What’s special about 25-year-old whisky? Sarah Halford looks into the quarter-of-a-century time capsule.
Time and tide may tarry for no man or woman but, for whisky drinkers and investors, the tide is at record highs for the vintage dram. The appeal of a vastly aged whisky like a 50-year-old is perhaps obvious and it shows on the increasingly hefty price tag. For instance, in 2017 The Macallan’s 50-year-old Lalique decanter fetched just over £65,000 at auction, setting a new UK record for a bottle of Scotch.
What, then, is the message in the 25-year-old bottle? It may be half the age of its elder grandee but the 25-year-old holds a key place in the market. A quarter of a century is still a significant landmark, still vintage, still rare, desirable, collectable and therefore eminently investable. Experts agree that as demand for rare whisky soars while premium stocks diminish, prices are on a steep upward climb and the market for these liquid assets remains buoyant.
Price isn’t everything, however, with brand kudos a major driver of desirability. This is key to the 25-year-old market, a distinctive characteristic of which is price diversity. With standard bottles ranging from around £100 to over £1,000 and everything in between, a cult following can distinguish the most hotly-pursued gems. A case in point is that crowning glory among connoisseurs and collectors The Macallan, a name on the market’s lips that has achieved almost legendary status and continues to drink the lion’s share at the distilleries league tables.
Director of The Whisky Vault, Richard Hawley, said: “In terms of the 25-year-olds, it is hard to look beyond the Macallan Anniversary Malts when considering an investment, brand prestige and stature. These limited release bottlings, which ran from 1982 to the early 2000s and featured vintage whiskies from 1957 to 1975, have an incredible presence in the market which has seen their values increasing tenfold over the past five years alone. “Also very collectible and sought-after 25-year-old Macallans are the ‘M’ Decanter range that were released between 1987 and 1990 and feature vintages from 1962-1965. These are stunning and highly regarded as excellent quality well-sherried malts from an era when this distillery was churning out some brilliant stuff.”
Nevertheless, one sherry-cask giant doth not a market make. On the contrary, Mr Hawley said The Whisky Vault’s extensive back catalogue included a host of 25-year-olds that were note-worthy in more ways than one. He added: “Outside of Macallan, there are many other excellent quarter-century old malts and at much more affordable levels too. Douglas Laing’s XOP range has some stunning 25-year-old entries, such as the Laphroaig 1989, Littlemill 1991, Bunnahabhain 1991 and Aberlour 1990. These are great examples of whiskies throughout the different regions too, showcasing the differing styles and techniques. A special mention also to the Highland Park 25-year-old Silver Jubilee 1977 bottling that was distilled in the early 1950s, this is a wonderful example of Highland Park at its glorious best.
Co-founder and owner of The Whisky Exchange Sukhinder Singh, a world-renowned expert and private collector of old and rare whiskies, said while Macallan was undoubtedly “uber luxury in the whisky world”, other similar 25-year-old sherry-matured malts were selling like hot toddies. He added: “Glenfarclas 25-year-old at £125, Glengoyne 25-year-old at £240 and Bowmore 25-year-old at £299 actually offer amazing value for money. Other great value malts include Tomintoul 25-year-old at £180 and Talisker 25-year-old at £265.
“So why the price difference? It’s mainly due to supply and demand. For example, Glenlivet is a single malt in great demand and the price for the 25-year-old has increased over the last few years from £200 to £350 and we continue to sell everything we get our hands on. Some of the outstanding 25-year-old whiskies currently available could be worth £500 in just a couple of years. Collecting and investing is not always just about old and rare, and certainly not always about spending a small fortune.”
For Mr Hawley, too, the true value of liquid gold is on the inside: “I think the important thing to note with any whisky is that no matter the age or vintage, consumers will not be duped – if the liquid inside the bottle is good enough then it will stand the test of time. That can be even said with the NAS bottlings; as much as they’re not everyone’s cup of tea there are some sensational whiskies out there.”
Stephen Rankin, Director of Prestige at Gordon & MacPhail and fourth generation of the Urquhart family that owns it, said not only did 25-year-old single malt whiskies play a key part in the premium Scotch whisky market but that price was only one reason for consumers choosing to buy it. He added: “Many consumers will purchase whiskies to a certain price point, others to mark a milestone or anniversary.”
However, he said one aspect of Gordon & MacPhail’s 25-year-olds bridged all its vintages – a fine balance between wood management and spirit character, a time-honoured knowledge and expertise its portfolio was steeped in after 120 years in business. Mr Rankin said: “Our understanding of how spirit matures in different casks has been passed down and strengthened through each generation of my family. Our company has a long history of investing in the highest quality casks which are capable of maturing whisky for many years. Wood management is as important with a 25-year-old single malt whisky as with a 50-, 60- or 70-year-old. Selecting the right cask is essential as well as pairing the spirit with the most suitable type of oak. It was John Urquhart, my great grandfather and the first generation of the Urquhart family to own Gordon & MacPhail, who first noted the key relationship between the oak and type of spirit, and his learnings were passed down to his son, George, my grandfather, who began working with the business in 1933.
“This enhanced knowledge informs Gordon & MacPhail’s philosophy today – it helps determine which types of oak cask will be used to mature different new-make spirits for varying amounts of time. The cask, spirit character and environment are all variables that impact on maturation of Scotch whisky. Careful monitoring ensures the balance between spirit and oak is maintained, and the spirit remains above 40%, the mandatory minimum for Scotch whisky. Our exacting approach aims to achieve a perfect balance of spirit and cask. The longer the spirit matures in cask, the more often we will sample it. Regular sampling monitors strength, fill levels, and maturation stage.
“Many of the 25-year-old whiskies we have produced over the decades have been matured and nurtured by more than one generation of the Urquhart family who have passed on their knowledge to ensure Gordon & MacPhail continues to create exceptional 25-year-old single malt whiskies. Our 25-year-old whiskies include our bottling of Linkwood 25 Years Old (RRP £112) which was matured in refill Sherry casks, is sweet, creamy, and warming with delicate hints of vanilla and bonfire embers.”
For details visit www.gordonandmacphail.com
Loch Lomond Distillery has been producing single malt and single grain whisky since 1814 and for peated whisky fans its 25-year-old, Inchmoan Vintage 1992, takes both name and taste from the landscape itself. ‘Inch-moan’ means ‘the island of the peat’ in Scottish Gaelic as for centuries the mainland inhabitants used Inchmoan Island as their source of peat fuel for village fires. This limited release single malt matured for quarter of a century in refill bourbon barrels, allowing the spice-driven peat and fruit distillery character to combine with the softer influence of refill bourbon barrels to give an integrated, refined flavour that balances fruit and spicy peat. It is produced in the distillery’s unique straight neck pot still, bottled at 48.6% ABV and non chill-filtered for a smooth taste and natural colour.
Inchmoan Vintage 1992 costs £199 – visit www.lochlomondwhiskies.com
Independent distillery Glen Scotia, founded in 1832, released a £250 25-year-old single malt in 2017. It is one of three surviving distilleries in Campbeltown, known as the ‘Victorian Whisky Capital of the World’ when there were over 30 distilleries on the Kintyre Peninsula.
Michael Henry, Master Blender for Glen Scotia owner Loch Lomond Group, said: “I created the 25-year-old with the history of Campbeltown in mind. For many years, trade has come through this port town bringing fruits and spices from all over the world on its salty sea breezes and I wanted the whisky to reflect this. The signature nose has hints of vanilla oak, interwoven with subtle notes of sea spray and spicy aromatic fruits. On the palate, it boasts tangy orange and juicy red apples mixed with a caramel sweetness. Its finish is a long lingering taste of sea salt with a spicy note of ground ginger.”
It is bottled at 48.8% ABV and was matured in American oak barrels, before each cask was hand selected by Mr Henry then married in first fill bourbon casks for a final 12 months before bottling. For details visit www.glenscotia.com
A quarter-of-a-century limited edition vintage with star quality of a different kind is The GlenDronach Distillery’s Kingsman Edition 1991. This rare Highland single malt comes with a price tag of £550 and film director Matthew Vaughn’s signature, as part of an unusual pairing of Scotch and silver screen.
Distillery and director teamed up to mark the release of spy comedy Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which features an all-star cast including Colin Firth. The GlenDronach was personally selected by Mr Vaughn, who said: “A Kingsman is smooth, elegant and packs a punch, as does The GlenDronach – so it felt like the perfect fit. I selected the 1991 vintage as it marks birth year of ‘Eggsy’, who is also known as Kingsman agent Galahad. It’s really special to get a limited edition vintage like this, and even more so as The GlenDronach is my favourite single malt whisky. I hope Kingsman fans around the world enjoy it as much as I do.”
The GlenDronach Whisky Maker, Rachel Barrie, whose signature sits alongside the director’s on each hand-numbered bottle, added: “It took over a quarter of a century for The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition to come of age, matured in sherry casks from birth. As we say at the distillery, ‘Cask is King’ and this is evident in the taste experience of The GlenDronach Kingsman Edition 1991 Vintage, which is richly sherried, elegant and full bodied to the last. We hope you agree, it is whisky fit for a Kingsman’.”
The whisky is 48.2% ABV, non chill filtered and deep walnut brown in colour, with waves of black grapes on a woody vine on the nose, ripe Victoria plum on the palate with a lingering and warm finish. It is available in speciality retailers across the UK.
While vintage whisky is riding on the crest of a currently-rising wave and experts remain optimistic they also warn that, as with any investment, it can come to a sudden crash. They advise that all bottles are not equal so thorough research is vital to find out the right bottles for good investment potential as well as spot the ever-present fakes.