Imagine a job where you get access to the world’s most coveted whiskies—tasting and then setting a value on them. That job—spirits specialist—belongs to Jonny Fowle of Sotheby’s auctioneers. And he didn’t get it just because he loves drinking whisky.
“You’ve got to have personality and specialist knowledge of the subject,” explains Fowle. “When it comes to spirits, you have to be able to increase awareness, entertain, and ultimately inspire people [to buy].” Fowle’s working days are filled with client meetings, appraisals, and tasting events designed to stoke excitement for upcoming sales. Operating within the upper echelons of the world’s top whisky creators and collectors, Fowle’s job grants him access to blending labs and libraries of rare stocks—plus the opportunity to taste extraordinary drams that most whisky lovers can only dream about. Through his tasting events for Sotheby’s, Fowle knows the persuasive power of a glass of fine whisky on prospective buyers. “We’re trying to build relationships with those who sell and those who buy, so that we can build consignments to auction,” he says.
Sotheby’s has had notable past successes with whisky, establishing world record prices with The Macallan 64 year old in Lalique Cire Perdue in 2010 and the Imperiale Macallan M Constantine in 2014, and it handled the most expensive bottle of whisky ever auctioned in the U.S. in 2018. So far this year, the auction has achieved $2 million in spirits sales alone, but there’s more to come. Fowle’s appointment in May 2019 shows a renewed commitment to spirit sales at a time when there is huge momentum in the market. “Online auction sales have been driving higher volumes and higher values across the board,” Fowle says. Under his direction, Sotheby’s will offer both live and online spirit auctions, taking the lots beyond what has been offered in the past. “We have made a great impact with individual lots, but we’re looking to bring in high-value single-owner collections and work more directly with distilleries,” Fowle notes.
Day-to-Day Duties of the Spirits Specialist
Whisky specialists appraise the value of collections, helping to guide clients toward a sale while connecting buyers with the whiskies they seek. The role requires deep knowledge and experience; specialists are on the front line against fake whiskies. Fowle’s position is a global role so—although based in London—he works with the Hong Kong team to cater to Sotheby’s clients in Asia and the New York team, where the Sotheby’s wine department is based. He can be dispatched anywhere in the world to inspect a collection on-site, with the aim of bringing it in for the next catalogue.
But Fowle is going beyond consignments; he’s working directly with distilleries to source exclusive bottles to sell through Sotheby’s. The strategy has benefits for both the auction house and the distiller, spurring collectors into a bidding frenzy over a rare bottle while promoting the brand overall; if a buyer doesn’t win the one-off whisky, they might be content with a different, still highly desirable bottle from the same distillery. “It’s become more common for distilleries to work directly with someone like Sotheby’s to try and increase both the awareness of the distillery and the secondary market,” Fowle says. For example, Sotheby’s recently consigned The Dalmore L’Anima 49 year old directly from the distillery’s owners, Whyte & Mackay. This one-off whisky, created by master distiller Richard Paterson and chef Massimo Bottura, sold for a hammer price of $117,000 (£90,000) in May 2019 with proceeds going to benefit Bottura’s non-profit Food for Soul. Such high-profile distillery exclusives generate headlines for the auction house, potentially attracting bigger-spending clients to buy and top collectors to consign their best bottles with them.
Becoming a spirits specialist requires a significant background in working with rare whiskies. Before he took the job with Sotheby’s, Fowle ran a whisky tasting company that offered training to hotels and bars, dabbled in trading casks and bottles, and worked as a brand consultant. Most recently, he was a brand ambassador representing a number of smaller Japanese distilleries. “I tend to collect Japanese whisky slightly more actively than Scotch,” says Fowle, who estimates he holds one of the largest collections of Akashi in the world.
Predicting the Next Big Collectible Whisky
Fowle has noted some recent changes in collecting trends. “In terms of buyers, it’s all about Asia,” he says. “The Asian buyers have gone from strength to strength in the last ten years, and they show no sign of slowing down. If anyone is interested in looking at how Asia is shaping the world of collecting whisky, go and experience Taiwan; it shows the true exclusivity behind whisky collecting, and the brands produce fantastic exclusive bottles for the Taiwanese market.”
In terms of which distilleries to collect now, Fowle recommends GlenDronach and Chichibu. “GlenDronach has seen huge success recently, purely because it was a heavily sherried whisky that wasn’t charging a lot per bottle,” he notes. “Suddenly, it’s shooting into the top ranks of the secondary market.”
What’s not big at Sotheby’s: American whiskey. “In terms of the big collections, there are only ever a few American bottles that you tend to find in a scotch collector’s cabinet,” Fowle says. “Obviously, we deal with quite a few bottles of Pappy Van Winkle but it’s not going to be as dramatic as our scotch intake.”
While traditional auction houses are showing signs of vulnerability to the encroachment of online auctions, Fowle isn’t worried about Sotheby’s ability to deliver, especially on truly collectible whiskies. “One of the things that will differentiate us from the online auctions is our quality control and the collections that we work with,” he says. “I see a lot of bottles go online that are not the sort of thing that we would sell: low-value bottles with little provenance.” Fowle is not looking for individual bottles; his focus is on single-owner collections at the top end of the market. “You’d be unlikely to find a bottle of Famous Grouse going at Sotheby’s,” he says. “Whereas you might find fifty going at an online auction. We’re just trying to home in on the truly desirable and collectible bottles.”