Want to Play the Stock Market With Rare Scotch Whisky?

Courtesy of Whiskey Foundation

Jan 18, 2018 .  8 min read

Whisky Foundation Reserve is a stock market-like program that offers rare, single-malt bottles

Springbank 24 Year Old is a single-malt, Sherry cask-matured treasure that hails from the Kintyre Peninsula of western Scotland, boasting a brown sugar nose, notes of dark chocolate and black pepper, and a warm, smoky finish. Distilled in 1992 and independently bottled by The Maltman last year, analysts peg the Scotch to fetch approximately $550 on the rare whisky market.

An aficionado like Blair Bowman might have been able to stomach forking over that kind of cash to score the dram, but fortunately, he didn’t have to: Last fall, he managed to snag a bottle for just $95. Hell of a deal, but not quite as sweet as the one the guy made mere seconds before Bowman. Somewhere in the world, an anonymous lucky bastard is admiring the prized whisky that he bought for a single buck. Bowman is one of the first whisky superfans to take advantage of The Whisky Foundation Reserve, a stock market-like program that offers rare, single-malt bottles for prices that fluctuate based on consumer demand. Every new bottle from a single cask enters the market for $1, but inflates in price with each subsequent sale. When enough time passes without much action, the cost settles back down.

The Reserve officially launched in November, introducing Springbank 24 as its initial public offering. Within three minutes, the first of 244 bottles sold for $1, $95, $205, $275 and $225, according to data supplied by the Whisky Foundation. By the end of the first market week, the price reached as high as $645 per bottle, and at press time, it’s sitting comfortably at $336.

Bowman, a whisky industry consultant and the founder of World Whisky Day—mark your calendar for May 19—thought the Reserve sounded like a “fun concept” when he read about it in a press release, and so logged on at the opening bell to get a piece of the action. “Initially I was planning just to watch what happened,” he says, “but as the time ticked away until launch, I got swept up in the prospect of securing a really early bottle.”

‘It’s like a game: You can watch the price rise and fall in real time and get excited about it.’

Mission accomplished. The maddening wrinkle of the Reserve, however, is that the price never stops updating—not even when you’re entering your credit card information. “When I first added the bottle to my basket it was showing $1, but when I hit the checkout button it auto-updated to $95,” says Bowman. “Lucky it wasn’t $500.” The Whisky Foundation had a hunch its novel idea would be a hit, especially when the secondary market for Scotch may have reached 20 million pounds ($27.5 million) in sales for the first time ever in 2017, according to analysts. “Rare whisky fans are always looking for a way to get their hands on quality bottles, and this offers them the chance to shop at a fraction of the price that they normally would,” says Liam Hiller, the company’s brand ambassador. “Plus, it’s like a game: You can watch the price rise and fall in real time and get excited about it.”

Hiller and co. are starting to get the whisky industry’s attention. “From my standpoint, The Reserve is a very interesting alternative as it allows customers to set the way forward and get a fair price for what the demand of the bottle dictates it be worth,” says Greg Dillon, author of GreatDrams.com and The Great Drams of Scotland. “You’d be a bit miffed to pay a couple hundred dollars more than the person before you, I bet, but if it’s worth it and rare enough, then why not?” (Dillon, for his part, bought a single-cask Springbank 24 distilled in 1992 at an auction several years ago for 420 pounds, or $580. “I thought that was a good deal at the time!”)

Mark Gillespie, a veteran whisky journalist who hosts and produces the long-running WhiskyCast podcast, is intrigued by The Reserve, but skeptical. “Frankly, I think this thing is a bit of a crapshoot,” he says. “Someone may get lucky and pay $1 for a bottle, but I think most of their customers will wind up overpaying at some point.”

Gillespie argues that an independent bottling of a 24-year-old Springbank isn’t exactly rare—at least not compared to, say, a 1964 Black Bowmore or one of The Macallan Fine & Rare Series expressions. “The only thing that makes this ‘rare’ is that it was a single cask bottled for the very people who are describing it as ‘rare’ and stand to profit from the sales,” says Gillespie. “Even if they sell one or two for $1 each, they will make their money back and then some on the other 242 bottles.” (Hiller responds: “We don’t necessarily pick casks based on their rarity, but their quality.”)

Above all else, Gillespie is concerned about the Whisky Foundation’s lack of a track record. “I haven’t been able to figure out who’s behind it,” he says.

That would be Edward Davidson, who founded the Edinburgh-based company in 2016. Davidson began his career sourcing antiques and moved onto styling celebrity homes, but as he traveled the world, he became interested in rare whiskies—particularly those from independent bottlers, who often buy small-batch whiskies from distillers and bottle them at cask strength themselves. While Davidson has a hand in sourcing the Whisky Foundation’s whiskies, six executive employees run the day-to-day operations in Edinburgh, according to a company spokesperson.

In its short lifespan, the Whisky Foundation has built up a collection of expressions from heavy hitters like The Macallan, Laphroaig, Port Charlotte and Caol Ila, and stocks independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory Vintage and Kingsbury. Despite those credentials, some industry players still aren’t sure about the new kid on the block.

Charles Maclean, one of the world’s leading Scotch experts and the author of several reference books on the topic, advises a number of independent bottlers. “I know how difficult it is to source casks of top-notch malt whisky,” he says.

‘The secret to choosing a good investment should be purely based on the quality of the liquid and not on creating artificial demand.’

Sukhinder Singh, the co-founder and owner of The Whisky Exchange, the Internet’s premier specialist retailer of whisky and other spirits, echoes similar sentiments. “The first question should be: What is the quality of the whisky?” he says. “Who is choosing the bottlings? Do they have much experience? The secret to choosing a good investment should be purely based on the quality of the liquid and not on creating artificial demand.” When asked to address such concerns, Hiller points to the Whisky Foundation’s “impressive contacts in the industry” who help source their whiskies, from “brokers to private collectors to the distillers themselves,” he says. In the case of the Springbank 24, the Whisky Foundation recruited The Maltman—a father-and-son bottling operation out of Glasgow with more than 50 years of industry experience—to hand-pick a cask for The Reserve’s first offering.

"They’re a very well-respected bottler known for not selling any whisky that doesn’t meet their high standards,” Hiller says. “So we can trust their judgment, and our team’s tasting judgment, to make sure we’re releasing quality whisky. One thing we don’t want to do with The Reserve is end up with bottles that don’t meet our standards.”

Limited quantities of the Springbank 24 are still available, but Hiller says the Whisky Foundation is already hard at work on selecting its next offering for The Reserve. “For future bottles, we’ll continue to contact our wide network,” he says. “We’ll have another cask out soon, and I think we’re looking at a new one every couple months after that. But obviously it takes a lot of time to source these casks and get them really right.”

If you’re not yet sold on the idea of trying your luck, there are less risky—but pricier—ways to acquire an independently bottled beauty. “If someone really wants a rare bottle, there are legitimate auctions run on a regular basis by reputable auction houses, such as McTear’s and Bonhams, where those bottles are commonly available,” says Gillespie.

Then there’s Whisky Invest Direct, where you can buy top-notch whiskies directly from Scottish distillers, store them in their tax-free bonded warehouses and decide when to sell them in an auction on the site’s trading exchange. “It’s basically whisky auctioneering in a more modern way as prices naturally fluctuate, and it allows consumers and collectors to get something they want, when they want it, for a price they are happy to pay for it,” Dillon says. “No getting sniped at the last minute.”

Hiller understands the Whisky Foundation’s competition, admitting that The Reserve won’t be “exactly as it is forever,” as they inevitably have to “iron out some issues to make sure the mechanics are perfect.” But regardless of any future changes they make—and any copycats that might pop up in an increasingly competitive market—Hiller says his company’s goal will always remain the same: “We want to give fans every chance they can to get their hands on some really good whisky. We plan on being in this for the long run.”

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