The last few years have seen some serious records and numbers being set in the world of whisky auctions. Millie Milliken asks the experts how the industry works and what newcomers should be bearing in mind.
There are only 14 bottles of the Macallan Fine and Rare 60 year old in existence – one of which was bought for approximately £1.3m at Sotheby’s in London in 2019, the most expensive single bottle of whisky ever sold at auction. Other bottles and collections to join Macallan at the top of the pile are Hanyu Ichiro’s Full Card Series (£1.1m), The Macallan Peter Blake 1926 60yo (£765,000), and The Macallan Red Series which raised a whopping £756,400 for charity.
Auctions are, unsurprisingly, big business (it’s small business too with a recent rare collection of 400 miniatures selling for a total of £56,732.95 via Whisky.Auction). But there are bargains to be had. So, how does the auction world work? And how can first-time bidders navigate the (virtual or live) auction room?
“I actually come from an art background,” Georgia Porteous of Bonhams in Edinburgh tells me of how she got into the auction game. “I’ve worked for Bonhams since leaving university, so 10 years ago now. I always had a passion for whisky so when I moved up to Edinburgh, a job finally came up in the department.” Now, she’s the junior whisky specialist at the auctioneer, working alongside Martin Green (head of whisky) and Diego Lanza (whisky specialist) valuing bottles, cataloguing them ahead of quarterly auctions, and consigning items for sale.
As first sales go, Porteous’ – a Macallan Peter Blake 1926 which fetch upwards of £700,000 – wasn’t a disappointment: “What I love about working at an auction house is that it so varied: you can be handling a lot of five bottles that are worth £300 and then you can go on to a £350,000 bottle of whisky – it’s a real privilege.”
Sam Hellyer, wine and spirits specialist at Chiswick Auctions unknowingly began his career in drinks when he got himself a job at a Bottoms Up wine shop at 18, before heading to university, getting his foot in the door at Oddbins after graduating, a couple of nights a week and finally embarking on a decade-long job with the retailer. After a time working for small importers, Brexit hit and Hellyer decided a move into the world of auctions was the more disaster-proof option.
Death, downsizing and divorce
“We operate on the three ‘d’s: Death, downsizing, and divorce,” he explains matter-of-factly. “It’s a miserable way to look at things but the pandemic has actually particularly seen a lot of downsizing… so we’ve picked up quite a few cellars.” One recent cellar held a 2004 vintage of Bordeaux en primeur on which the seller made a 200% profit.
As well as valuations, visiting cellars, and negotiating listing timings, Hellyer is also a key factor to the live auction, acting as auctioneer for the wine and spirits lots – I say key as the sale rate drops by 20% when he misses one. Why? “Knowing the wines and being able to talk about them and even pronounce them is very important… there is a recognised value in the knowledge when you’re working in the auction side.”
And when it comes to valuing the goods, Hellyer has a layman’s explanation: “The most basic explanation is everyone looks over everyone else’s shoulder. I see what it sold for at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams… all of these places because they set the price and once they’re not selling it, I’m setting the price,” he said.
Over his time in the drinks industry, Matt Hastings, now blender at Nc’Nean whisky, would acquire bottles of fun liquids that he didn’t want to drink and would sit in a dark cupboard. So, he started selling them in auction to fund the purchase of liquids he did want to drink. “I’ve entered bottles in batches five or six times and never been disappointed – I always get a good or fair price.”
Hastings opts for the platform Whisky Auctioneer which he came across organically and was so impressed with that he used them for Nc’Nean’s inaugural release auction – an auction that saw its first bottle go for £41,004.
But Hastings started buying at auctions before he embarked on selling. “I was just looking for fun things I couldn’t buy in shops anymore… seven or eight years ago you could get some absolute bargains with bottles selling for less than they originally sold.” And although he admits that coming across these bargains is harder nearly a decade later, there are still some specific bottles that get him excited. “Things that pique my interest are bottles like earlier Compass Box releases and old Jack Daniel’s before they changed the ABV, like an early 80s Jack Daniel’s 90 proof which is just amazing. [You’re paying for] a piece of history and to get the chance to taste something in its early [phase] of phenomena.”
Of course, when it comes to selling and buying at auction, there are some variables that have impacted the industry over the years. Most notably, and recently, the EU/ US trade war that saw Scotch whisky hammered by tariffs. “In our February sale barely anything whisky-wise shifted,” explains Hellyer while continuing that there was a huge uptick in brandy, Cognac and Armagnac. “Trump’s final passing shot was putting a tariff on the brandies too, so in February those didn’t shift either, not because people don’t want them, but because a huge chunk of brokers’ clients are in the US, so they all pulled out.”
Now that those tariffs are lifted though, Chiswick Auctions did a big whisky sale, selling over 90% in one go, while 87% of the brandies listed also went. “It would be so much cheaper for the end-user to buy directly from us [rather than through a broker],” he laments, “but you’ve got to know when the auctions are and be available to be there on the day.”
A subtle change Porteous has discovered has been the type of bidder turning up to Bonhams’ auctions. While they’ve been online for years (unlike Chiswick who moved online due to the pandemic), she’s noticed that “over the last 18 months we’ve seen new, keen bidders who are participating for the first time and have more questions.”
So, with that in mind, we asked our experts for some of their top tips for newbies to the world of auctions.
Tips for first-timers to whisky auctions
Ask for a condition report. This is something you can do a few days before the auction – don’t be scared to ask, it’s what I’m paid to do! Sam Hellyer, Chiswick Auctions
Check the fees before you bid. See what fees the auction house charges and don’t forget about VAT. Georgia Porteous, Bonhams
Do some value research. The platforms have their old lots on display so you can look at pricing to see what similar bottles are getting which will help guide your decision. Matthew Hastings, Nc’Nean
Have a maximum budget for everything. Someone outbids you by £10 and then you’re in it and you could spend £100/£200 over – I see it all the time. The increments get bigger the higher you go too (before £100 your bidding in £5 increments, £200 it’s £10 and so on). Sam Hellyer, Chiswick Auctions
Don’t forget shipping and insurance. The most important thing to do is get a quote before you bid because most people aren’t aware of how much shipping and insurance is. The auction house is not responsible for the bottles once they leave the property, so do your research and get a reputable shipper with insurance. Georgia Porteous, Bonhams