Skinner, Inc., of Boston will host dedicated whisky and rare spirits sales commencing in 2015. Joe Hyman has been appointed to the position of fine spirits consultant to oversee this venture, which is likely to be welcomed by whisky collectors in North America. One impetus to expand into this area was Bonhams’ exit from the whisky auction scene in New York this summer, leaving an absence of any specific auctions for vintage spirits in the calendar.
I caught up with Hyman to mull over his time as head of whisky and rare spirits at Bonhams, NY, to talk about his new endeavor, and to discuss his perspectives on the auction prospects for different categories of collectible whiskies. Straight off, he corroborated the reasons given to Whisky Advocate by Bonhams that the auction house pulled out of whisky auctions in New York for failing to meet their own financial targets.
Why couldn’t they make it work? “It’s different in the States compared to Europe because of all the regulations around alcohol,” explains Hyman. “All the interstate commerce rules, licensing and warehousing issues…everything here has to be under bonded, secure warehouse space, which costs a lot of money. There’s such a layered system that each layer cannot step on any other layer’s toes, so to speak. You’ve got your distributors, your retailers, the auction houses, and shipping agents, so there’s a whole complex web to deal with, that most people in the auction business don’t want to bother with. The big places with huge wine sales, they’ll take whisky if you have $10,000 bottles, but they don’t want to have to deal with it otherwise. I can understand the viewpoint but it’s at a point where it’s growing. I did what I could.”
Meanwhile, auction houses in Europe have been courting American collectors to consign with them, making offers to ship their whisky collections overseas. Previously, some well-known shipping companies would only insure consignments up to a value of $1,000, inadequate for the needs of collectors consigning dozens of rare bottles, which left U.S. auction houses rather hamstrung.
Hyman has been striving to offer solutions. “I’ve made inroads with the shipping companies and international freight companies that deal with alcohol,” he said. “We can have collections shipped to us to our licensed warehouse, here in Massachusetts. We’ll continue to do the traditional live auctions with phone and online bidding, but we’ll also mix it up with online auctions like the European model.”
“That way, we can handle not only the really cool, expensive items that people get excited over, but we can help people who are looking for old-style whiskies for head to head tasting comparisons,” he explains. Connoisseurs will pay a premium for 10 to 18 year old whiskies from 10 years ago over the ones being produced today, because the flavor profile has changed or the availability of specific wood has altered.
“That environment can create more of a secondary market that the U.S. hasn’t had until now,” Hyman hopes. “Until a couple of years ago, it was eBay, Facebook, or Craigslist, but there is no real go-to place for the secondary market here. We can develop something like that. The $100 bottles and upward are ideal for the online auction environment.”
Skinner held a successful Fine Ales and Spirits online auction last April that included rye, bourbon, scotch, and Canadian whiskies. Furthermore, around 100 bottles of quality whisky are expected to comprise a section of their forthcoming wine sale this fall, before a full whisky sale next year.
What is his assessment of the market potential for whiskey, bourbon, and rye? “It’s going to continue to rise. People have continued to discover bourbon and rye over the past decade. The gains in recent auctions have been outstripping the pace of scotch. A lot of the old bottles are surfacing out of peoples’ basements, closets, and out of walls from the Prohibition era. We’ve not had the same turmoil and looting of basements that there was in Europe during the World Wars. Every time a bottle of significance comes up, then more people go searching through their basements and come up with things.”
What else is hot? “You’ve got the closed distilleries of Japan which have become the Golden Fleece of whisky collecting right now; the Karuizawas and the Hanyus,” he says excitedly. “People can’t get enough of that stuff right now, and it’s escalating. They’re going up at an astronomical rate.”
Canadian whisky has yet to have its moment in the sun as a collectible, but Hyman believes this will change. “People are starting to rediscover Canadian whisky, so that could be the next thing to go up,” he says. “I have bought Canadian whiskies like Canadian Club and Seagram’s VO at auction and they don’t go for anywhere near the same amount of money. I’ve taken these things to whisky events and people are amazed about how good they are.”
What about scotch then? “Even Macallan with their M has become a collectible whisky,” says Hyman. “It’s NAS, but it’s Macallan; not everyone can do this. Your collectibles of tomorrow will be the bottlings with age and vintage statements today. That stuff won’t be available in the future.”
Finally, looking back over your time at Bonhams, what was your proudest moment? “The Cognac 1762 Gautier was the stand out bottle for me, just because of the rarity of it. It was the highest price paid for a Cognac at auction outside of Asia.” Hyman is referring to Lot 947 of the April 30th 2014 sale where the Cognac sold for a hammer price of $50,000. I wonder, does he still dream of a bottle that he would love to auction one day? “Ardbeg distilled in 1815 maybe!” he says with a chuckle. “As a whisky enthusiast, I think a Springbank 1919 would be pretty exciting.”
The Skinner Fine Wine sale will be held on October 28th/29th 2014 at 6pm ET