Examining the New Whisky Auction RecordJanuary 21st, 2014
Sotheby’s, Hong Kong have set a new record for the highest auction price for a bottle of whisky. On Saturday January 18th, the sum of $620,000 was reportedly paid for The Macallan “M” decanter. The Macallan partnered with Lalique to produced four ‘Imperiale’ 6-liter decanters designed by Fabien Baron. Each of the imposing vessels was named after a Roman Emperor: Caesar, Augustus, Justinian, and Constantine. It took 17 craftsmen over 50 hours to produce each statement piece, which weighed 16.8 kg (37 lbs.) when filled with whisky. The Speyside single malt whisky within is a non-age statement vatting of The Macallan from distinctive casks dating from the 1940s-1990s selected by their whisky maker, Bob Dalgarno.
So let’s take a longer look at the numbers. This sale breaks the record that stood for 1,160 days from Sotheby’s, New York for The Macallan 64 year old in Lalique Cire Perdue (hammer price $460,000). Careful checking of the Sotheby’s, HK website reveals that The Macallan (lot 212) in their Finest & Rarest Wines auction sold for HK$4 million, a figure boosted to HK$4.9million ($620,000) with the addition of the 22.5% buyer’s premium.
Due to local taxes and variable buyer’s premiums between auction houses, the only practical manner to meaningfully compare international prices is to use the hammer price. In this case, I calculate that HK$4 million to be $515,600, an increase of 12% over the previous record. Contemplate that if Sotheby’s, New York had charged 22.5% on the one-off sale of The Macallan 64 year old in Lalique Cire Perdue, the press releases of the day would have championed its sale at $563,500, not $460,000. Check the search engines and you’ll see that I’m right.
The large format of the bottle, (unique in The Macallan’s history) undoubtedly contributes to its value. You will recall that world records were claimed for the Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts 55 year old when it was first auctioned. However, it was The Macallan 64 year old in Lalique Cire Perdue 1.5L, not the Glenfiddich, which was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records.
The Macallan M is a 6-liter decanter, so I make that an equivalent value of $64,450 per 750 ml (or $2,580 for a 1oz. pour; and there are 200 pours inside). The Macallan 64 year old in Lalique Cire Perdue was a 1.5L ship’s decanter, so by the same measures, that’s worth $230,000 per 750 ml. For comparison, the top price paid for Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts 1955 was $94,000 for a standard sized bottle. However, Lalique is highly collectable and the desirability of a beautiful object of this magnitude can transcend the boundaries of whisky collecting. Standing at 28 inches tall, The Macallan M is definitely no standard bottle.
You can be too big, of course. The world’s largest bottle of single malt whisky, authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records, is a 105.3 liter bottle of 14 year old Tomintoul. It was valued at $164,000 to $246,000, but failed to sell at auction when offered last December. I don’t imagine it’s an easy pour at that size, but that’s still a staggering $1,168 per 750 ml at the low estimate! It can work both ways. A miniature of Karuizawa 1964 48 year old sold at an online auction last year for £1,100, the equivalent of $27,000 per 750 ml, even though a full bottle fetched a mere $6,000 at Bonhams, New York.
Well then, does age matter? It is noteworthy that the upper echelons of the list of top prices for auctioned whisky bottles are untroubled by non-age statement whiskies. Until now, that is. The Macallan M is a balance of some very old whiskies with younger whisky from the 1990s. Clearly, an age statement of around 20 years would have been legally accurate but inelegant and inappropriate to competently describe Bob Dalgarno’s creation. The Dalmore Oculus in 2009 (now the 14th most expensive bottle auctioned) is the closest equivalent project that comes to mind. Even so, it’s interesting to note that the majority of the most expensive whisky bottles ever auctioned were bottled in the 21st century and sold to collectors from new by the producers.
How about the charity angle? The proceeds of the hammer price will benefit charities in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s have agreed to donate part of their $100,000 buyer’s premium too. Although four ‘Imperiale’ M decanters were made, this was the only public offering. Two others sit in The Macallan archive and one was sold before the auction (not for charity) to a collector in Asia. That matters, as Bowmore found in 2012, following their two unsuccessful attempts to auction the Bowmore 1957 54 year old for $160,000 for charity when there were eight similar bottles for sale on Islay at the same price (and without the competition). The Bowmore 1964 auctioned for £61,000 at last October’s Distillers’ Charity Auction demonstrated just how well they could execute a one-off spectacular.
Lastly, how does the location of the sale in Hong Kong reflect on the auction market? Both decanters of The Macallan M have been sold in Asia. Sotheby’s wine department does not routinely deal with rare whiskies other than working in conjunction with The Macallan. Bonhams 2013 sales in Hong Kong were very impressive, and it has become one of the strongest growing markets for whisky auctions on the planet.
My congratulations go to The Macallan, Lalique, Baron & Baron, and Sotheby’s, on this outstanding achievement, not forgetting the successful bidder. I recognize this record as the world’s most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold at live auction (although history books should record the HK$4 million hammer price). Furthermore, I wager that only The Macallan can potentially break this record at present.