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'Holy Grail' of Whiskey Sells for Record Amount

A growing demand for premium aged scotch has fueled the practice of selling old, rare bottles at auction.
Rarest Whiskey

Whisky expert Charles MacLean with a bottle of The Macallan Valerio Adami 1926. 

A private buyer paid a record-high $1.1 million for a 750-milliliter bottle of single malt whisky at an auction in Edinburgh. With a standard pour of around 1.5 oz, that means each drink of the stuff would tally up to just over $63,000.

Not that this particular whisky may ever be drunk.

Known as the “Holy Grail” of whisky, it was aged for 60 years before being bottled in 1986 by the popular Scottish distillery Macallan, which had commissioned the leading pop artist Valerio Adami of Italy to design a label for the bottle.

Whisky, also commonly spelled whiskey, is the category of spirits that includes scotch and bourbon, as well as Irish, Canadian, Japanese and American whiskies. While bourbon can now come from outside of its birthplace of Bourbon County (although 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is still made in Kentucky), true scotch can be made only in Scotland.

Read more: How Kentucky Became the World's Bourbon Capital

Scotch was derived from an earlier drink, uisge beatha, which in Gaelic—the branch of the Celtic language traditional to the Highlands of Scotland—means “water of life.” In the late 19th century, when the phylloxera beetle laid waste to many of France’s vineyards, wine and brandy became increasingly scarce on the global market, and scotch moved in to take brandy’s place as a popular high-end spirit.

Today, scotch is sold in more than 200 countries. As of 2012, it represented nearly 4 percent of the Scottish economy, including about a quarter of the country’s exports, as well as a quarter of the food and drink exports for the entire United Kingdom. Thousands of different types of scotch are produced, with the results varying widely depending on the type of grain used, the blend, the distillery, age and type of cask. This vast array of choices and pedigrees allows distillers to charge a wide range of prices, from tens of dollars all the way up into the hundreds of thousands.

Scotch’s reputation as a high-end spirit has grown significantly over the past two decades, and it has increasingly become a badge of wealth and status. As recently as 2016, reports emerged of a worldwide shortage of single malt scotch—the type of scotch that is made only from malted barley and water in a single distillery—due to the increasing popularity of the beverage around the world, especially in Asia. That continent accounted for one-fifth of all scotch exports, or around a quarter of a billion bottles a year.

The growing demand for premium aged scotch has fueled the practice of selling old, rare bottles at auction, resulting in the ever-escalating prices that reached a high with the $1.1 million-dollar sale in Edinburgh.

Read more: The Salty History of the Magarita

Only 24 bottles were produced and no one knows how many of the original 24 bottles survive. One of them is thought to have been lost in the earthquake that hit Japan in 2011, while it’s believed another one has been opened and drunk. Bonhams in Hong Kong sold another of the Adami bottles earlier this year for around $1.06 million, setting the previous record.

This time, the winning bid was 700,000 pounds, or around $900,000, plus a sales premium of £148,000, bringing the total cost to just over $1.1 million. According to Bonhams, the buyer lived in Asia and made the winning bid by phone.

“It’s the Rolls Royce of malts,” Martin Green, a whisky specialist at Bonhams, told Reuters of the Macallan Valerio Adami that fetched the record price. He added that such rare bottles are usually bought as collector’s items, not to be drunk. “But it's an object of beauty in its own right—almost a museum piece."

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