For Whiskey Collectors, It’s Unicorn Season

In the midst of the pandemic, the secondary whiskey market has been flooded with rare bottles, at even rarer prices.

“It’s the busiest it’s ever been, the most active I’ve ever seen it in history,” says Pablo Moix. “Everyone is selling, everyone is buying, everyone is haggling.”

The co-owner of Los Angeles–based vintage spirits mecca Old Lightning, a bar tucked into the back of an Italian restaurant in Venice, is referring to whiskey’s secondary market. As the COVID-19 crisis persists, it’s become as volatile as the S&P 500 with prices for bottles like George T. Stagg fluctuating by the hour. Before the pandemic hit, that crown jewel of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection had held steady at $500; bottles have recently sold for as low as $250. Collectors who lost their jobs, especially those in the hospitality industry, are scrambling to unload bottles to keep cash coming in, while those who are still flush are looking to take advantage of plunging prices.

“A lot of people are hurting, and I can see why people would want to flip desirable bottles,” says Wally Dyer, the brains behind Scotch N Sniff, a popular spirits-focused Instagram account and review site.

More than a month after the mandate to close bars across much of the globe went into effect, it’s not only individual whiskey collectors who are being forced to make tough decisions. Many whiskey-focused bars, sitting on millions of dollars of inventory, are opting to offload their rare bottles to support their laid-off employees or otherwise keep the business afloat.

In California, where bars and restaurants are temporarily permitted to sell alcohol to go, Moix has listed many of Old Lightning’s rarest and most coveted bottles—with prices ranging from $100 to upwards of $10,000. The income generated from the sale of hundreds of high-value bottles, and sundry goods from his Italian-focused restaurant, Scopa, has allowed him to retain 90 percent of his kitchen staff for at least part-time work.

“I had every Macallan Cask Strength at every proof, from the Red Label on, and one guy took all of it,” says Moix, referring to a popular series of bottlings that were discontinued in 2012. He laments not being able to get a final sip of a few of them. “It hurt, but I had to not think about myself. I had to think about the people that work here.”

Across the country, in Washington, D.C., Jack Rose Dining Saloon began liquidating all 2,700 of its bottles starting on March 20, after Mayor Muriel Bowser enacted a relief bill that allowed for the practice. Known for having one of the largest whiskey collections in the nation, whiskey geeks lined up, six-feet apart, around its Adams-Morgan block to buy not just unique bottlings of Willett Family Estate and Blanton’s, but also 1-ounce pours from open bottles that had been repackaged in tiny, sealed, samplers to go. At $100-plus per pour, prices were as much as 50 percent off.

“When we come out of this, on the other side, I want to be debt-free and get everyone back to work,” said owner Bill Thomas in announcing his plan. “That means selling a shit ton of whiskey.”

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, selling bottles to go still isn’t allowed by state law, so the James Beard Award–winning bar Cure has taken a different approach to fundraising. Since March 21, owner Neal Bodenheimer has been auctioning off rarities from his personal collection. Every day, he posts a bottle on Cure’s Instagram page, such as Weller Full Proof or 1988 Rebel Yell, soliciting bids via DM.

“I didn’t know what I’d ever do with these cool bottles, they never had an express purpose since [Cure] has never had a vintage spirits program,” he explains. So far he’s been able to pull in enough money to distribute $500 to each of his 20 furloughed employees. “I’m not that emotionally attached to these bottles. If it gives someone else joy and helps fund our team, that’s great.”

In some ways, bars that have access to rare bottles were left with little choice but to sell them. (The federal government, after all, has hardly offered any support to non-chain establishments.) As Moix notes, it would be fruitless to sell bottles of, say, Tito’s or Grey Goose, since he couldn’t possibly offer competitive prices compared to big-box retailers like BevMo! or Total Wine. The alternative is to move their most unique bottles, discontinued labels and private single barrels that the chain stores simply can’t offer. One restaurant in Tampa, Florida, for example, sold a highly collectible bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old for $40,000.

Even while collectors are taking advantage of the buyer’s market, it doesn’t come without concerns over the future of the industry. “How does a bar with legendary status regain that status after it sells off all of its insane stock?” asks Dyer, who drove 19 miles to Jack Rose in early April to acquire an SMWS Glenfarclas bottling from 2003 and a Willet “Return of the Mac” single barrel. Thomas had spent more than a decade building Jack Rose’s world-class backbar, dusty-hunting across the country before most collectors even knew the term, and now he’s been forced to watch as those hard-won bottles are once again scattered across the country. Dyer, for his part, is cautiously optimistic about what the future holds. “Bill [Thomas] and Harvey [Fry, Jack Rose’s single malt consultant] are both able to work magic when it comes to acquiring insane bottles,” he says, “so I think they’ll rebuild bigger, badder and more prepared than ever.”

Moix believes that for bars like Old Lightning it’s not just about weathering the storm; they will still need to be viable businesses when the storm passes. That’s why he’s not just selling his bottles, he’s also acquiring rarities like never before.

“It’s unicorn season!” he jokes, noting how high-value bottles like Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old have significantly dipped in price due to the widespread need for fast cash. “You want Yamazaki 18?” he asks of the highly coveted Japanese whisky. “I got a guy who could get you 70 bottles right now. Dealers you didn’t know existed have come out of the woodwork.” He calls the secondary whiskey market at the moment the Wild Wild West.

Moix has started posting his wants on his personal Instagram account, hoping to connect with fellow service industry professionals who are out of work and might be in need of a quick cash injection. He is also actively contacting other bar owners with well-known collections, including Jamie Boudreau of Canon in Seattle, to see if they’re interested in selling items from their backbar. Meanwhile, he’s been fielding calls daily from people hoping to liquidate their collections.

“I’m trying to create a microeconomy,” Moix explains. “Maybe there’s some [furloughed] bartender who has a bottle of Michter’s 20 from 2016—I’d rather give that kid some cash than a random dude in the Midwest.”

He does worry, however, about the ways that consumer behavior will change once the smoke clears—he jokes that everyone might go Ready Player One and continue drinking virtually—though he’s certain his bar will provide a space that draws drinkers back. And that’s why he keeps acquiring whiskey.

“I’m planning when Old Lightning reopens, on day one, to have the strongest offerings you’ve ever seen,” says Moix. “I want people to come in skeptical: ‘Oh, what can they possibly have on the shelves now?’ And then they look… ‘FUUUUUUUCK.’

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