At your service: private sales of whisky with Christie’s

Author and writer Raven Smith joins specialist Charles Foley to find out how — using its vast network of contacts and access to cellars across the globe — Christie’s can facilitate private sales of the most sought-after whiskies, from Dalmore to Macallan to Karuizawa 

In an Art Deco bar in St James’s, a stone’s throw from Christie’s London salerooms, Wine and Spirits specialist Charles Foley joins bestselling author, Vogue.com columnist and ‘funniest man on Instagram’ Raven Smith for a glass of Highland malt to discuss buying whisky.

‘If I was going to start collecting whisky, what advice would you give me?’ asks Smith in our short video, above.

‘At the moment, I would be looking at all of the big names in Scotland,’ replies Foley. ‘The largest of these is Macallan.’

Macallan is Scotland’s best-known single-malt whisky and is made in a distillery in Moray, on the rugged north coast. In 2018, Christie’s sold a single bottle for £1.2 million, setting a new world-record price for any single bottle of spirit.

‘Other names,’ continues Foley, ‘like Glenfiddich, Bowmore and Dalmore are all in this very collectible category.’

Writer Raven Smith, left, and specialist Charles Foley enjoy a glass of single malt whisky 

Writer Raven Smith, left, and specialist Charles Foley enjoy a glass of single malt whisky 

Foley tells Smith that there has recently been a surge of interest in one particular area of whisky-collecting: the so-called ‘ghost distilleries’. These are distilleries that have closed but continue to release bottles from previously filled barrels.

‘Those have been really collectible because obviously nothing else can be made,’ he explains.

Japanese distilleries have also seen a boom in popularity, says Foley. ‘Two in particular: Karuizawa and Yamazaki.’

Yamazaki opened in 1923 in the mountains between Kyoto and Osaka and was Japan’s first distillery. Today, it is the country’s best-known whisky producer, with the rarest bottles changing hands for six-figure sums.

Karuizawa, on the other hand, remains relatively obscure. The distillery began production in 1957 on the slopes of Mount Asama, an active volcano near Nagano in central Japan. Foley points out how the bottles’ decorative labels, featuring samurai and geisha figures, make them popular with connoisseurs, especially in China.

In 2001, he adds, Karuizawa closed, meaning it’s also a ghost distillery.

Christie’s can help broker the private sale of whiskies such as this Black Bowmore 1964, which was sold at auction in London for £18,000 on 29 November 2018

Christie’s can help broker the private sale of whiskies such as this Black Bowmore 1964, which was sold at auction in London for £18,000 on 29 November 2018

Foley, who joined Christie’s in 2014 after a stint as a wine merchant in London’s financial district, explains that rare wines and spirits — along with works of art — are increasingly likely to change hands at Christie’s through individually tailored Private Sales rather than at auction.

The bespoke service isn’t restricted to the traditional sales calendar and offers a level of discretion that some collectors prefer.

Private sales aren’t a new thing for Christie’s. ‘They’ve been going on since the beginning, in 1766,’ says Foley.

Typically, a vendor will come to him with something unique to sell, or a buyer will present him with a wish list to source.

Through Christie’s unique network of contacts, Foley knows the best cellars around the world and can broker a confidential deal between the two parties, whether it’s for a particularly rare whisky, an investment purchase, or a special bottle to mark an occasion.

For example, he was recently able to source an incredibly rare ‘unicorn’ bottle of Terrantez Madeira from 1715 for a buyer who wished to sample it over dinner with friends.

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Foley tells Smith that the best way to learn more about rare whiskies is to find a voice you can trust, whether it’s a critic or social-media influencer — or even, adds Smith, a Christie’s specialist. That way, you can get to know the ‘general zeitgeist of what’s going on in the industry’.

You can sometimes get lucky and buy rare whiskies direct from the distilleries, says Foley — but, if not, Christie’s offers a convenient route to market, whether through auction or private sales.

‘We have access to things that other people won’t necessarily have,’ he explains.