The discreet new division was formed in April but is only now being announced as the family-owned collection of distilleries launches a major drive toward direct selling, aimed specifically at its most prized—and wealthiest—customers. Much like its Distillers Library bar in Singapore, which opened earlier this year, offering samplers of rare, $50,000 whiskies for would-be collectors to try, Williams Grant hopes that importing an ultra-exclusive riff on vineyard wine clubs to the still somewhat starchy world of Scotch whisky could permanently disrupt the way the priciest malts are sold.
Scotch is an especially hot commodity among affluent investors. According to the Knight Frank 2020 Wealth Report, rare whisky outperformed every other luxury asset class including cars, art, and wine, with values increasing 564% over the last decade. And as the world’s wealthiest have seen their fortunes surge, the luxury industry is keen to capture interest in alternative asset classes.
So far, some 20 whisky collectors have been invited to become private clients, mostly by word of mouth and often personally by the wealthy family members involved in the company’s management. Private-client customers are guaranteed VIP glad handing whenever they arrive at the sites where such brands as Balvenie and Glenfiddich are made. There’s no fee to join, but the ultimate goal of granting exclusive access to a distillery’s people, products, and premises is a sale.
“We’re not pushing for an immediate transaction. We have a sense of custodianship and a much longer time frame,” says Jonathan Driver, managing director of the new private clients division. “The objective is really about a lengthy relationship with the client.”
For the last 15 years or so, Driver tells Bloomberg, wealthy whisky lovers have often dropped by the distilleries on boozy pilgrimages. So why not turn such ad hoc offerings into a formalized division? The true appeal of whisky, after all, is as much, if not more, about the story and emotional appeal as the malt itself.
Driver says a collector halfway around the world who’s not yet visited whisky country will have detailed knowledge of the landscape, the history, and its culture. “You can sit in a bar in Dalian in northern China talking about Scotland, and people are highly articulate about their perception of the country and how we do it—and it’s pretty close to how it is,” he says.
Edgar Harden, owner and founder of the Old Spirits Co., says formalizing the ability to visit the distillery is key. Once onsite, William Grant can sell the kind of existing in-house stock directly that collectors might might otherwise have to go to the secondary market to find. Clients can also be offered custom bottlings of any cask they wish—and be charged accordingly. “And it will work, because people are starving for something different, unique, and Instagrammable,” he says.
Indeed Driver’s plans include a 1970s cask from Balvenie that will be ready for private sale in early 2022. He’s also priming a bottling from the now-defunct Ladyburn distillery that uses fashion photography from the archives of Norman Parkinson for the labels, set for official launch in spring next year. Driver declines to disclose exact pricing, but says they will sit within the ultra-rare segment, with the Ladyburn Limited Edition Two around $200,000 for the run and the Balvenie cask significantly more expensive.
“The market has changed,” says Sukhinder Singh, co-owner and founder of Whisky Exchange, a London-based specialty retailer that’s renowned for ultra-premium malts. “The new type of wealthy individual doesn’t want to buy off the internet or walk into the shop. They want to talk to someone and get VIP service.”
It’s a trick drawn from the watch and car world, he continues, and one that other distillers have tested before—Remy Martin in Cognac, for example, as well as such piecemeal programs as Diageo’s Casks of Distinction, which periodically offers a full cask hand-selected by four whisky master blenders. They have millions of aging barrels at their disposal from 43 different malt distilleries—some still operating, others defunct.
Singh is skeptical about the idea, warning that an effort focused solely on one brand or portfolio is inherently biased, while a multibrand retailer like himself, staffed by experts, can offer broader advice on taste, investment value, or both. Still, he concedes that William Grant’s endeavor may prove a watershed moment for high-end Scotch should it prove successful. “All the other companies will be looking at it and going, ‘Why are we not doing this?’”
The private clients division will officially make its public debut on Dec. 3 in Scotland at the Distillers’ One of One auction at Barnbougle Castle on the edge of Edinburgh. The country’s best distillers each donated special one-offs, including William Grant & Sons via the new endeavor. (Driver sidelines as master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, the industry trade association partnering with Sotheby’s on the auction.)
More than 40 lots are estimated from £1,000 ($1,345) to more than £500,000. Every penny of the hammer price will go to good causes, mostly via the Youth Action Fund, a charity run by the distillery industry to support disadvantaged young people, with a particular focus on locals in Scotland.
Of the top lots, Diageo-owned Talisker has released one of those Casks of Distinction dating from 1978 (Lot 21); whoever buys it must wait five years for it to finish maturing, after which it will be bottled into crystal decanters; the purchaser is likely to pay from £350,000 to £500,000 for the privilege. Gordon & MacPhail, a small, prestigious, family-owned distillery that recently released the world’s oldest single malt, is selling the chance to come to its warehouse in Elgin, Scotland, and select an aged cask under guidance (Lot 37). Two bottles will then be created: one in a decanter and the other into a bottle for drinking. That lot is estimated to fetch up to £160,000.
William Grant & Sons donated three lots. There’s a Balvenie 1964 Single Bottle Release (Lot 31, high estimate £80,000) and a single bottle of 1966 Ladyburn, emblazoned with an unreleased image of John Lennon shot by ‘60s superstar shutterbug David Bailey (Lot 26, high estimate £30,000). “It’s an enigma, because it came and went so quickly, and we don’t have a sample of new make spirit, so it’s like a kaleidoscope looking into the past,” says Brian Kinsman, Malt Master at Glenfiddich, who helped select the lots for William Grant’s whisky brands. “It has a lovely linseed oil character, almost heading towards mineral.”
Glenfiddich’s own submission is one of the most anticipated. Four bottles from the 1950s, including a surprisingly light and delicate malt from 1955 (Lot 26, high estimate £350,000). “For me, the Glenfiddich lot is definitely the star—it’s beautiful, the right whiskies at the right vintages,” says the Whisky Exchange’s Singh. “I’ve tried the 1955 before, probably from a sister cask, and it was absolutely sublime.”