The secondary market for American whiskey, be it the more shadowy corners of social media or the legitimized operations of auction websites, long has been a hotbed for dramatic bottle purchases in the hundreds and thousands of dollars above MSRP. Pappy Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and older age statement Willett and Heaven Hill whiskeys are just a handful of those that come to mind in this regard.

These brands and others have in common that they herald from established distilleries with legacies stretching back well before the latest whiskey renaissance. While their higher-end expressions have historical track records of dramatic secondary market price increases, some newer distilleries, revived brands, and non-distilling producers that have more recently emerged (think WhistlePig, High West, Rare Character, and Smoke Wagon) are seeing their offerings hitting dramatic secondary price increases of their own.

With all the newer brands entering the secondary market, what factors drive success versus mediocrity in what takes off in value? Not every new bottle will immediately be a Pappy, but the potential does exist for that cult-like rush that finds people camping out in front of stores or hitting the virtual bid button in an all-out effort to secure the prize.

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Newer Bottles, Newer Buyers

With the rush of newer collectible whiskeys coming to the secondary market, so, too, have come a newer wave of buyers looking to get into the game at different price points. “I think people who want to play in that space … find that there are different leagues, if you will,” says noted American whiskey writer Chuck Cowdery. “A given individual gets into this and says, ‘I can’t play in the Pappy league. I can’t play in the Antique Collection league. I don’t have that kind of resources. I’ve got to find someplace where I can play.’”

Sotheby’s global head of whiskey, Johnny Fowle, takes the perspective that newer players to the game are also trying to find a space that’s not as crowded or overhyped.

“With newer or less established secondary market brands, you have a new wave of collectors who are trying to pick up something which isn’t so highly contested,” says Fowle. “I think it’s a case of finding the thing that’s not oversaturated in terms of popularity and finding the thing that proportionally gives you the best return.” This could mean easy finds for some willing to take less hyped bottles or hard-fought battles for others looking for that ultimate score. “Not that everyone’s in it for investment, but at least you know you’re making a good purchase,” Fowle adds.

Newer Whiskey Fish in the Secondary Market Ocean

A cruise onto a whiskey auction site, such as Chicago-based Unicorn Auctions, reflects how newer brands are seeing high secondary values. Consider, for example, WhistlePig The Boss Hog 1st Edition Spice Dancer offering. According to WhiskyCast, this release came to market in 2013 at a price point of just $150. Jump forward to auctions in recent years, and it is regularly clearing out wallets in a range of virtual auction hammer drops ranging from $7,500 to over $13,000.

Factors identified by the auctioneers that can come into play in what drives these newer distilleries and brands’ bottle valuations range greatly, with everything from branding, reviewer/influencer evaluations, and the shape of the bottle to sourcing, limited availability, uniqueness, age statements (if any), batch sizing and even mash bills having potential weight.

“I would say WhistlePig is probably the lead character,” notes A.J. Heindel, co-founder of Unicorn Auctions, “because their oldest releases have started to command very serious money, almost more so than you’d get for modern-day Van Winkle or anything. They really have built this legacy brand, and you see that extrapolation in price from MSRP to secondary linearly based on how old the releases are.”

“Supply and demand dictate market cost. These bottles are constantly at auction, and clearly there are people who are willing to pay those costs.”

WhistlePig, as Heindel mentions, showcases a secondary market value staggeringly in line with the old high-end guard. Its Boss Hog bottlings, known for being of outstanding quality, combine with a growing legacy-like nature that has moved WhistlePig’s brand in general in an upward direction in popularity, driving the desire to acquire older expressions at more premium prices.

But it’s not just WhistlePig. One also sees exaggerated pricing for select Smoke Wagon and Blood Oath expressions, among others.

For Blood Oath, a high-end, yearly release from Lux Row Distillers that’s a limited edition, Heindel notes collectors find value in it as a series. Those buying into later bottlings will chase down previous releases, which, because they’re already scarce, will, in turn, drive prices up.

Finding the Real Value

For all that those say on the auction side, however, it is collectors who are driving the ship. Do they agree these various factors drive their buying habits, or are there other things they consider?

For Benzar00, a newer whiskey collector of just two years who is active on Reddit (he asked his online handle be used instead of his name), the key is finding the sweet spot for value, collectibility, and price. He is also of the type willing to “significantly” overpay — to an extent.

“I think there will probably always be people who want to be in [it] for one reason or another, either because they really do like to obtain whiskey that way or because they enjoy the game.”

“Rare Character Exceptional Series is harder to come by,” he says, “with an MSRP of $250 for the 14-year, and resale of about $300-350. I paid $300, [which] is the most I’ve paid for a ‘newer’ brand. [This] is a single malt product which promised a unique and different tasting experience than the traditional bourbon,” he adds. “At this point, I am willing to pay a premium for a ‘unique’ tasting experience.”

Benzar00 also offers perspective on what it is like to be one of the smaller guys in a much larger, overhyped whiskey-buying pool.

“Supply and demand dictate market cost. These bottles are constantly at auction, and clearly there are people who are willing to pay those costs. They most likely have a larger budget than I do, so I get priced out of the game a little.”

Benzar00’s reflection showcases how the secondary/auction market continues to exist as a type of vastly bloated bubble. How long the market will run like this, with an ever-increasing amount of newer bottlings slipping into the secondary pipeline and seeing some version of the hype overtake them, remains to be seen, however.

“I think there will probably always be people who want to be in [it] for one reason or another, either because they really do like to obtain whiskey that way or because they enjoy the game,” Cowdery muses. But things are getting to a point where so much is coming to market that there just may not be enough interested buyers to go around. “You may find some brands that come roaring trying to get into that space that just don’t make it, and fail as a result. I think we will see some of that,” Cowdery says.

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