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How to buy a whisky cask

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If you’re looking to acquire your own cask of whisky, there’s plenty of choice out there but, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Richard Woodard investigates.

Lagg distillery cask and sunset
All your own: The newly operational Lagg distillery is one of many to offer casks for sale

The frustrating thing about new whisky distilleries is that everyone has to wait so long for the mature product to appear. That means owners potentially not getting a return on their investment for a decade or more; and drinkers waiting just as long to taste the whisky.

Cask purchase schemes can help to ease the pain on both sides. Distillers get a nice chunk of cash flow to keep the bankers happy, while their customers can secure themselves a ready supply of mature whisky in the years to come, charting the evolution of the spirit along the way. Typically, by purchasing early and in large quantities, they’re saving money too.

No shock, then, that so many distillery start-ups offer some form of cask purchase scheme to private buyers. But, with prices varying hugely and each scheme including subtly different benefits, how do you know which one to choose? And what is the real cost of cask ownership?

In its simplest form, a cask purchase scheme is exactly that: you contract to pay an agreed sum to buy a cask, which is then left to mature for a set period before bottling. Your outlay is split between the initial purchase price, covering ownership, warehousing and insurance, and the final bill when the cask is released – duty at the prevailing rate, plus VAT (if you’re buying within the UK) and bottling costs.

But, as ever, the devil is in the detail. Does that initial purchase price include visiting your cask at the distillery? Does it cover the cost of samples as your whisky matures? Do you have to pay for bottling? What additional benefits are included?

Inchdairnie cask

Added benefits: InchDairnie’s cask scheme is expensive, but has many incentives

Then there’s the whisky and the cask: do you have a choice of distillate (eg peated/unpeated; double- or triple-distilled)? Can you choose cask type and size? Is there any flexibility in terms of maturation period?

Let’s take InchDairnie as an example. The Fife distillery offers one of the most expensive schemes out there, with the 2019 release, limited to only 30 casks, set at £8,500 each.

In return, you get a unique seasonal distillate that is one of the building blocks of the InchDairnie single malt, matured in a specific cask (in 2019, it’s spring distillate in a first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel; in 2020, summer, in an ex-Rioja wine cask).

You also get to visit the distillery, which isn’t open to the public, on the day your personally stencilled cask is filled, along with lunch in the boardroom, a tour, a nosing/tasting of the various distillates, two 10cl samples a year (one to drink, one to keep) and a small display cabinet in which to house them.

Over the 12-year maturation period of your cask, you can visit the distillery three times with friends (six people in total), see your cask and have lunch. Bottling, with bespoke labels, is included and, once the cask is released and all duty and VAT paid, the InchDairnie team will come to your chosen venue for a personal nosing and tasting of your whisky. You also get to keep your stencilled cask end.

‘It’s not just a cask purchase,’ says InchDairnie MD Ian Palmer. ‘It’s about building long-term relationships with individuals and small groups of people. It’s all about building our brand through working with individuals who are enthusiastic, and we want to share that with people.’

The Borders distillery

Borders value: The new distillery’s scheme is one of the less expensive on offer

InchDairnie is only one example of the ways in which distilleries are tailoring these schemes to the wishes of individuals. The purchasers of 100 of the first casks filled by Holyrood distillery in Edinburgh can tweak barley roasting times, yeast, ‘distillation approach’ and cask type following a ‘flavour consultation’ with head distiller Jack Mayo and co-founder David Robertson.

The scheme offered by Borders distillery is at the less expensive end of the spectrum (£1,995 initial outlay), but purchasers still get to choose from five cask types (first-fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon, rye, European wine, rum) and can specify a fill date, as long as it’s not a Sunday. They also get to track the maturation of their cask via a smartphone app, can visit it annually, and receive six free distillery tour tickets.

Meanwhile, Isle of Arran Distillers’ new Lagg distillery offers membership of the Lagg Cask Society with an initial cost of £6,000 per cask, but also offers a bottle drawn from Lagg’s first cask, invitation to the annual Lagg Cask Society Day, overnight stay with dinner at the Lagg Hotel, a place on the distillery Wall of Fame, free distillery tours with 10% discount off whisky purchases, and a golf pass.

The message is to look beyond the headline price to consider additional benefits, extra costs and to pick apart the detail of those inevitable Ts & Cs.

‘Be very clear as to why you are buying the cask,’ says Isle of Arran Distillers MD Euan Mitchell. ‘If it is a financial investment, be very aware that whisky values can go down as well as up.

Lagg distillery

New venture: Lagg distillery on the Isle of Arran is offering a limited number of casks

‘Also, a barrel of whisky will normally provide over 200 bottles after 10 years’ maturation – what is your plan for the stock? Be very aware of the duty and VAT implications of the cask purchase as well – the initial purchase price is just part of the equation.’

As cask purchases become more popular and increasingly diverse, Ian Palmer believes a little more transparency wouldn’t go amiss. ‘Owning a cask is a great experience for the enthusiast and I don’t want to see that shut down,’ he says.

‘But it would be good to have some industry-wide guidance to make sure that’s all kept right – just a little bit of clarity.’ For instance, he points out, the whisky drawn from a cask is strictly for the purchaser’s personal use, or gifting; you can’t sell it on. But if someone makes multiple cask purchases, how realistic is that?

‘Do your due diligence,’ adds John Fordyce, director and co-founder, Borders distillery. ‘I know it’s a fun purchase, but it’s a fun purchase that has to be taken seriously. The compliance requirements are strict, so you want to approach it in a sensible and serious fashion.’

SELECTED CASK PURCHASE SCHEMES

This is a simplified guide to some of the cask purchase schemes on offer. Contact the distillery and visit its website for further details, including those vital terms and conditions.

Estimated final bottle prices have been calculated using today’s UK rates of excise duty – £28.74 per litre of pure alcohol, or £9.24 per 70cl bottle at 46% abv – but this is likely to be materially higher in, say, 10 years’ time. Also included is UK VAT at 20%. Overseas purchases will incur local tax liabilities instead. You may also have to pay extra for shipping.

Ardnamurchan distillery

Cask variation: Ardnamurchan has a variety of wood types available for sale

ARDNAMURCHAN PRIVATE CASKS

A ‘small number’ of casks are released each year on a first come, first served basis. These include peated or unpeated spirit filled into ex-Bourbon barrels (190 litres); American or Spanish oak ex-Sherry hogsheads (250l); or American or Spanish oak ex-Sherry butts (500l).

Initial purchase price: £2,400-6,600, including 10 years’ storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: Yes

Can you visit your cask?: Yes, by prior arrangement

Samples available?: Yes, additional fee

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv): £22.50-25.00

BORDERS PRIVATE WHISKY CASKS – 1837

The Borders is the first whisky distillery to open in the Scottish Borders since 1837 – hence the scheme’s name, and the release of 1,837 casks for private purchase.

Five cask types – first-fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon, rye, European wine, rum – are available, along with the option to specify filling date (Sundays excluded).

Initial purchase price: £1,995, including 10 years’ storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: Yes

Can you visit your cask?: Yes, by prior arrangement

Samples available?: Yes, additional fee

Other benefits?: Yearly update via 1837 app; six free distillery tour tickets per year; exclusive merchandise

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv): £19-20

Glasgow distillery casks

Different distillates: Glasgow offers unpeated, peated and triple-distilled spirit

GLASGOW DISTILLERY CASK CLUB

Glasgow offers three distillate types – unpeated, unpeated triple-distilled and peated – in 200-litre ex-Bourbon casks.

Initial purchase price: £3,125-3,750, including five years’ storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: No

Can you visit your cask?: Yes, by prior arrangement

Samples available?: Yes

Other benefits?: Cask ownership certificate; distillery visits, tastings and tours on request

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv; excludes bottling): £24.50-27.15

INCHDAIRNIE CASK OWNER’S CLUB

The Fife distillery releases only 30 casks a year for private sales and specifies a minimum 12 years’ maturation, but includes a package of additional benefits in the deal.

Each year focuses on a different seasonal distillate and cask type, as follows:

  • 2019: Spring distillate, first-fill Bourbon barrel (200 litres)
  • 2020: Summer distillate, Rioja wine cask (225 litres)
  • 2021: Autumn distillate, Tuscan wine cask (225 litres)
  • 2022: Winter distillate, first-fill oloroso Sherry cask (225 litres)
  • 2023: Kinglassie peated malt, first-fill Bourbon barrel (200 litres)

Initial purchase price: £8,500, including 12 years’ storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: Yes

Can you visit your cask?: Yes

Samples available?: Yes, 2x10cl/year included plus display cabinet

Other benefits: See cask filled at distillery, including tour, tasting, lunch; further distillery visits/lunch with group of friends; final tasting at venue of your choice; cask-end stencil

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv): £41-44

LAGG CASK SOCIETY

Isle of Arran Distillers will only release 700 casks of peated spirit for private purchase from its newly opened distillery at Lagg, in the south of the island, during the first 10 years of its operation.

Initial purchase price: £6,000, including minimum 10 years’ storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: No

Can you visit your cask?: Yes, by prior arrangement

Samples available?: Yes, 50cl per year, additional fee

Other benefits: Bottle drawn from Cask No 1; invitation to annual Lagg Cask Society Day; overnight stay with dinner at Lagg Hotel; name on distillery Wall of Fame; free distillery tours; 10% discount on whisky purchases; Arran Golf Pass

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv): £36.80

Lindores Abbey cask end

Different strokes: Lindores Abbey has varying cask types and payment options

LINDORES ABBEY CASK OWNERSHIP

Lindores Abbey offers a wide array of cask types, from smaller firkins and quarter-casks up to Sherry butts and Port pipes. There are also two payment options, including one with a reduced one-off payment where Lindores retains two-thirds of the whisky.

Initial purchase price: From £1,100, excluding warehousing costs

Bottling cost included?: No

Can you visit your cask?: Yes

Samples available?: Yes, on VIP access days

Other benefits: Certificate of ownership; name on distillery wall plaque; visit distillery to fill cask and have lunch; annual visit on VIP access days; advance notification of special bottlings; exclusive events

Estimated total cost (70cl, cask strength): £38.60

NCN’EAN EARLY CASK OFFER

West coast distillery Ncn’ean is offering only 60 of its early casks for purchase, with the option of ex-Bourbon or STR (shaved, toasted, recharred) ex-wine casks.

While five years’ maturation is included in the basic package, this can be extended to 10 years, which involves the creation of a distinctive distillate with different mashing, yeast and cut points. You can also see your cask filled at the distillery.

Initial purchase price: £3,000-3,900 (five years); £3,500-4,400 (10 years); including storage/insurance

Bottling cost included?: No

Can you visit your cask?: Yes

Samples available?: Yes, 1x10cl sample/year

Other benefits: Name on cask; certificate of ownership; open invitation to visit distillery

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv; after five years): £27-29 

RAASAY DISTILLERY CASKS

The island distillery of Raasay offers two types of cask – a conventional, ex-American whiskey barrel, and a small, 30-litre ex-Speyside whisky cask yielding about 40 bottles after the minimum legal maturation period of three years. Peated spirit will be available later in 2019.

Initial purchase price: £999 (30-litre casks); £5,000 (ex-American whiskey barrels), including storage/insurance for three and 10 years respectively

Bottling cost included?: No

Can you visit your cask?: Yes, at special events

Samples available?: Yes, at special events

Estimated total cost (70cl, 46% abv): £50 (30-litre cask); £45.50 (barrel)

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