My Definition of Rare Whisky
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
By definition, rare means
not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value.
In terms of whisky, however, what exactly is a 'large number?" Discussions with collectors and drinkers alike have made me realize different people have different definitions of rare whisky. However, I will occasionally make statements about rarity on this blog, so I wanted to make sure my personal definitions were clear.
Rare whisky are bottles that aren't found in large numbers. To me this means single casks and rare blends. In my personal opinion, a rare blend has a total number of bottles released between 500-1500. Anything higher than that and its really not that rare.
Single casks are rare because they come from a single cask, so there are inherently a low number of bottles filled from each cask (depending on age, environment, location, and cask type we typically see 50-600 bottles per cask). Additionally, single casks are unique by nature and the specific flavor of one cask is very hard to replicate again (unlike standard blends in which distilleries have many many casks available to blend to shape a familiar flavor profile). That's why there are famous casks.
Blends are either pure malt or blended (malt + grain) whisky. Typically, the distilleries will take a few aged barrels and blend them together. There are a lot of special edition blends out there, especially from Suntory and Nikka, and a lot have quite large outturns. To me, unless you're hovering around 1500 bottles or less for the blend, you start to move into the "kinda rare" category. Why? Because the whisky community is not THAT big, and I guess I don't really have a better more scientific reason 😅 The rare blends I have seen typically have extremely old whisky or high quality casks blended together.
The above are rare (from left to right, clockwise): Hanyu single cask, karuizawa single cask, 1967 40 year John Scott's Highland Park single cask, the Nikka 40 year blend, Suntory Rolling Stones blend
In general, the rarest of the rare come from closed distilleries like Karuizawa, Hanyu and Kawasaki. Of course, this is because no new bottles will be in circulation, and the profile of special blends are unlikely to be recreated (unlike the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2009-2016 blend series. Each year of release, the flavor profile is quite similar. This is a 'kinda rare' release in my opinion).
Then of course, there are very old bottles that have extremely high reviews and sometimes fetch big money at auctions, but were common releases back when they were originally released - for example white horse lagavulin 16. This is now an expensive whisky due to high quality distillate, exceptional reviews, and the fact that most of these were consumed in the 80's/90's when they were around and relatively cheap. They might be considered rare these days due to the majority of the bottles were consumed, so the total available is likely quite low. However, as many of these were mass produced and not super limited releases, I will lump them into the 'kinda rare/uncommon' category
Kinda rare and uncommon whiskies by my own definition cannot be single casks, but they can be blends with total bottles released >1500. Not super rare, but kinda rare 😄
From left to right, the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 and the Hanyu Colored Joker from the famous Card Series.
These bottles are pure malt blends, and while they are all expensive, in my opinion they are not super rare - both of them have >1500 bottles released (5000 and 3690, respectively). A single cask by definition alone is more rare than both of these bottles. Why do people call these rare then?
I think a big part of it is due to very good reviews and that these bottles are highly advertised on IG. With respect to the reviews - these guys are readily available at many high ends bars, so lots of people can try them (granted they are both pretty damn tasty). The reviews go up, more people try, and the circle repeats and these become the stuff of legend. However, by sheer numbers, I just think they are kinda rare.
Not Rare (but coveted):
From left to right: Yoichi 20, Hibiki 30, Hakushu 18
These whiskies are not rare. They were released in generous quantities, and over time have been lauded as fantastic/very good by a lot of people as they used to be easy to come by and would actually be opened and shared. As the stock got lower once the Japanese whisky craze took off, these got more expensive and harder to find. Flippers hoard them by the dozen and slowly sell them off as auction prices rise. Thus, they are now quite expensive and some are more harder to find than others or release is limited to airports/allocated shops.But, to repeat, these were released in very large numbers and are only now hard to get. From left to right: Yoichi 20, Hibiki 30, Hakushu 18
Then there are the other standard releases and 20,000 bottle "limited editions" from all the distilleries around the world. All of these are common bottles in my opinion, and definitely not rare.
Rare does not always equal good
Okay, now that we know how I will be defining rare, it must be said that just because a bottle is rare or expensive does not mean that it tastes good. I have had many single casks bottles that are frankly terrible and should have been used for blends. I recommend trying all bottles before you buy, and if that's not possible, find a few reviews from trusted palates to make sure you will be happy with your purchase! It will save you regret and precious space on your shelves 😅
Finally, if you are investing for the long term, in my opinion truly rare bottles are the way to go. They will continue making hakushu 18, hibiki 30, and Yoichi 20. Sure some years may taste better than others, but if you're going for investment returns I would imagine that bottles that can't be made again will fetch more than mass produced bottles.