ALL THAT GLITTERS MAY NOT BE GOLD: STAY AWARE
In continuation of my previous post on the same subject, imagine your very own cask of whisky….it’s the ultimate indulgence, isn’t it? When you love whisky this much, owning your cask – or investing in one – is the icing on the cake, yes? But icing can go off if you’re not careful….
There’s no denying that there’s a degree of romance involved. It’s like owning your own little piece of Scotland, not to mention that it affords great bragging rights with your mates on WhatsApp and Signal. And, if you buy a cask when it first gets filled, you also get the enjoyment of watching it mature and tasting it at various intervals along its maturation journey – almost like watching your kids grow up!
It all sounds great on the surface, and plenty of people pay for and acquire a cask with the expectation that nothing could possibly go wrong. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? In ten years’ time, you’ve got 200-350 bottles of your own whisky to drink, sell, or give away! But, for many people, it seems this end outcome causes more problems than joys. “How? Why?”
Diehards in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society regularly get emails from people who are trying to sell and off-load their cask. The circumstances are invariably the same each time: They purchased a cask 8 to 12 years ago, but found that the additional costs and expenses involved to bring their bounty home were prohibitive, and they can no longer afford (or risk) to complete the deal.
In the period from 2008 to 2014 or so, such experts were getting at least two to three emails each month from people around the world who were trying to offload their cask. Several distilleries – Springbank and Bruichladdich being two good examples – had cask purchase schemes in place for the general public in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and when these casks reached maturity at around 10 years of age, the purchasers discovered all the additional costs that weren’t instantly evident at the start of the process 10 years earlier. We’ll see what these costs and risks are in just a moment….
There’s a difference between owning or buying a cask of whisky and investing in one. The former implies that you’re doing it for a bit of fun, and you plan on drinking, enjoying, and sharing your spoils when you eventually decide to bottle it. Investing in a cask, on the other hand, suggests that the exercise is purely a financial affair, and you’re hoping to make a few bucks out of the deal. Both alternatives are very different prospects, so let’s look at them separately:
BUYING A CASK
As explained in Part I, if you were tempted to buy your own cask of whisky as a means to “cut out the middle man” and to obtain some bottles of whisky cheaply, stop reading here and head down to your local liquor outlet instead. Commercially available whiskies that you find in these outlets or in the online stores enjoy economies of scale that are beyond the humble cask-buyer, and the journey of buying, maturing, and bottling your own cask is not a path to cheap whisky. Get back to mother earth now.
Several Scottish distilleries offer cask purchase schemes and, in fact, with the huge number of new distilleries establishing and opening in the last few years, the opportunities to buy your own cask are better than they’ve been for a long time. Ardnamurchan, Glasgow, Ballindalloch, Lagg, Annandale, Lindores Abbey, Kingsbarns, and Ardnahoe are all just some examples of Scottish distilleries that have (or had) private cask purchase offerings in place for individuals.
The schemes vary from distillery to distillery but, in most cases, your original buy-in purchase price will afford you somewhere between five and ten years of warehousing and a sample sent out to you once a year. Additional fees and costs apply if you want to mature the cask and keep it warehoused beyond the initial allowance, or to obtain extra samples.
The “hidden” or extra costs – and what catch so many people out – are the costs involved once the whisky is matured and deemed ready for bottling. Nine times out of ten, the purchase price you pay at the start covers only the cask and spirit up until it’s deemed ready to bottle. For whatever happens after that, the ball is in your court, as are the expenses. This aspect has been dealt with at length in the earlier article.
But if you’re flying this exercise solo, there are also some practical issues to deal with. It all sounds fun at the start, but it’s a very different prospect when 250 bottles suddenly lob up on your doorstep. How much of this do you really expect you’ll be able to consume yourself? How much can you afford to give away to family and friends? If you want to sell a few bottles (or a few hundred bottles) to re-coup some of your costs, how can you realistically and legally move that stock? Your close friends or the colleagues you know through your whisky circles might drop around to your house and exchange cash for a bottle, but that might account for just 30 or 40 bottles if you’re lucky. If you want (or need) to move 100, or even 200 or more bottles, then the complications and costs of acquiring a liquor licence come into the mix, and you’ve STILL got to find your market and buyers…and all at a price where you at least break even on your costs.
Some readers will be familiar with Facebook whisky groups like Dram Full ex-Australia, and plenty of other similar country-centric groups on Facebook and other Social Media forums. With Social Media forums having a combined Facebook group membership of over 100,000 people, did you think a simple ad or announcement on Facebook would easily find your market and help you shift your bottles? But joining a Facebook group and being willing to spend $200 or more on a bottle of whisky are two very different things and it seems a large proportion of those group’s members baulk at paying more than $100 for a bottle of malt when it’s sight unseen. Experience has shown that social media groups will only help one move 30-50% of your cask, if one is lucky. And they’ll want or expect discounts or other incentives, too, so the revenue you get might not be what you banked on. Moreover, if you’re inviting people from other cities and states to buy your bottles, you’ll also need to organise and handle all the packaging and posting – no small or convenient task.
So, after all that, is it really worth it? Is the work, cost, effort and expense rewarded? I guess that depends on whether you find your cask tasty and how much you’re prepared to drink or give away. But it certainly is nice to see your name on your own label.
INVESTING IN A CASK
Most of the pitfalls and additional expenses associated with investing in a cask are the same as what we’ve already outlined above. The key difference here is that the ultimate objective is to make money. That means divorcing yourself from the romance and fun of the affair, and focussing purely on ensuring every last drop of spirit is sold.
In such an instance, the easiest – and recommended – path is to simply sell the cask off once it’s reached maturity, i.e. let someone else take on the risk and hassle of bottling the spirit and selling it as a labelled product. A cask of 10 years old matured whisky is worth more than a cask of freshly-filled newmake spirit, and so the exercise simply becomes an 8 to 12 year long-term investment that relies on the capital growth of your asset. Of course, like every long-term investment, there are risks involved, and you need to consider these:
Will the whisky industry still be buoyant in 10 years’ time and will there be demand for your cask? If a bust follows the current boom, your cask might not attract the same interest or price-tag you anticipated when you first invested.
You may be obliged to pay UK duties and taxes, depending on how the transfer of ownership takes place and how the deal is negotiated. Bear in mind that excise, duty, and VAT generally increase over time, and so the taxes due in 10 years’ time will undoubtedly be more than what you can currently calculate.
Casks can get damaged. Leaks are not uncommon, and whilst it’s been a long time since a fire ripped through a Scottish warehouse, fire and loss of your cask is also an ever-present risk. Or, as many distilleries found out in 2010, so is collapse and damage of a warehouse under extreme snow! Most cask investment schemes offer insurance against such losses, up to an extent, but you’d want to check the fine print for yourself.
This is only applicable in the case of a sherried cask, but what if your cask is tainted with sulphur? If the sale of your cask at the end of its maturation relies on sending samples out to prospective buyers, you might be in trouble if those doing the sampling hold an anti-sulphur sentiment.
How reliable is the investment scheme and the distillery? Some distilleries offer schemes whereby the distillery buys the cask back from you once it’s matured, and the terms and prices of that buy-back are written into the initial contract. Beware of any investment scheme that sounds too good to be true. Remember that the end buyer of your cask – whether it’s the distillery, or a cask broker, or a whisky club such as the SMWS – has to meet all the costs associated with bottling, labelling, transporting, and selling the whisky, and it’s they that capitalise on the real or retail price of the whisky. You are effectively just a wholesaler and must accept the smaller margins. As investors in the infamous Nant Distillery found in Australia, not every investment scheme returns the dollars it originally promised. Matthew Hayden was among the losers.
Like any investment, consider what the return is and whether your money would be better placed somewhere else? You’re looking at least an 8 to 10 year wait for your return, and it’s not unreasonable to ask if your money would perform better if invested in some other fund or scheme for that same period.
Regardless of which of the above two routes you go down, remember that 10 years is a relatively long time into the future, and our crystal balls can get a bit cloudy when looking that far down the track. Your health may be a different prospect in 10 years’ time, as might your circumstances and address. If all the distillery knows about you is an email address, it’s easy for either party to lose track of one another if you re-locate or change your internet service provider. And, whilst it’s a morbid thought, if you were to accidentally die at some point, make sure someone in your family knows that a cask in a foreign land forms part of your estate!
This is what WhiskyInvestDirect posted about their Investment Scheme:
Good returns from whisky maturation have been achieved over many years, but historically only distillers and blenders could benefit. Until now, that is.
Launched in 2015, WhiskyInvestDirect changed that, by allowing private investors to buy quality whiskies at wholesale prices. Already some 3,500 users own enough to fill over 70,000 casks, that's the equivalent of 29 million bottles of maturing Scotch. Accounts range in size from £700 to £750,000.
You will own the whisky as it matures, and when you decide to sell, via our trading exchange, you'll receive a transparently competitive price from other users and industry bidders. To date, mature whisky bought back by the trade has realised an average annualised return of over 10% for private investors — after all costs.
On the other hand, investment specialists at Rare Whisky 101 (RW101) have expressed “worry” over the increased number of inexperienced investors buying new make spirit.
RW101, a rare whisky indexing, valuation and brokerage firm, recently released its review, outlining performance of rare whisky on the secondary market last year.
RW101 said it has brokered a number of sales of “exceptional” casks containing old liquid, including Ardbeg, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Highland Park and Springbank. However, the company said these sales were made by “sophisticated buyers with a wealth of experience in maturing stocks”, adding that it would not advise inexperienced investors or buyers to purchase “even the most sought after of casks” due knowledge about the loss of liquid in the maturation process.
In addition, the increased incidence of inexperienced investors looking at buying into new make spirit, that is, whisky that has not aged in the barrel, is “worrying” to RW101. “Malt and grain production is at an all-time high with distilleries being worked 24/7 to get more out of every last cell of years,” the group said. “Should the current negative trend for global sales of big brand blends continue, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that there could be a whisky loch in a few years’ time.”
In order to generate funding to increase capacity, a number of whisky distilleries offer cask investment schemes to consumers, who can purchase either entire casks or shares in casks at a time before the liquid has aged.
While RW101 concedes that buying new make spirit from distilleries where it’s not usually obtainable “may not be disastrous”, the firm said such investments “might not yield the expected results”.
“The market for older casks of quality liquid from renowned top-tier distilleries, in our opinion, will continue to go from strength to strength,” RW101 said. “However, we’re strongly advising our customers against buying new make from less desirable single malt distilleries or new make single grain. Rarity, singularity and quality, again in our opinion, are crucial factors when looking at casks.”
HIGHER GLOBAL PROFILE FOR SCOTCH
The profile of this market, in recent years, has only been raised. And for investment, the opportunities have only grown with prices collectors are willing to pay exponentially increasing. Andy Simpson of RW101 (rare whisky 101) says:”One person’s investment or collection today can be another’s drink tomorrow. Stick to limited editions, single casks, discontinued bottles and older rarities from the iconic collector’s distilleries.”
TIPS THAT WILL STAND THE TEST OF TIME
In order to understand an investment, it’s imperative that investors get to experience it for themselves. Due to the pure nature of the commodity, this is possible by conducting educational virtual tastings. Not only does this give investors the chance to understand their investment from a different perspective, it also allows them to feel part of the investment they are making – something very unique in the general investment markets, as well as in the whisky sector.
KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR
It is important to look for a high alcohol by volume, which means you will get longevity in the spirit so that if you do intend on ageing it, whether it be anywhere from five to 50 years, a high ABV at any stage of investment will give you the maximum opportunity for growth in the investment.
UNDERSTAND THE BRANDS
It is essential to invest in a recognised brand name that you would see in the supermarket, on a recognised website like The Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt, or that you would see in duty-free. If you are buying or investing in a recognised name, you will be able to track the growth across the years by observing the year-on-year price and inflation increases.
If you are able to get hold of a name-brand whisky from 2020 or 2021, it will probably grow quicker than other whiskies distilled the previous year due to the lack of ability and increased demand, making it highly investable whisky.”
KNOWLEDGE IS THE KEY
When choosing your investment, make sure to investigate the distillery financial reports to see how well the company is performing, and look at future plans. Something small, such as a potential rebrand, could greatly increase the cask value.
KNOW WHERE TO FIND VALUE
With increased worldwide demand for whisky, including in America where tariffs have been reduced by President Joe Biden, the value of whisky in casks will only increase; in particular, more aged whisky, along with the value of that produced in 2020 and 2021 during the global pandemic due to the closures of distilleries, which meant that there was reduced supply.
LOOK FOR SPECIAL DROPS
The growth will definitely continue and cask values will keep on increasing, especially aged, rare and unique whisky, which will continue to outperform the standard single malts and keep meeting market expectations, with 2020 and 2021 casks likely to outperform them all.
A fair portion of the article quoted below has been used by me in my post. https://www.whiskyandwisdom.com/should-you-buy-or-invest-in-a-cask-of-whisky/