The full economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t yet known, but already there are signs of an impact on the collectible whisky market—and, unlike many other sectors, this niche segment appears to be on the rise. During the 2008 economic downturn, whisky continued to grow as an alternative investment while the value of traditional stocks was falling sharply. Amid the profound impact of the pandemic, could it be bucking the trend again?
Comparing Sales Trends
We compared online auctions at Just Whisky, Whisky Hammer, and Whisky.Auction that ran during February and April 2020. February was chosen as the control month, reflecting a time before the pandemic was declared on March 11 by the World Health Organization, but after the drop in consignments for January auctions, when buyers are letting their wallets recover after the holiday season. April was chosen as the test month as it coincided with the peak of the first wave of infection in the U.S. and the UK. For each auction house, we compared the highest hammer price for five collectible whiskies that appeared in both their February and April sales across a range of brands. Due to significant currency fluctuations since the pandemic was declared, the results were analyzed in pounds sterling because all three online auctions were based in the UK.
|Bottling||April Hammer price||February Hammer price||Change in value||Auction House|
|Macallan The Archival Series (Folio 2)||£1,350||£925||+46%||Just Whisky|
|Glenmorangie Grand Vintage Malt 1990 Bond House No. 1||£405||£361||+12%||Just Whisky|
|Talisker 15 year old (2019 release)||£95||£90||+6%||Just Whisky|
|Lagavulin 19 year old Fèis Ìle (2019 release)||£300||£235||+28%||Just Whisky|
|Balvenie Tun 1401 (Batch 5)||£415||£390||+6%||Just Whisky|
|Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood||£160||£150||+7%||Whisky Hammer|
|Springbank 9 year old Local Barley||£160||£120||+33%||Whisky Hammer|
|Yamazaki 18 year old Limited Edition||£700||£600||+17%||Whisky Hammer|
|Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen||£260||£210||+24%||Whisky Hammer|
|Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old||£1,500||£1,550||-3%||Whisky Hammer|
|Hibiki 17 year old||£430||£290||+48%||Whisky.Auction|
|Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old||£1,000||£975||+3%||Whisky.Auction|
|Port Ellen 1978 27 year old (6th release)||£1,100||£975||+13%||Whisky.Auction|
|Octomore Orpheus 2.2 5 year old||£350||£290||+21%||Whisky.Auction|
|Ardbeg 17 year old||£400||£270||+48%||Whisky.Auction|
|Total||£8,625 ($10,785)||£7,431 ($9,643)||+16%(+12%)|
Although these thirty bottles are just a snapshot, it looks like whisky values are holding up, with the total valuation for these bottles up 16% overall across three separate auction houses between the two months (the equivalent to a 12% rise when prices were converted to U.S. dollars on the day of each sale).
Why might prices be going up?
There are multiple factors at play that could be driving these higher prices, starting with the business impact of social distancing and extended lockdowns. Packed rooms full of live bidders cannot take place, so auctions and valuations are only happening online. Auction houses have had to close offices and postpone sales while they alter their working practices to support the safety of their staff and customers and comply with government measures. This is making it more difficult to consign bottles to auctions, though some businesses are offering free, no-contact courier collections and extending free storage periods.
Fewer consignments mean smaller auctions, which tightens supply and can drive up prices. Just Whisky offered 883 lots in April compared to 1,198 lots in February, a drop of 26%, while the number of lots offered in Whisky Hammer’s listings dropped by 19% over the same period. This wasn’t universal, however, as Whisky.Auction increased its listings from 1,332 in February to 1,885 in April, a rise of 42%.
Buying behavior may be changing depending on individual circumstances. Potentially, there may be fewer bidders from whisky bars and restaurants while these venues are closed, and business owners may furthermore be using auctions to offload unsold stock.
Yet that loss in potential bidders could be filled by new or more eager individual buyers. Those who can afford it may be looking to buy and experience great whisky to lift their spirts or impress their online tasting group. Collectors may have more time to peruse online auctions during lockdown and drinkers avoiding retail stores could be attracted by the home delivery options for auction winnings. Bidding from parts of the world less affected by the pandemic may not be impacted at all, while whisky may be attracting enlightened investors looking for alternatives to the stock markets, which have been devastated by the crisis.
Yet seller behavior could create an opposing force to these trends. While rising prices might make it seem like an optimal time to sell, collectors may also be forced to part with bottles due to financial hardship. Once the supply increases, it could be enough to counteract other forces and see a return to expected trends.
Counterfeit whisky is an ongoing concern for the secondary market, and fraudsters might see opportunity to offload fakes on auction houses that have fewer employees to verify a bottle’s authenticity because of social distancing rules.
Cyberattacks are another issue. One of the world’s leading auction houses, Whisky Auctioneer, recently suffered a sustained cyberattack during the sale of The Perfect Collection Part Two. The auction was expected to run April 10–20, after the initial part saw the first online-only sale of a million dollar Macallan. Whisky Auctioneer had to extend the close of the sale by two days, a situation the company described in a statement as a “last resort,” after detecting abnormal loads on its server leading to the site crashing repeatedly; eventually, it took down the website and announced that The Perfect Collection Part Two will start over on a future date to be determined. Existing bids will be removed and bidders will not be held accountable for previously placed bids, as Whisky Auctioneer acknowledges that customers’ circumstances could have changed in the intervening time.
But even with the inevitable hiccups, auctions continue, and it almost looks like business as usual, with a busy schedule of sales planned for the months ahead. Auction houses that have postponed sales have done so due to the unpredictability of delivery and for staff safety and social distancing reasons, but most—even those that typically offer a live component, such as Bonhams, Sotheby’s, and Christies—are continuing with a fully online agenda.
Whether you are a new bidder or a seasoned collector, make sure you refresh your understanding of the auction terms and conditions before placing any bids, including which whisky styles will incur extra charges to cover the U.S. trade tariffs. Pay particular attention to delivery and storage options as these may have been updated due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Upcoming Auctions (All dates subject to change)
Grand Whisky Auctions—May 1, 2020
Whiskyauction.com—May 2, 2020
Unicorn Auctions—May 2, 2020
Whisky.Auction—May 3, 2020
Sotheby’s, Hong Kong—May 5, 2020
Just Whisky—May 8, 2020
Bonhams, Hong Kong—May 8, 2020 and May 16, 2020
Celtic Whiskey Auctions—May 11, 2020
Whisky Hammer—May 15, 2020
Royal Mile Whisky Auctions—May 15, 2020
Irish Whiskey Auctions—May 22, 2020
Skinner Inc., Boston—May 28, 2020
Sotheby’s, London—May 28, 2020
Bonhams, Edinburgh—June 10, 2020
Christies, London—June 15, 2020
Global Whisky Auctions—June 19, 2020
Christies, Hong Kong—July 13, 2020
Whisky Shop Auctions – Rolling
Scotch Whisky Auctions
Whisky Online Auctions
PolyAuction, Hong Kong