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That’s the spirit

China’s growing passion for whisky is fuelling a boom among consumers and collectors.

27 August 2019 / Lifestyle

Complex and distinctive, its depths refracting myriad shards of gold, with an aroma smoky, tangy and sweet and subtle as French perfume – a glass of whisky, created and curated through an arcane process dating back centuries, has the power to capture the imagination and spark an enduring obsession. Over the past 20 years, collectors and consumers have driven the market to new highs – and new entrants from Asia have helped fuel this growth.

Daniel Lam, Wine and Whisky specialist at Bonhams in Hong Kong, says: “Our first auction in Asia was in 2008 and interest has grown exponentially – 500–600 per cent by value in the past 10 years.” And he notes that this market is holding up despite a slowing economy, with an 85–90 per cent sale rate at auctions. In particular, China’s long-term economic growth of 10.1 per cent between 1979 and 2017 has driven an explosion in luxury goods demand across the region, from premium cars to exclusive fashion – but as that growth has slowed, just a few assets continue to increase in value. And one of them is whisky.

Investing for enjoyment

But it’s not necessarily increasing investment values that fuel this growing fascination. Collectors’ motivations differ, but many stress the pleasure of consumption as a key driver of their collection. Collector Yang Bihan, a Dolfin client, says: “Whisky is an investment of life and emotion, because whisky is to be shared and enjoyed. As long as you love whisky, enjoy the taste of whisky, you will not ‘lose’ on this investment.”

“Whisky is an investment of life and emotion, because whisky is to be shared and enjoyed.”

Lam agrees: “People are looking at enjoying their investment.” And as demand grows, collectors have broadened their focus. “Initially it was high-end statement bottlings, over 30 years old,” he says. “Now people are looking at Scotch single malts, Japanese whiskies and old bottlings from before the 1980s.” Demand for Japanese brands hit a peak in 2014–15.

“Collectors are focusing more on single-cask bottlings, from 20 or 30 bottles to about 500,” Lam says. “These have a more handcrafted approach and can be 10 or five years old, or even younger – and the distilleries are responding with limited editions and special series.”

Yang shares the obsessive focus of the true collector. “My favourite brand would be Dalmore – I am doing my best to collect every last Dalmore whisky. The holy grail would be Dalmore Oculus, a blend of the finest and rarest malts of the past 140 years encased in a baccarat decanter.”

Money for old malt

The sentimental attachment to the intangible charms of whisky makes valuations difficult. In November 2018, a single bottle of Laphroaig 14-year-old bottled in 1970 for a restaurant in Italy went on sale in Hong Kong at an estimated HK$ 25,000 – but realised almost HK$ 500,000. “It’s very hard to estimate. The time and affection I have given is hard to quantify. If you offered a high price today for my most precious whisky, I still would not accept the deal,” says Yang.

China in particular is enjoying the runaway growth of passion for whisky. Since 2013, when Chinese buyers began to enter the market in earnest, they have contributed an average of 40 per cent of whisky revenue at Bonhams. Trading also takes place privately between collectors, using Facebook or WeChat and drawing participation from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. Shanghai and Beijing each boast more than 20 specialist whisky bars, with more starting up in second-tier cities. Private collectors have started monthly whisky fairs that last one or two days and include tastings, demonstrations and sales. And Beijing now has four auction houses handling whisky – healthy competition, says Lam.

“Business margin is still satisfactory compared to wine,” he says. “This is partly because whisky is portable and less demanding to store than wine.” In China, a younger generation of wealthy collectors are investing the time to learn and develop their collections. And because – unlike fine art or automobiles – even the rarest whiskies are being consumed, prices retain support. Lam cites the example of a 1960 Macallan bottled in the 1980s. “There are none left,” he says. “In future, supply will stay tight with these old bottlings getting rarer.” He predicts that collectors will look to more and more collecting categories and invest more in whole casks, while earlier bottlings will continue to gain in desirability.

“There are no two identical barrels in the world, just like humans – you would not find two identical people anywhere on earth”

Yang explains, “Take a single barrel of whisky: there are no two identical barrels in the world, just like humans – you would not find two identical people anywhere on earth. The greatest joy is to seek the one you love.”

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