They’re out there. If you can find them, that is. You see them on display at specialty whisky shops, but they’re often not for sale; if they are, you’re going to pay dearly for them. Whisky collectors show you pictures of them with pride, as if they were pictures of their firstborn child. They also command exorbitant prices during specialty whisky auctions.
Welcome to the world of cult whiskies.
What is it that makes a whisky so special that enthusiasts will go to extremes to get it—spending countless hours searching, paying unbelievable prices to procure it, traveling across the world to pick it up—and then not even open it for years? As one of the many enthusiasts seeking out these whiskies, I can tell you that they all meet some, if not all, of the following criteria:
The distillery has a stellar reputation. This reputation is earned by producing consistently high quality whiskies for many years, if not decades.
The whisky in question frequently garnishes high ratings and reviews by respected whisky writers and whisky publications.
The whisky is often unique in some way with regards to its production method or flavor profile, and it is usually complex—sometimes challenging—in nature.
Cult whiskies from Ireland
The whisky’s production is limited in quantity. Either the distillery is small, operates intermittently, or the whisky is a special limited release.
Not all whiskies that command a high price at auction are what I would consider cult whiskies. Many collectors purchase whiskies as an investment based solely on the whisky’s rarity, regardless of the quality. Their intention is purely financial, and I’ve met many collectors who don’t even enjoy drinking whisky. So, the difference between a rare whisky and a cult whisky is the ultimate intention of the procurer. An enthusiast purchases a cult whisky with the ultimate intention of actually drinking and enjoying the whisky. Therefore, a cult whisky is usually both rare and exceptional in quality.
For example, for the past several years, United Distillers and Vintners (UDV) has been releasing limited cask-strength whiskies called the Rare Malt Selection. Two of the earlier releases included a 1969 vintage Lowland whisky called Hillside (better known as Glen Esk) and a 1972 vintage Northern Highland whisky called Brora (the original Clynelish distillery). Both are from distilleries no longer in production and stocks are limited. As a result, both meet the criterion of being rare and are highly collectible.
However, it is the Brora that would be considered a cult whisky. Why? To start, the distillery (and the new Clynelish distillery across the street that replaced it) has enjoyed a reputation for producing good, complex, often difficult to find whiskies. Add to that the special nature of this specific bottling. This Brora was very heavily peated to levels similar to the peat smoke-infused Lagavulin from Islay. In the early 1970s, the parent company feared that they wouldn’t be able to produce enough Lagavulin to meet the demand, so they experimented with the possibility of making a Lagavulin-like whisky at Brora. The end result was a fabulous whisky that combined the spicy, coastal character of Brora with the peat smoke of whiskies from Islay. It meets all the criteria for a cult whisky—rare, respected, complex, challenging, and unique. This whisky was released nearly six years ago, and its cult status just continues to increase.
While there have always been cult whiskies to some degree, there seems to be more now than ever. What is it that is propelling this cult whisky craze to new heights? And what could cause this trend to cool off faster than whisky served over ice?
There are several factors driving this demand. Let’s start with a booming global economy. The so-called “wealth effect” of the stock market and a strong job market has some of us feeling a little richer. Because of this, we’re spending more. A lot more, according to recent statistics. So, why not indulge a little with a good bottle of whisky, right? No use being frugal just so our kids can spend all our money after we’re dead. That’s how many people are looking at it, anyway.
Another source of whisky-itis is the amazing benefits of the Internet. For example, I participate in a single malt mailing list consisting of more than 300 whisky fanatics all over the world, and it’s the Internet that brings us all together. Fifteen years ago no such opportunity existed. Now we have news groups, mailing lists, chat rooms, and websites—all fueling the fire of whisky.
A third forum for whisky exchange is whisky auctions. More specifically, it has been the semi-annual whisky auctions conducted by Christie’s, held first in Glasgow and now in London. These auctions have brought the whisky buyers and sellers together, allowing an efficient exchange of cult whiskies and social interaction by their owners. Other whisky auctions are also developing.
A fourth venue is the specialty whisky retail outlets located throughout the world. Many have made it their personal mission to offer the widest array of whiskies—often traveling to distilleries and collectors to get the really rare ones—and offering them at the appropriate price, of course.
Finally, we have to credit the obliging whisky companies. While many cult whiskies are created from unintentional production activities at a given distillery (e.g., low production runs at small distilleries or changing the age statement of a given expression), many of the larger, reputable whisky distilleries have been offering limited releases of exceptional qualities. For example, limited expressions like The Macallan 1874 or Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage boosts the distillery’s cult status.
Cult whiskies fromthe United States
So, what could bring a whisky down from its heavenly perch? There could be an event significant enough that would bring the entire family of cult whiskies back to reality. For example, if the United States or other leading whisky-consuming countries would experience a recession, the demand for higher-end whiskies would certainly wane. Also, if the industry incorrectly projects the demand for higher-end whiskies and overproduces, such excess supply would cause the entire category to become less glamorous.
On an individual distillery basis, a gradual decrease in the overall quality of the whisky, with a corresponding increase in mediocre or poor product reviews would certainly cripple the cult status of that distillery’s whiskies. Also, a quality reduction due to management or ownership change can have a dual effect. In this case, the whiskies before the change will become more coveted, while the whiskies produced after the change will be ostracized. Of course, the opposite could also occur if the change is for the better. Even if there is no real change in the whisky, a management or ownership change could temporarily affect the cult image of a given whisky until the consumer’s anxieties are allayed.
Finally, are cult whiskies worth the price of admission? That depends on a couple factors. The first one—and this is a critical one—is whether the whisky was already a cult whisky when it was initially released. Over the past 20 years, many whiskies were released at very reasonable prices and didn’t become cult whiskies until years later after the prices were marked up by specialty retailers or at auction. The challenge wasn’t the price tag, but rather having access to procure the whisky. Often it is just being at the right place at the right time, like being at the distillery when a special bottling is released.
This leads us to the second factor. How much you can afford to spend? If you are very wealthy, you can buy cult whiskies at today’s going prices. Many people do, and they buy a lot of them. I know people with thousands of whiskies in their collection. Some have built libraries—even museums—for their collections. Others have actually written books about their collection. For the rest of us, we’ll have to pick and choose, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time. Some whiskies might seem relatively expensive when they’re first released, but their value can increase several fold within a few years. Being aware of what’s going on, knowing what new releases are coming on the market, and having a venue where you can procure these whiskies will help increase your odds.
|While not all-inclusive, below is a list of some of more coveted cult whiskies within the past two decades (In alphabetical order).