Why, yes, there’s a market for everything…

For example, in the year 2000, a slice of French toast, half-eaten by Justin Timberlake, sold on eBay for $1,025. Now obviously he should just be half-eating French toast every morning and immediately flipping the leftovers. It’s a great business idea and we could make a lot of money together, but he will not return my calls. JT, if you’re reading this, pick up the phone.

Of course, if you can sell a slice of half-eaten French toast for a cool G, just imagine what you could get for old Scotch whisky… Even if Justin Timberlake hadn’t had any of it. (Seriously, Justin, just a quick text would do.)

Antique Macallan

Cask maturing at Macallan – probably worth a few quid

What makes old whisky expensive?

There are several key factors in determining the desirability and the attached value when it comes to old, rare whisky. 

The age

For a start, the age itself plays the biggest part. Old whisky is, by its nature, very rare. There’s simply very little of it available. This is for various reasons, not least of which is the sheer cost of keeping a cask of whisky for multiple decades. The age stated on the bottle refers to the minimum time it has spent maturing in oak. If you have a 50 Year Old whisky, that’s 50 years you have to store the cask, ensuring the conditions are just right. It’s very easy for a spirit to pick up too much flavour from the wood, and so you also have to test it as you go. 

And while you go, the whisky is slowly evaporating and the alcoholic content is dropping. In fact, the evaporation, called the ‘angel’s share’ typically accounts for an annual loss of around 2%. Added to that, if the whisky’s ABV (alcohol by volume) drops below 40%, it’s technically no longer whisky. You could top it up with some stronger spirit, but then the whisky would only be as old as the age of what you’re adding. It’s a balancing act. 

With all that in mind, just imagine what Aisla T’Orten 105 Year Old might have fetched at auction.

The reputation

Before we even look at the quality, the perceived status of the brand or distillery is a crucial factor. The most prestigious brands will, naturally, command the highest price tags. It seems a little unfair, but at the same time, many of the top distilleries have spent literal centuries developing their reputations, learning the tricks of the trade, and, in many cases, shaping the whisky industry itself. There’s a reason names like Macallan and Glenfiddich, both founded around 200 years ago, are regularly seen breaking the big auction house records. And, of course, if the distillery has closed its doors for good since the whisky was made, that doesn’t hurt either.

Provenance and Packaging

Many of the rarest whiskies have remarkable stories. Perhaps they were originally purchased by historical figures, or stored in cellars during the war, or had once been owned by Justin Timberlake.

Quality and unique characteristics

The whisky itself is, as you’d expect, pretty important. It certainly doesn’t hurt if the spirit is exceptionally tasty. There’s an irony to this, as most of the very rarest, oldest whiskies will never actually be opened, but often distilleries or bottlers will have some samples of the whisky so one can at least get an idea before purchasing. Is this a good time to mention Drinks by the Dram – our range of 3cl samples which allow you to try before you buy? No, that would be too shameless a plug.

Added to the flavour and complexity, there could be unique characteristics too. Things like rare cask types, or a very specific style of blending, or the use of a particular production method.

Condition and packaging

The condition of the bottle itself and the original label or packaging are also key. Any rare item holds significant additional value simply by being in good nick. This is true for whisky, as well as, say, a 1933 Babe Ruth baseball card, or one of those stamps with an upside-down plane on it, or even a signed copy of the 2002 album, Justified.

Additionally, the packaging itself might be particularly special. Perhaps the spirit is bottled in Baccarat crystal, or adorned with stunning, hand-drawn artwork.

The world’s most expensive old whisky

The most expensive and rarest of all old whiskies will meet all of the above criteria, and can fetch hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, as we will see below, millions.

A quick Google search will turn up many extremely expensive bottles, but something is only worth as much as it can actually be sold for. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the most expensive whiskies ever to be sold at auction (at the time of writing in early 2024)…

Old whisky

Number 5: Glenfiddich The 1950s Collection

Sold for: $1.4m (£1.1m)

OK, this is partially cheating because it was actually a set of four whiskies, but they were in the same box so let’s not split hairs. The whiskies were packaged in a stunning high-tech cabinet made by bespoke furniture maker NEJ Stevenson. It was outfitted with both a thermometer and a hygrometer to allow the new owner to carefully monitor and control the environmental conditions and help preserve the bottles. Within the case were spirits drawn from four of the very last casks of Glenfiddich’s 1950 stocks. These were 1955, 1957, 1958 and 1959. They were bottled in handblown (mouth-blown?) Baccarat crystal bottles, with 24-carat gold necks.

Auctioned at Barnbougle Castle by the Distiller’s Charity, this broke the previous world record, which was also set by Glenfiddich. It also significantly beat the estimate for the lot (a comparatively stingy $290,000).

Macallan Michael Dillon 1926

The very first £1 million whisky

Number 4: The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old –  Michael Dillon

Sold for: $1.53m (£1.2m)

This is a unique bottle, and it was one of the few remaining bottles of Cask #263 – a very rare cask of 60 Year Old Macallan distilled almost 100 years ago. The bottle was hand-painted by the Irish artist, Michael Dillon. On it, there is a lovely painted depiction of Easter Elchies House, a manor house built on the Macallan Estate in the year 1700. 

The bottle itself was originally purchased from Fortnum & Mason 19 years before the auction, which was held at Christie’s in London in November 2018. It made additional history as the very first whisky to pass the £1 million mark…

Macallan 1926

Add ice, cola, vermout, drink it any way you want. There’s no right or wrong way etc.

Number 3: The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old

Sold for: $1.9m (£1.5m)

Another 1926 Macallan. This is not only from the same year as the Michael Dillon-painted single malt in the number 4 spot, but it’s actually from the same hogshead. This was sold at auction in Sotheby’s in London in 2021 as part of a huge selection including 178 bottles from the Macallan Fine & Rare series. Bottled at 42.6% ABV, it sold for more than three times the initial estimate. It’s said to have a robustly resinous, woody palate, with treacle toffee and rich dried fruits. We imagine it’s pretty delicious…

Emerald Isle collection whiskey

Comes with a cigar!

Number 2: Craft Irish Whiskey Co.’s The Emerald Isle Collection

Sold for: $2m (£1.59m)

The Emerald Isle Collection was the first whisky to pass the $2m mark at auction and it remains the world’s most expensive triple-distilled single malt, no prizes for guessing which distillery it comes from, to this day. It was produced in partnership with Fabergé, after all.

The auctioned whisky was part of a limited release of just seven sets, each containing spirit matured for a comparatively short 30 years. This involved maturation in 200-litre American bourbon barrels, before a finish in 40-litre Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. It comes packaged in a stunning display case, complete with a bespoke, handcrafted Fabergé Celtic Egg, a wristwatch and a cigar! It was as if Homer Simpson came up with collectable whisky. 

Macallan 1926

Macallan 1926 – extremely rare

Number 1: The Macallan 1926 60 Year Old – Valerio Adami

Sold for: $2.7m (£2.19m)

OK at this point you’d be forgiven for thinking cask #263 isn’t that rare at all – they keep finding bottles of it! Well, when Macallan filled the original 40 bottles in 1986, they kept them stashed away, waiting for the perfect moment. Years later, 12 of them were given unique pop art labels designed by the Italian artist Valerio Adami. Of those 12, one was destroyed during an earthquake in Japan, ten are still out there, and bottle no. 12 of 12 sold at auction in Sotheby’s in London on the 18th November 2023. History was made that day when it fetched an astonishing £2,187,500… 

To conclude, there is very much a market for old whisky. There’s even more of a market for 1926 Macallan. And, there’s at least some form of a market for Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast. 

Until next time… bye bye bye.