Cask strength

BUYING your own whisky direct from a distillery is the stuff of dreams; for a boys’ own adventure, it sits right up there. When you invite the chaps back after a round of golf, what better way to impress than to pour a dram of your very own single malt Scotch whisky.

Growing numbers of people are choosing to do this by purchasing casks from obliging distilleries. Such is the demand for Scotch whisky worldwide at present (exports were up 20 per cent in the first ten months of 2011) that new distilleries have been springing up across Scotland.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association’s regulations, newly made spirit must lay in oak casks for a minimum of three years and a day before it can be bottled and sold as whisky. With many markets demanding older liquid – in many cases the maturation period most distilleries are looking for will be between ten and thirty years – this forward planning provides a bit of a black hole in the cash flow for new distilleries. One good way to ease this fiscal rub is to sell casks of whisky in advance.

Bruichladdich, on the famous whisky island of Islay, was founded in 1881. After a series of passing ownerships, the distillery was closed in 1994 before being bought and reopened in 2000 by an independent group of businessmen. Once the stills were fired up again and the distillery profile refined, there was always going to be a sizable gap between the first fruits of the re-born distillery and their newly made whisky hitting the shelves.

Managing director Mark Reynier says: “We did cask sales right from the start. Firstly, it was all about cash flow. But more important for the long-term future of Bruichladdich, it was to give people who couldn’t afford to be shareholders some ownership of the project.”

At present, casks at Bruichladdich range from £1,300 for a basic American Oak ex-Bourbon barrel up to £2,200 for a French Oak ex-Sweet Wine version holding approximately 225 litres of new spirit. These prices may seem good for so much liquor, but this is a quote without VAT and duty.

Raynier continues: “It’s very important to stress that buying a cask it is not an ‘investment’ as such; we need to be very careful about making such a link. It’s best to think about buying it as a gift. We get a lot of people purchasing for grandchildren or godchildren. People often forget that there is one hell of a Customs & Excise bill to pay before you get the hooch.”

It is vital to remember that you can’t sell the whisky on, unless you hold the relevant licences, so buying a cask is very much a gifting opportunity. Duty alone is currently calculated at £25.52 per litre of pure alcohol, so even if you end up with 200 litres of whisky at 60 per cent abv, you’re looking at £3,062.40 in duty. Before an additional 20 per cent VAT is added. Ouch.

However, it is not just the newer distilleries looking to ease their cash flow who offer individual casks for sale. Established names such as Glenfarclas and the Macallan, both located in Speyside, give investors the chance to purchase individual casks.

George Grant, Director Of Sales at Glenfarclas (and the sixth generation of Grant family to be involved at the distillery) says: “We do sell casks but we will not let buyers leave it in the warehouse. If you show some interest, we invite you to come to the distillery, sample some casks and once one is chosen, we bottle and label it under our Family Cask series, the prices of which depend on the age of the whisky.”

Across the river Spey at the Macallan, casks are offered “En Primeur” where each year a few lucky customers can purchase a cask of spirit made using barley grown on the distillery’s own estate – watch it being filled and, 12 years later, you can have it bottled.

This programme also comes with a host of other goodies, such as a sample of the new “make spirit” to keep and photographs from the filling day.

Having a few bottles of your own whisky to open, pour and savour is the ultimate indulgence. After all, as someone wise once said of beer, “why have a six-pack, when you can have a barrel?”