There is something incredibly exciting about owning a cask of whisky. Whether it’s to celebrate a special moment in time – the birth of a child or grandchild, for instance – or as a way to remember a trip to a distillery with friends, buying a cask and watching it develop over a decade or more is a bit like putting a stamp on a particular part of your own history.
But today, it is becoming harder and harder to buy a whole cask of a whisky from any of the more long-standing Scottish whisky distilleries. In fact, it’s nigh on impossible unless you’re willing to part with a huge amount of money for the privilege.
Not too long ago – especially in the context of the exceptionally long history of whisky in Scotland – this picture was a much different one. Rewind 20 years, and a trip to Scotland with the mates could quite easily result in an accidental cask purchase after too much camaraderie shared over too many drams. The allure, of course, of Scotland’s beauty, of the dream of bottling it for friends and family down the line, the possibility of a return trip to ‘visit’ your cask: it’s no wonder people loved to do it. In the 1990s, savvy investors could pick up a cask of Springbank for less than £1,000, while at the turn of the 21st century Bruichladdich casks became available to help fund its re-opening after a huge refurbishment, and even up until ten years ago you could buy a cask from Glengoyne, often cited as one of the prettiest distilleries in Scotland (and a delightful dram at that too).
But as single malt became ever more popular globally, those long-standing whisky distilleries had to make a choice: keep selling stock to individuals? Or hold onto as much as possible for their own needs?
Slowly but surely, every major distillery stopped its cask ownership opportunities – for the most part. Distilleries still, of course, sell casks to cask investment companies (although, often under ‘trade names’ or as teaspooned malt to protect their individual brands), and to independent bottlers with whom they have long standing relationships. A few have now swapped over to Private Client programmes, working with high net worth individuals globally to sell just a few casks a year. The Diageo Casks of Distinction programme, for instance, sells an average of less than 100 casks per year globally, while others such as family-owned William Grant & Sons operates in this space.
It also means that as time goes on, it will become even less likely to find casks from ‘old-school’ distilleries on the secondary market.
So where does that leave the cask hungry investor who wants to have their own cask laid down in a warehouse to go and visit whenever they wish?
Attention should now turn to the new distilleries on the block – and, to be fair, there are a lot of them. Numerous distilleries have opened up across Scotland over the past decade, lured by the romance of the land and the opportunities in the global marketplace, or perhaps driven by a desire to do things differently – in many cases, in a more traditional, hand-crafted way to oppose the mechanisation of the big distillers.
A quick look at the market shows distilleries from the Southern Borders, to the northern tip and the islands which offer cask ownership programmes.
One of the ‘older’ distilleries allowing this type of investment is the Isle of Arran distillers (established in 1994) which still sell casks each year from its Lochranza Distillery. And, then, of course, there are the newer stalwarts, all of which are gaining great acclaim for their spirit and initial releases. The Isle of Raasay allows people to choose their own type of spirit (peated or unpeated) and then even pick the type of cask from the unique Chinkapin oak, to ex-Bordeaux wine casks and ex-rye whiskey casks, meaning you can have more of a ‘choose your own adventure’ when it comes to the maturation. The Borders Distillery has released 1,837 casks as part of its programme (named in honour of the fact it was the first distillery on the Borders since 1837), while Holyrood Distillery, Edinburgh’s first in nearly a century, gives cask lovers the chance to choose one of six Sherry cask types that will be matured for 10 years.
One of the hottest distilleries on the market is Nc’Nean – a B Corp certified, highly sustainable distillery which has made waves since its establishment in 2017. Casks are currently on waitlist-only until 2023, and Cindy Drew, who managed the cask programme, says while there hadn’t necessarily been a plan to involve cask owners initially, it was a nice thing as a new distillery to take on.
“Right at the beginning back in 2017, we were not at all well-known and we had to make sure we were doing enough communication with the right group of people to get the interest we wanted. And in contrast, after we launched our whisky the interest has sky-rocketed! I think that gave people who were not as close to us (had not visited the distillery for example) the confidence in our liquid,” she explains.
There are currently 130 people on the waitlist but they are still taking applications for their next cask ownership opportunity.
When asked why she feels people are keen to get involved, Drew added: “I think most people enjoy the journey. Pre-Covid some cask owners came every year to see their cask (and us) and to receive their yearly sample and see how it was developing, feeling part of the wider family. Although we are not yet at this stage, the most exciting part will be seeing their spirit in bottles – ready to drink.”
So while gaining a slice of a cask from an historical distillery may be feeling more unlikely, helping to build the future of Scotland’s new distilleries is much more plausible. And, while those may not have the same cache when it comes to re-sale value, if you’re in it to share bottles down the line with your grandchildren on their 18th birthdays, then getting into this market now could provide invaluable returns of a different kind.