“Why Is There a Strong Demand for Whisky in Asian Market?” – Specialist Sheds Light on the Whisky Market in China Over the Decade

The market for whisky has been red hot in the past few years with numerous record-setting events in the Hong Kong salesroom. The frenzy continues to bring extraordinary sale performance at auctions this year, which is demonstrated in Bonhams’ recent Fine & Rare Wine and Whisky Sale in Hong Kong. What’s the force that has driven up the demand for whisky over the past 10 years? We have invited Daniel Lam, Bonhams’ Director of Wine & Spirits, Asia, to share his thoughts.

Bonhams’ whisky auction has seen active participation from buyers around the globe

The ‘Ghost Series’ Japanese Whisky (7 bottles on the left) was sold for HK$930,000 and the one on the right (the 9th edition) was sold for HK$68,200 (US$8,689)

Before we look into the whisky market, let’s take a look at Bonhams’ recent sale performance in Hong Kong. One of the highlights that we introduced in our previous article was the ‘Ghost Series’ Japanese Whisky, seven bottles of which were sold in one lot for HK$930,000 (US$118,000) whereas the latest edition was sold for HK$68,200 (US$8,689). The series altogether sold for nearly HK$1m (US$127,405).

The top lot of the sale was a bottle of Macallan-1928 50-year-old, sold for HK$1.488m (US$189,000), double its presale estimate. The second top lot was a Dalmore Eos-1951 59-year-old that sold for HK$1,178,000, nearly three times its estimate of HK$400,000-500,000. The third top lot was a Macallan Lalique-55-year-old that sold for HK$1,016,800.

Macallan-1928 50-year-old was sold for HK$1,488,000

Dalmore Eos-1951 59-year-old was sold for HK$1,178,000

Macallan Lalique-55-year-old was sold for HK$1,016,800

Bonhams has been a leading auction house in the whisky market with a strong track record. Daniel is very optimistic towards the future of the market where he believes there is still full of potential since its growth has only started recently.

How has the auction market for whisky changed over the past decade? Tell us about Bonhams’ performance.

Daniel: We first started selling whisky in 2009 and we offered around 100 bottles only. A few years later, whisky was offered as part of our wine auction, accounting 10%-20% of the sale total at that time. In 2015, 2016, whisky contributed nearly half of the sale total of our whisky and wine sales. And the percentage rose to 70% last year so you can see the market for whisky has grown and the growth is likely to continue.

Daniel: We have also observed a growing number of whisky buyers, from about 10 to 20 people in 2009 to more than 100 room bidders in our salesroom during the peak. Nowadays, buyers and collectors are more mature, and they understand what they want. Some are looking for Japanese whiskies while some are looking for Scotch whiskies or old whiskies.

Daniel Lam, Bonhams’ Director of Wine & Spirits, Asia

Two bottles of whiskies were sold for record-breaking prices one after another in 2018. Can you tell us more about the record-breaking whiskies?

Daniel: Last May, we presented two bottles of 60-year-old Macallan with labels respectively designed by two artists (Peter Blake and Valerio Adami). These are special edition bottles as there were only 12 bottles of each label made. I heard about these two bottles a while ago, 6 or 7 years ago. When I tried to get the consignment, the owner asked for a pretty aggressive estimate at HK$3.5m for each, quite a sum for whisky at that time. These two bottles ended up selling for two times their estimates.

*The bottle with the Peter Blake label was sold for HK$7.96m/US$1.01m, a record price until it was broken by the bottle with the Valerio-Adami label, which was offered at the same sale and sold for HK$8.63m/US$1.1m

Two bottles of 60-year-old Macallan set auction records in Hong Kong


Valerio Adami (left) and Peter Blake

What are the most sought-after bottles in the whisky market?

Daniel: The leading one has to be Macallan because both its old and young whiskies are good choices for collecting. For example, only 400 bottles were produced for certain limited editions and each could sell for HK$4,000 after it was launched. But the price continues to go up and it could sell for threefold or fourfold the price in online sales. Bottles from independent bottlers are also popular among collectors. For example, the Samaroli whisky we are offering at the sale. (For more details about Saramoli whisky, please check out: Bonhams Presents Rare Whisky Bottles ‘Ghost Series’ and Samaroli in Hong Kong)

Daniel: There is a group of loyal fans for Japanese whiskies. One of the coveted Japanese distilleries is Karuizawa, which is now closed and no longer in production. Some of its early products, produced before 2013, are thus highly sought after. Yamazaki is another well-known distillery and its products also saw high demand in the market, like Yamazaki 18-year-old. And it is difficult to collect Hanyu’s Card Series.

*A bottle of Hanyu Ichiro's Malt-9 of Hearts from the Card Series was sold for HK$80,000 at Bonhams in 2017. Another bottle of the same kind was sold for HK$471,200 at Bonhams’ latest whisky sale in Hong Kong, recording a six-fold increase in value in only two years.

Hanyu’s Card Series

Hanyu Ichiro's Malt-9 of Hearts was sold for HK$471,200

Why has the demand for Japanese whisky increased over the past few years?

Daniel: There was a craze for Japanese whisky in Hong Kong in 2013 and 2014 and the buyers were mainly from Hong Kong, and some from Taiwan and Japan. There were not many buyers from the Mainland China. The craze started after a Japanese TV series ‘Massan’ that tells the story of ‘Father of Japanese Whisky’ Masataka Taketsuru (竹鶴政孝) was released.

Daniel: The TV show brought widespread media attention towards Japanese whisky, sparking wide-ranging discussions amongst Japanese on topics like Japanese whisky as an investment or interviews with Japanese whisky specialists. In 2014, we had an auction selling Japanese whisky and we saw a 300% increase in value in Japanese whisky. For instance, a Yamazaki 18-year-old which was no longer in production has risen in price from HK$800 to HK$3,000. Now the bottle is worth more than HK$6,000.


‘Massan’ that tells the story of ‘Father of Japanese Whisky’ Masataka Taketsuru

What’s the future trend in the whisky market?

Daniel: There are more people buying whisky in casks. Last year, we sold an American Hogshead cask from Macallan distillery for HK$3.43m (a record for the most valuable per bottle cask sold in auction worldwide). I also notice a number of Asian collectors started buying up to hundreds of scotch casks early this year.

Daniel: Yet, there are thousands of casks in Scotland. Picking good quality casks is not easy as the quality varies in great degrees. Inferior casks are usually used for blending and it is not easy to find casks of good quality.

An American Hogshead cask from Macallan distillery was sold for HK$3,430,000

Daniel: A number of buyers from Mainland China has begun taking part in the production process from buying scotch casks, choosing independent bottlers and bringing bottled whiskies back to Mainland China for retail. We see great demands in every province in China. Each cask can only yield a maximum of 500 bottles, which is a very small quantity given that the market in China is so vast.

What kind of stage is the China’s whisky market in?

Daniel: The whisky market in China has just started. China’s market is so huge and each province has its own unique preference. For example, people in Shanghai prefer Japanese whisky while people in Beijing prefer Scotch whisky. There are groups of whisky lovers in other places such as Chengdu in Sichuan and Changsha in Hunan.

Daniel: On average, at least one whisky-related fair is held in every province each month, attracting many customers from Taiwan and Singapore to pay a visit. We have been to some of them as well.

Whisky Fun in Chenghua last year

A wide range of whisky was offered at the exhibition

What’s the demographic of whisky collectors in Mainland China? Are they mostly seasoned collectors or young collectors?

Daniel: They are mostly young collectors, some of them are under 30 or even at the age of 25. Most of the clients, whisky drinkers and collectors in various provinces in China are relatively young.

Daniel: In the past, mainland collectors preferred wine or cognac and they are mostly in their fifties or sixties. I think there is no clear distinction between whisky and wine collectors since some people who like whisky also drink wine.

How does the taste of Chinese wine and whisky collectors differ from their counterparts from the west?

Daniel: About three to four years ago, Chinese collectors particularly like fancy packaging. One example is whisky in crystal decanters. But in recent years, they started looking for some old whiskies that are bottled in the 80s, probably distilled in the 60s or the 70s.

Macallan in Lalique crystal decanters

What are the key factors that whisky collectors need to take into consideration?

Daniel: If you are collecting whisky for tasting or drinking, you need to taste and see which one you like most. Maybe you like Sherry casks, peated whisky, or those with high alcohol content. In general, limited edition bottles are a good choice for storing value. Some people have a misconception that older whisky must be a better choice, which is not always true.

Laphroaig 1970 Samaroli, estimated at HK$20,000-26,000, was sold for HK$490,000

Daniel: Last year, we sold a bottle of 14-year-old Samaroli, distilled in 1970 and bottled in the 80s. It was specially produced for an Italian restaurant so there were around 200 bottles only. The Samaroli bottle was estimated at HK$20,000 and sold for more than HK$400,000. So you can tell how limited edition products are highly sought after in the market.