The Japanese whisky auction record just got higher—a lot higher—and it’s all down to an audacious whisky flipper. Just weeks after its release, a bottle of Yamazaki 55 year old demolished the existing record at the Bonhams sale in Hong Kong on Aug. 21, 2020. The rare Japanese single malt whisky attracted a hammer price of HK$5 million/$645,125; add on the additional 24% buyer’s premium, and the number nears $800,000. As far as the secondary market for whisky is concerned, this is one of the most lucrative acts of flipping—purchasing whisky at retail price to resell at a much higher amount—to date. While the current world record for any bottle of whisky at auction hasn’t shifted—1926 Macallan 60 year old Fine & Rare in October 2019 which sold for a hammer price of $1.54 million—the success of the Yamazaki 55 year old considerably narrows the gap between the Japanese and scotch whisky records.
As detailed in our auction preview, Beam Suntory released just 100 bottles of Yamazaki 55 year old earlier this summer. Unavailable outside of Japan, the retail price of the bottle was $27,500 plus tax (around $30,000), meaning that this flipper recouped their money more than 20 times over—pocketing well over half a million dollars in profit. Undoubtedly, the remaining original owners of Yamazaki 55 year old will be delighted by the news of their bottles’ worth, but Yamazaki owner Beam Suntory is likely less thrilled. The company had personalized each bottle with an engraving of the buyer’s name—a thoughtful touch that was also aimed at discouraging resale. But Bonhams, of course, has the opposite goal, and it facilitated this seller’s anonymity by digitally altering the catalogue image of the bottle so that the name wasn’t visible. More of the original buyers may be motivated to sell, if they know their name won’t be made public. From a collecting perspective, the engraving just makes every bottle unique and, dare I say, even more collectible.
Was the Price Right?
Given that Yamazaki 50 year old previously held the world record and regularly exceeds $200,000 at auction (see table below), one might have expected Beam Suntory to demonstrate greater awareness of the value of such precious liquid. Did they do the math? Certainly, the company netted around $3 million from selling all 100 bottles of Yamazaki 55 year old, but this new record now potentially values the full release at close to $65 million. That bonanza will only benefit its lucky customers—though, with new releases, the first to resell often achieves the highest price. Think of it this way: The whisky matured in Japan for over 20,000 days, and Beam Suntory’s price is the equivalent of valuing each day of maturation at $1.50, whereas the flipper realized more than $32 a day.
Beam Suntory may have undervalued this whisky with its cautious pricing strategy, but perhaps it’s betting that there aren’t sufficient high rollers out there with the cash to drop HK$5 million on a bottle of whisky. At the same time, the world’s most elite whisky collectors have surely calculated just how few opportunities there might be to acquire one of these Yamazakis. Only time will tell if Beam Suntory has unwittingly unleashed the ultimate flipper’s whisky.
Top 10 Highest Auction Sales for a Bottle of Japanese Whisky
|Hammer Price||Bottling||Date||Auction House|
|$645,125||Yamazaki 55 year old||August 2020||Bonhams, Hong Kong|
|$364,418||Yamazaki 50 year old 2nd release||May 2019||Ravenel, Taipei|
|$352,860||1960 Karuizawa 52 Year Old Zodiac Rat||March 2020||Sotheby’s, London|
|$291,735||1960 Karuizawa 52 Year Old Treasure Ship||November 2018||Ravenel, Taipei|
|$280,283||Yamazaki 50 year old 1st release||August 2018||Bonhams, Hong Kong|
|$255,067||Yamazaki 50 year old 2nd release||February 2020||Shinwa Auction, Japan|
|$254,762||1960 Karuizawa 52 Year Old The Dragon||May 2018||Bonhams, Hong Kong|
|$243,071||Yamazaki 50 year old 3rd release||January 2018||Sotheby’s, Hong Kong|
|$242,228||Yamazaki 50 year old 1st release||October 2019||Sotheby’s, Hong Kong|
|$203,615||Yamazaki 50 year old 3rd release||July 2020||Ravenel, Taipei|