“What time will you be here today?” asks Jonny Fowle via WhatsApp. “I’ve got us about £150K of whisky to drink.”
An invitation from Fowle is a precious thing. As the head of rare spirits for auction house Sotheby’s, he is surrounded by some of the world’s most coveted and expensive liquor. Plus he doesn’t do hyperbole—I’ll later find out, his estimate of $180,000 for our tasting is almost half-a-million dollars short. Most of all, though, Fowle speaks about fine whisky with that same giddy enthusiasm that a teenager obsesses about his new games console. To get swept up in his world, even for a couple of hours, is a real treat.
Fowle, 36, is the ultimate guide to why one bottle of distilled water and fermented grain is worth 10 bucks and another $1.9 million—the price, in 2019, that Fowle sold a Macallan Fine and Rare 1926, which remains the world record for a single bottle. Other records he holds include sale of the most valuable whisky collection, total whisky auction value, most valuable American whiskey (a $43,000 Red Hook Rye), and most valuable cognac.
The hope of deciphering the arcane world of rare whisky brings me to Sotheby’s headquarters in London’s tony New Bond Street, where the downstairs foyer flanks a gallery stocked with obscenely valuable art. Fowle beckons me through a maze of locked doors and slender corridors to a small room, maybe 10 ft by 15 ft, which is usually used for perusing high-end watches. Instead, eight bottles await inside—single malts from across Scotland ranging from 30 to 75 years of age. “This is a very good tasting,” Fowle grins. It’s also the best way, he insists, to really understand the booming global whisky industry, which was worth $81.21 billion in 2022.
Ultimately, Fowle’s job is to take rare, old spirits—either sourced directly from the distillery or from the secondary market—and match them with investors and connoisseurs. On the supply side, this means maintaining good relationships with the distilleries and finding a regular supply of private collections for sale. On the demand side, it requires cultivating the small pool of whisky fanatics around the globe who are willing to pay seven figures for a bottle. “When you’re selling bottles for a million dollars plus, all the marketing in the world isn’t necessarily going to help you,” says Fowle. “It’s more: who do you know in the world, who does actually buy this stuff?”
It’s a relentless pursuit that involves some serious shoe leather and air miles. In the week before we met in August, Fowle traveled across the U.S., starting in L.A., where he picked up a $2 million whisky collection, before flying to New York, where he auctioned a separate collection also worth $2 million. Then he visited two clients in New York and New Jersey and valued $4 million of whisky before traveling to Toronto to pick up a collection worth $1 million. The longest he’s spent in the U.K. this year is just four weeks.
Whisky is also a booming investment trend, as one glance at social media can attest. During a time of stock market slumps, the internet teems with companies promising 500% return on whisky investments over 10 years. There is certainly no shortage of success stories. One variety, Bowmore Bouquet, fetched around $20 when it was released in 1984 but was sold for $80,000 by Fowle in 2019. Japanese whisky Yamazaki 55 was released for $30,000 in 2020 and sold at auction for $800,000 within the same year.
But the headline success stories hide a lot of misses, fakes and unscrupulous operators. “There are directors of some of these [whisky investment] companies you can Google with the word ‘fraud’ and you will see a lot of information,” he warns. Fowle is better placed than almost anyone to help investors steer clear of traps and give them the best possibility of seeing a return.
A native of Edinburgh, Fowle got into whisky almost by accident. He graduated from the National Film and Television School and was working as a sound engineer producing effects for films. But in the lull between projects, he began doing corporate whisky tastings, shamelessly monetizing his bushy ginger beard, Scottish accent and skill playing bagpipes to earn cash on the side.
Soon he was traveling across Asia to perform non-brand affiliated whisky tastings for five-star hotels in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and Hong Kong, consulting for Japanese distilleries and brokering a few deals on the side. Since he joined Sotheby’s in April 2019, spirits sales by the auction house have increased 1,000%. He says he’s on track for $30 million in auction sales in 2022, with the goal to breach $100 million over the next few years.
Fowle’s experience in Asia wasn’t by chance. Like many luxury commodities, the rare spirits market is shifting toward the Far East. For low-value, high-volume brands, whisky is still extremely popular across Europe. But as soon as the value increases, the market moves west to the U.S.—New York, Chicago, Miami, California and the oil rich southern states—and east to Asia, mainly China, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Scotch whisky is by far the most popular and highest value variety, followed by Japanese whisky, and then American whiskey far below. (Note the extra “e” in the spelling for American and Irish whiskey.) This also helps explain why U.S. collections are comparatively high volume, low average value, and not always worth an auctioneer’s time.
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Fowle now does all of Sotheby’s spirits auctions personally. It’s a unique skill, since with around 500 lots, there’s a need to get through things quickly. But if you rush a particular lot when more bids are brewing then that’s possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain. The focus is on really knowing your subject. “You can be a great auctioneer because you are performative, but without knowing what you’re likely to achieve for a bottle, you’d lose a lot of bids,” says Fowle.
In such a specialized market, sales can mean an extreme personal touch. On one occasion, Fowle rushed a colleague to Paris to present an American client with a sample of a particular whisky in a four-hour window before he flew back to the U.S. After a 10 a.m. tasting in his hotel room, he later picked up the bottle for around $1 million. “It can be quite skin-of-your-teeth ,” says Fowle.
Once the lots are sold, how clients get their whisky home—and past customs—can involve some ingenuity. Given the prices these bottles fetch, a good portion of customers simply carry their purchases onto a private jet. However, the record-breaking $1.9 million Macallan was bought by a Taiwanese collector who actually checked it into the luggage hold on a commercial flight. “He put it in an incredibly protective piece of kit,” says Fowle, “but I still couldn’t really believe he was doing it.”
Fowle pours our first dram: a 1946 Macallan Select Reserve. Normally, Macallan is not a peated whisky, but this was bottled when coal had been requisitioned for fighting World War II. So Macallan started using peat to dry its barley, imparting a smoky flavor. “It’s very light and a totally different style from what you’d expect to find in Macallan,” he says.
This is the essence of what makes whisky collectable: rarity and quality. Still, for the amateur collector, predicting what will hold or increase in value is tricky. A big headache for Fowle can be provenance. While a lot of whisky sold by Sotheby’s is sourced straight from the distillery—casks they’ve kept hanging around for half a century or so and decide to monetize—there’s also a booming secondary market. The 1946 Macallan belonged to the tenant of a North London mansion who hit hard times and offered up his whisky collection to settle his overdue rent.
But diligence is key. “If you see a bottle with an Italian tag strip, people start getting a bit worried, because Italy is the European hub for disingenuous produce,” says Fowle. “But China is giving them a run for their money now.” Fowle says a contact recently got in touch to warn him about 3,000 fake bottles of Macallan 30 Blue Box—which sell for around $11,000—on the Chinese market.
He also recently sniffed out some fake Macallan in China from inconsistencies on the label: the yellow not quite the correct patina and missing three tiny breaks in the calligraphy scroll. “It was so good, but with just a tiny difference,” he says.
That said, Fowle also shares that China has “probably the most knowledgeable people in the world about whisky” these days. “
In contrast, he’s sometimes turned down American collections for auction as they’re a mishmash of styles and values that’s impossible to sell. Still, in terms of the secondary market, Fowle calls the U.S. “a treasure trove.” There are lots of disparate collections where people have stashed away a few bottles for a rainy day that have now soared in value.
“Cadenheads are these short, black, dumpy bottles, and he just had hundreds of them, and they’re so cool,” says Fowle. “They’re just like really niche whisky.” The pandemic made traveling to assess the collection impossible and so the client—Bow Johnson‘s grandson’s wife—sent photos of hundreds of bottles stashed in their basement, with the collection eventually selling for about $1 million. “That was my Christmas 2020 during lockdown,” says Fowle. “I was just sitting in my parents’ upstairs room valuing the whole collection from photos.”
To demonstrate the importance of rarity, Fowle pours two whiskies that are no longer in production: a Port Ellen and a Brora. Both distilleries ceased operations in 1983 amid a spate of closures as Scottish blenders followed the public’s changing palate and moved away from the heftier malts, which had dominated during Victorian and Edwardian times. The residual stock for both distilleries are slowly released and fetch around a million dollars for 250-liter barrels. Collectors, it turns out, love a good backstory, and the nerdier and more obscure the better.
Still, there’s no competing with pedigree—and on that note Macallan has no rivals. Fowle pours me a dram of a Macallan Fine and Rare 1989, a much younger sibling from the same range as the $1.9 million record-breaker. It’s got a dark, almost molasses hue, and menthol notes similar to Fernet Branca that send collectors loopy. The Speyside distillery dating from 1824 is the number one trending scotch whisky in the world and values are incredibly inflated compared to competitors. “You could take whiskies from a different distillery and put Macallan on the label to double, triple or 10x their value,” says Fowle.
Given Macallan is incredibly inflated, however, collecting it is not for the faint-hearted. Ultimately, like any investment, there’s no substitute for knowledge, and trying lots of different whiskies isn’t the most burdensome evening class to enroll in. But it is expensive and time-consuming, so influential blogs like whiskyfun.com, run by whisky devotee Serge Valentin, are good places to start. “If you look at the high scores—93 plus—on whiskeyfun.com, and Google those bottles, they’re worth outrageous money. And some used to cost around [$20],” says Fowle. “It’s the worst-kept secret in whisky that as soon as a high score comes out from Serge, everyone loses their mind and pays a million dollars.”
So there you have it: quality, rarity and Macallan—the secret to investing in whisky. But as we pack up, Fowle springs a surprise: “do you want to try a $400,000 whisky?” Answer unrequired, and laden with depleted bottles, we troop upstairs to Fowle’s office, where inside awaits a small sample of Bowmore Onyx in a striking hand-blown brown bottle inspired by brooding rocks of the distillery’s island home of Islay. It’s a special edition that Bowmore created for a charity auction and fetched over twice its estimate.
It’s a delight: sweet fruit with earthy, nutty undertones, and a lingering warm finish. And that, ultimately, is Fowle’s final tip for investing in whisky: “At the end of the day, do you like the taste?”
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