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Buying Whisky in Whole Casks

Whisky expert David Robertson navigates the unique challenges when you choose to invest in an entire cask of whisky.

Andy Simpson David Robertson whisky Photo: Fraser Band

For fans of Scotch whisky, it seems it’s no longer enough to shell out for a rare old bottle—whether directly from the producer or on the secondary market—that marks a birth year, say, or a special anniversary. No, according to David Robertson, who in 2014 co-founded (with Andy Simpson) Rare Whisky 101—which offers consultancy and brokerage services, as well as valuation and market insights, including performance indices and reports—what connoisseurs, collectors, and investors want now is an entire cask.

The lure of the proposition is clear. Take control of the whole barrel, and the decision about when to bottle is yours—the end run, an entirely unique spirit. And, of course, you will have a very lot of it in your portfolio. For that reason, it’s critical that you be matched with a whisky profile you like. Robertson is adamant that you should be able to sample the cask in question.

It’s a matter of basic quality as well as preference—especially with considerably more money at stake for barrel versus bottle (Robertson has seen prices top a million Euros). He describes what can go wrong: “Many casks we have seen for sale have failed to mature appropriately and are young, harsh, and fiery, as the cask may have been used many times and has lost its ‘wood extractive’ potential. The color of the whisky can be a good indicator of cask type and quality, with a rich, dark amber color suggesting that a good-quality cask has been used.”

Very basic provenance is important to establish: the distillery of origin, the year the spirit went into the barrel, the cask type. But when you’re dealing with whole barrels, you also need “re-gauge” information. Since casks lose, on average, 2 percent of their contents every year, the seller needs to measure the quantity of whisky left, as well as its alcohol level. It’s a simple calculation, then, to establish how many bottles are on offer.


Andy Simpson David Robertson whisky

Andy Simpson and David Robertson  Photo: Fraser Band

It’s not as simple, though, to arrive at a fair price for the barrel as a whole as it would be if the whisky was already in those bottles. In the latter case, some investigative internet research can get you close to their fair market value. In the former—acquiring the whisky in cask and having it bottled for you at a later date—the costs you need to figure in are far from transparent. Robertson offers a daunting list of considerations:

  1. When do you want to bottle it? Do you have a special date in mind—a special occasion you want to pour the whisky?
  2. If bottling in the future, you will need to store your cask in the meantime (although warehouse rents are modest).
  3. What will you want to bottle the whisky in? Do you have a personal label, bottle design, and gift box in mind? Will you need to hire a designer to create the visuals?
  4. Who is going to bottle the whisky for you, and how much will that cost? Can they handle the bottle and label you’ve had designed? Who is arranging the empty bottles, labels, and gift boxes to arrive in time for bottling? (Ordering, production, and delivery can take many months.)
  5. Will you want to ship the product to your home? What are the alcohol laws and duty costs where you live?
  6. Finally, who is going to ship the goods to you—when and at what cost?

All of that said, about the hidden expenses that need to be figured in to arrive at a fair price for a barrel, Robertson reports that Rare Whisky 101 is playing matchmaker more and more often between sellers with stock to spare and potential buyers, who, as he puts it, “are excited to create their own unique liquid treasure from Scotland.”

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