single malt for £16 million!
Don’t rub your eyes, this is real. A 1975 cask of Ardbeg Islay single malt Scotch whisky has been sold to a private collector in Asia for £16 million. The oldest ever whisky sold by Ardbeg at 46-years-old, ‘Cask No. 3’, far surpasses any previous auction records for a cask of single malt, and its private sale is described as a “remarkable piece of liquid history” by whisky expert Charles MacLean MBE. For context, the previous record was for a cask of Macallan from 1988 that sold at auction for £1m. In fact, the sale price is more than double the amount Ardbeg’s owner paid for the distillery and all of its stock in 1997.
While beloved and thriving now, Ardbeg has a turbulent history. In the 1970s, the majority of its whisky was sold for blending, with just a few casks each year set aside for single malt bottling. That means stock from that decade has always been exceptionally hard to come by. Then through most of the 1980s, the distillery was closed, eventually shutting in 1996 for what looked like for good. It was saved from extinction the following year, but those dark days remain fresh in the memories of its fans even now. Which makes a sale like this all the more sweet.
“This sale is a source of pride for everyone in the Ardbeg community who has made our journey possible. Just 25 years ago, Ardbeg was on the brink of extinction, but today it is one of the most sought-after whiskies in the world,” says CEO Thomas Moradpour. “When a business like Ardbeg gets rewarded for 50 years of patience, it gives us the confidence to keep investing in the future of our distillery, and in our island community. The journey continues!”
An extraordinary journey
Created in a bygone era when the distillery still malted its barley onsite, the spirit of cask No. 3 was distilled on Tuesday, 25th November 1975, and laid down to age in two separate casks – a bourbon and an Oloroso sherry. Those casks matured over 38 years before Ardbeg’s director of whisky creation, Dr. Bill Lumsden, married them together before transferring the whisky into a single refill Oloroso butt, selected to give only the subtlest of wood influence, where it has remained ever since it was filled in 2014. That means the total journey for Cask No.3 is 46 years. It’s the same age as Reese Witherspoon, and would be as impressive if it wasn’t for Legally Blonde.
“Cask No. 3 is an extraordinary taste of Ardbeg’s past. Its aromas are nutty, herbal, and smoky, while its tastes of tar, espresso coffee, and spearmint have an astonishing finesse for a whisky of such age. So little stock survives from this era, that this cask really is one of a kind,” says Dr. Bill Lumsden, who will oversee the cask’s ongoing maturation. MacLean adds that the single malt offers an “evocative taste of what Ardbeg was like when it malted its own barley. Many old whiskies can go flat with age. But Cask No. 3 is a really lovely whisky, hugely complex, still having vitality after nearly half a century.”
Its journey hasn’t ended, however, as over the next five years, Ardbeg will continue to mature Cask No. 3 in a secure location on Islay for its owner. It contains enough spirit for 440 bottles and every year she will receive 88, the value of each being £36,000. By 2026, this Ardbeg enthusiast will possess a vertical series of rare bottlings from 1975, aged 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50 years old, giving her an unparalleled collection of aged Ardbegs, which cannot be replicated for at least a decade. To celebrate the half-century of patience and generations of distillery workers behind this “vanishingly rare” whisky, the distillery will donate £1m to causes on Islay.
A testament to Scotch and Ardbeg
A sale like this is a banner moment, signifying the extraordinary appeal of single malt Scotch. Obviously, we approach the subject of whisky as a piece of investment with caution, but there can be no denying the category continues to be a draw for collectors and this is the kind of story that gets told beyond special interest publications. This particular cask has the triple threat: it’s incredibly rare, it’s very old, and it houses a unique, almost lost flavour. MacLean points to that provenance and history, commenting that, while £16m seems a “breathtaking price for a cask of whisky”, ultimately what works out at £36,000 per bottle is “not unexpected for whiskies of that age and rarity.”
It’s a huge indication of the love people have for Ardbeg, and Islay whisky too. Becky Paskin, whisky expert and founder of OurWhisky, says that Cask No. 3 isn’t just alluring because of its rarity, but due to the distillery’s reputation for creating beautiful liquid that “commands a cult status worldwide, and has a firm place in whisky enthusiasts’ hearts”. She adds that, of the “many distilleries in Scotland which have a legacy, a history and a charm about them, Ardbeg is certainly one of those which could command such a high price for a vanishingly rare cask like this”. Paskin also points out the interesting choice from the owner to not simply purchase a cask, but to invest in a vertical series of bottlings from one single cask, which will develop and mature over the next five years, commenting that it’s “a rare opportunity to witness a cask’s development over time.”
There’s also been a lot of discussion over who this mystery buyer is. Some say she fell in love with Scotland after a trip to the Highlands, that she gets her friends to call her ‘Ardbeg Annie’. All we know is… well, very little to be honest. Like everyone else. And we obviously made that Annie thing up. We’re hoping her identity gets unveiled with a Scooby Doo-style mask removal, but that seems unlikely. If you’re reading this, unknown Ardbeg lover, and would like an official Master of Malt tasting note to go along with your new purchase then do feel free to send us a sample…