Whenever there is an old and very expensive whisky released, the outcry of a vociferous fraction of whisky lovers is as sure to follow up as is the “Amen” in church. Mere mortals who will never have a chance to taste even a the tiniest sip of such prestigious liquids often look at such whiskies as tokens of the greed of the whisky industry.
Whisky prices have been going up continuously, and normal inflation certainly is only a small factor in this. In addition, whisky makers have noticed the price potential of old whisky on the collectors’ and investment market and have begun to slap according price tags onto their high end bottles.
A few producers who have the stock for it have also been issuing more and more luxury bottlings in the price range of £2000 and beyond. Notable names are Glenfiddich, Macallan, Dalmore, Bowmore and Johnnie Walker. Traditionally these bottles – that usually come in specially designed crystal decanters – have been put on display in key travel retail outlets like Heathrow Terminal 5, Singapore’s Changi Airport or luxury shopping places like Harrod’s.
While such luxury whiskies are widely reconized as logical extensions of the product range, there is also an understandable fear that extreme pricing of top end bottles creates an upward pressure on the rest of the range. As such bottlings are usually very limited, their contribution to the total sales of a whisky company will be quite limited. But they also serve the purpose of attracting potential buyers to the brand with the hope that people impressed by the luxury whiskies will buy the bottlles they can afford.
Now some whisky makers have found a clever way to wipe away the greed argument: They sell their most exclusive bottles on auction for charity. The 54 year old Bowmore 1957 announced yesterday was the latest in an impressive series. Glenfiddich have been doing likewise with their Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve supporting Walking with the Wounded, and Macallan sold their 64 year old Cire Perdue for charity: water.
By doing so, the whisky makers acknowledge that the main purpose of luxury bottlings is not to generate money, but to generate interest in the company. And the higher the prices and the more interesting the charity, the better for the reputation of the brand. In this respect, Macallan did a masterpiece. The important connection of whisky and water does not need to be explained further. Selling a single bottle of water of life for the obscene sum of $460,000 to help secure the supply of the most basic human need for the poorest is without a doubt the most brilliant idea in whisky marketing ever.
Charity in general, with auctions of top end bottles in particular, turns “the higher the price, the greedier” into “the higher the price, the more generous”. They act as lighthouses for the brands much more than glitzy travel retail displays. Can you afford to give away your best and oldest whisky for a good cause or do you have to generate income for your owners and shareholders? Here is where the wheat in the whisky industry separates from the chaff.