Buying Old Bottles of Whisky: For drinking and Investment

It has been my experience here in Israel that most wine and spirits shop owners have not been aware of the increasing popularity of drinking whisky, (particularly Single Malts), and the new phenomenon of whisky collecting for investment, all around the world.
This is due to a number of factors I believe.
First of all, there has always been, up until very recently, incredibly high taxes on Scotch whisky (around 300% TAX), which Israeli whisky lovers have historically suffered since the founding of the state. There is a legend about the first Israeli minister of taxes who, due to being abused by some overzealous Scottish policeman during the British Mandate period, had taken his revenge out on Scotch Whisky and had taxed it so high, it was effectively banned here in Israel.
This has led understandably to extremely poor sales figures of Scotch in Israel. Any whisky found on people’s shelves had been bought in Duty Free stores at the airports at a fraction of the price of a retail shop here in Israel. It is only after the 2014 Tax reforms that Israelis have gradually started to take an interest in Scotch whisky and more and more brands have started to appear in the wine stores.
Historically, this has led to an almost complete lack of awareness and knowledge of the world of Scotch whisky. Even those who could afford it, were buying only those few brands which Israelis knew about. Consequently, any “off the radar” whiskies, (which effectively meant everything beyond the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet), brought in by over optimistic importers, has led to an awful lot of these forsaken bottles sitting on the shelves gathering dust for decades. These bottles which in Europe and North America, would have been sold within a few weeks or months, here in Israel, were gradually demoted to the top shelves, out of arms reach and pushed to the back to make way for the latest stock of more popular brands.
So, after the 2014 reforms when whisky prices more than halved in price, I started tentatively buying whisky in Israel for the first time. It was fascinating that only the new stock was priced at the new Tax rates. Price labels remained the same for older bottles.
However, I quickly became aware of a unique opportunity here. That the price labels of very old bottles had also not been replaced since they were originally put on the shelf. Not only that, but being totally unaware of their current market value, when asked, almost all shop owners were actually willing to sell these bottles at discount prices if only to get rid of them and make room for bottles with a faster turnaround. I simple search on some of the UK online whisky stores would inform me of the current value and this gave me an excellent guide to knowing what bottles to snatch up.
So began my personal (and grossly underfunded) project to rescue unappreciated old Scotch whisky.

The first of these bottles I ever bought was a Glendullan 12-Year-Old from the Flora and Fauna range. I noticed this bottle on the top shelf of two wine stores situated opposite each other, no doubt the bottles were originally sold to them by some wholesale supplier on the same day, many many years earlier. With its lack of box and bland beige label, they had both remained completely ignored. I started with the first store and casually asked its price and after checking the old price label and some negotiating, bought the first bottle for around a third of its market value in London. I then went straight across the road to the other wine store and showed them the receipt from the first place and asked what they were willing to sell their bottle to me for. I there upon got a further discount ending up with two lovely old bottles of Glendullan 12 Flora and Fauna.

The next month, after watching a Ralfy video about Balblair I was wondering through a wine store, looking up at the whisky shelves and noticed, way way at the back a grey coloured box of what looked like a Balblair. I asked to look at it and eventually, when they had brought the ladder from the back room, they brought the box down. In fact, the box was green but you wouldn’t have noticed until all the dust was wiped off. It turned out to be a 1990 Travel Retail Vintage. Again, after checking the price in a few UK online auction sites, I asked how much they would sell it to me. Looking at the original price tag they gave me a further 20% off, as after all, it was covered in dust, and I walked out with a rare 1990 Vintage having paid half the value of current UK prices.

A while later I was wondering through another wine store and came across two bottles of Scapa 14 and Scapa 16. I was aware that Scapa 14 was discontinued years ago and Scapa 16 had been discontinued only the year before. I asked the price of the 16-Year-Old and was told that they had some younger whisky, the 14-Year-Old bottles which they could sell me at a cheaper price. I then got a further discount buying all four bottles. Going back the week after, I noticed two more bottled of Scapa 16 on the shelf. I asked how many they had and offered to buy the remaining four bottles they had for a further discount.

Next came two bottles of Tamnavulin 12-Year-Old from the early 1990s. Because their boxes are white, they had suffered some dust stain damage but still in reasonably good condition. The owner gave me a discount over the original price label because the boxes were dirty.
Other bottles followed including Glencadam 21-Year-Old, Glenmorangie 15 (old 2005 bottling), Caol Ila 25, old bottlings of Caol 12 that came in the plain black box, Balblair 1997 Vintage and BenRiach “Dunder” Aged 18 Years Rum Limited Edition, (the fancy purple velvet box had a tiny amount of dust damage but otherwise, perfect condition).

More recently, I’m been snatching up bottles of the excellent but unfortunately now discontinued Glenlivet Nadurra 16-Year-Old which many shops are still selling at the same price as the current Nadurra Non-Age-Statement expression which replaced it. In the first store I found them, I asked them to check the price and told them that this Nadurra was different to the other NAS releases. The salesman checked in the computer and told me that this was indeed the correct the price. I asked him if I could get a discount if I bought all four bottles and he gave me another 5% off the total. Since then I have collected bottles of Nadurra 16 with various Batch codes which appear on the front of the box. I have to admit that I have opened and drunk some of these bottles and why not! Now the situation is that some stores are selling Nadurra 16 for between 600 and 800 shekels whilst other stores are still selling for the old price of 320 shekels! My advice. Grab them while you can!
Every bottle you find you will have to decide if you are buying it in order to open it straight away, keep it for a special occasion or put it in your investment collection to sell at a later date. The best situation is when you find two of the same bottles. That way, you can open one and share it with your family friends, the other keep for a rainy day.
I have developed my own personal buying guide over the years and would like to share this with you. Of course, you must have a background knowledge of discontinued bottlings. A good start are the online Whisky Auction sites. Once you have found your potential treasure, then begins the checking.
Box / Canister Damage

As mentioned above, many of these bottles have been sitting on shelves gathering dust and being pushed to the back for sometimes decades. Look for obvious cardboard box damage and scratches and dents on canisters. White or light coloured Cardboard boxes tend to suffer dust damage. Obviously, even heavy dust on metal cans can be wiped off but be careful trying to clean off cardboard boxes or canisters by applying Fresh-Ones (Baby-wipes) as they can often clean the dust off but remove the top paper layer along with it, permanently damaging the container.

Over the years, moisture in the air can rust the tin or tin lid and cause rust stains on the cardboard box as it has done here with this Glenmorangie 15. As long as the top is not badly rusted, I don’t see this as a major problem. Surface rust can be cleaned off but please be careful. Better to leave a bit of rust on cardboard than strip the top layer which is considered actual damage!

Label Condition and Import stickers
Look for fresh looking labels with no folds or tears. A special consideration here in Israel is the Hebrew language import labels. Today, the import labels are made of transparent plastic that can be easily peeled off.  However, on older bottles, the import Hebrew stickers were cheaply printed on large sticky paper labels which were sometimes glued directly on top of the original back label. This, as dealer in the UK told me, will affect the price if/when you come to sell the bottle.

Trying to remove the Hebrew Import label is a risky procedure as there is a high danger of tearing the original paper back label in the process. I have never actually tried using kettle steam to remove the stickers, (a similar trick was used by philatelists to remove postage stamps from envelopes), but this could well be something worth trying.
Almost all import stickers today are the plastic peel off types so damage due to import stickers is only applicable to very old bottles.
Bottle fill level.

Look for signs of acute evaporation in the bottle which indicates a loose seal or cork. If the fill level is lower than the bulge then my advice is, unless it’s a very rare whisky, it’s best to give this bottle a miss.
Original seal with embossed crest

There are YouTube videos showing empty bottles of rare whiskies for sale on Ebay going for hundreds of dollars. Yes, empty bottles! This is because the seller knows that there are criminals out there who will fill the bottles with brown liquid, (if you are lucky it will be cheap Blended whisky but usually it’s brown dyed water), and have some way of forging a seal over the cork.
It is usually quite obvious to spot a forged seal today but older bottlings, pre-1980s were very often amateurishly sealed by the distillery themselves with plain black plastic or silver foil and moulded onto the cork full of bubbles. Buyer beware! The only thing I can suggest is to ask permission of the seller if you can take a photo of the bottle. If they refuse, walk away. If they agree, take a few photos of the top and sides, go home and do some research.
One trick the video shows is to shake the bottle and watch for the bubbles to disperse. With alcohol at 40% abv or more, the bubbles will disappear within a few seconds. However, if you continue to see bubbles even after a few seconds then this is a sign that the liquid inside the bottle is low in alcohol or even a non-alcoholic liquid. Walk away!
Product code should be consistent with the release dates.

Distilleries might issue 2nd/3rd editions of the same expression but the 1st edition is worth a lot more. The artwork might be identical (or someone may have stuck a forged label on the bottle as well), but it’s the production code on the bottle that will give it away. The printed Production code shows the actual production date. The production stamp is usually found near the bottom of the bottle, horizontally printed in barely readable dot matrix characters.

Sometimes, it might have been printed at the back of the label and is viewable through the liquid of the bottle. If you cannot find it then try angling the bottle against a light. If you still cannot see it then walk away! If you see only a partial print or signs of someone attempting to rub it out then again, walk away!
Cork Sediment at bottom
Again, a good trick is to shake the bottle and look for brown sediment swirling around. Look at the bottom of the bottle for bits of cork. This is a sure sign that the cork has started to rot and the whisky is corked and probably oxidised. Walk away!
Decide what your budget is per month and stick to it. It is very easy to look at every find as the “Chance in a Life Time”.
Last and not least important, listen to the seller.
Ask him about the bottle. How long it’s been in the shop. Where did it come from? If you have a bad feeling about it or a bad feeling at the back of your mind, then trust those feelings and walk away! Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple if your instinct is telling you it could be rotten inside.
Have fun and happy hunting.  Drop me line, or better still, write a comment below and let me know about your great finds.


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