‘From Cask…’: Notes from a First Time Cask Owner

whole cask

 

Buying a whole cask of whisky is quite a large step up from buying even the fanciest of bottles. The most avid whisky lovers rarely make that step – until recently casks have been something for the industry to handle, not enthusiastic amateurs.

I say ‘until recently’, because we at Cask 88 have made it our mission since our inception to provide that opportunity to the most dedicated fans of Scotch; to become an indispensable part of the story of their favourite whisky. 

We aim to make buying a cask of whisky straightforward for anybody who wants to do so, whether it’s for investment, for bottling, to support a favourite distillery or to make friends envious. Cask 88 are there for the whole process – ‘from Cask to Glass’.

We understand that it can be quite an intimidating proposition. Casks are large, filled with more whisky than one could comfortably drink in a half-decade, and they’re safely stored in secure facilities that are out of the way and difficult to visit.

And, while it’s true that cask whisky gains value through maturation, and flavours ripen and develop over the cask’s life – the buying-in cost for owning a cask is not cheap.

Nonetheless, we have seen a steady increase in cask buyers since Cask 88 started trading – people are taking that step. I’ve sought out one of our recent clients to find out what buying a cask of Single Malt Scotch meant to him.

 

Mr. Gao

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Mr. Gao visiting the new Macallan distillery on his tour of Scottish whisky makers.

In the early 2000s, a young Chinese economics undergrad named Gao was belting his lungs out in a Karaoke bar in Mainland China. In addition to being a student of economic forces, he had also learned the finer techniques of KTV mastery. To maintain excellent singing form, good hydration and a little alcohol are perfect aides – and good KTV places happily provide. Between songs, Mr Gao’s eye wandered to the ‘Foreign Liquors’ section of the laminated menu. Blended Scotch Whisky. Red label, Black label. A bottle of green tea as a mixer. Hmm… not at all bad…

Mr Gao’s introduction to Scotch Whisky is not unusual – the whisky & green tea ‘highball’ was and still is a big hit in China. And it triggered something in him – a desire to drink more of Scotland’s spirit and learn more about it. His quest culminated in the ultimate commitment for any whisky fan – he purchased a cask in 2018.

 

A Fateful Trip

A quick note for people reading this article after the year 2020: ‘Travel’ was a historical concept in which people left the places where they spent most of their time in order to go to other places that they didn’t know so well. This ‘travel’ could be for business needs, or sometimes simply for pleasure. There is no modern equivalent.

 

In 2018, Mr. Gao – now a fully fledged lawyer – travelled to Scotland for a very specific purpose. He wanted to find the origin of the Scotch Whiskies he loved so well. By all counts, it sounds like a very successful trip. A start in Glasgow and then up to Speyside via Auchentoshan and BenRiach. Tours of the big dogs of Speyside followed; Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas. His enthusiasm even led him to testing the perimeter of Longmorn to see if he could learn any of their secrets. Longmorn, of course, was giving nothing away. Still, that’s worthy dedication to the cause!

It was on his Scottish tour that Mr. Gao finally saw casks of Scotch whisky in their natural habitat.

That’s my first time seeing a real cask of whisky – actually a lot of them in the warehouses. I think that’s when I came up with the idea of owning a cask. I’m a lawyer myself, so I don’t just care about buying it – it’s also about how you’re going to keep it. Back then I didn’t want to buy it and bottle it right away – I wanted to do something meaningful.”

Mr. Gao knew that the casks of whisky would be well taken care of in Scotland, and on his return to Hong Kong (where he was now based) he knew that he wanted a specific one. And, while looking for an agent to sell and look after a cask of whisky, he remembered us, having visited our office in Edinburgh.

 

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The shiny stills of Teaninich Distillery – a hidden gem of the Northern Highlands. Image Courtesy of the Spirits Business

The Right Cask at the Right Time

Mr. Gao did not have his heart set on whisky from a particular favourite distillery – sometimes it can be hard to choose just one. But he did have one very specific requirement – that the whisky in his cask had been distilled in January 2018. Why then? Mr. Gao’s first child had been born in that month of that year, and the whisky in the cask was not to be for Mr. Gao. It was for his son, in the fullness of time.

We had a few casks to offer from January 2018, among them a Teaninich. This is a Highland distillery beloved by enthusiasts for its clear and fresh style, but not nearly as widely known as some of its Highland or Speyside neighbours. Showing the proper due diligence, Mr. Gao bought an independently bottled Teaninich to see if this might be the whisky for him.

It most certainly was, and his own cask of Teaninich is now quietly maturing in a Scottish warehouse, under Mr. Gao’s ownership and our stewardship – waiting patiently for the right time.

“I bought the first cask in the hope that after 18 years I can give it to my son as a gift, when he finally becomes an adult. I’m not sure he’d enjoy it… probably not at 18!”

Not to worry – a whisky obsession is something that can slowly creep up on a person. And learning on your 18th birthday that your Dad has been forward thinking enough to get you a whole cask of it? That’s a pretty good head start!

 

Whisky Casks At Distillery
Casks of Whisky. They’ll happily wait for 15 years. Maybe more – it’s up to you.

It Runs in the Family

Mr. Gao got in touch with us again recently, seems he’s on the hunt for a second cask of whisky – was there something wrong with the first? Not at all – his second son was born in April 2019, and Mr. Gao has ended up with something of a family tradition.

“I thought that if I’ve done that for my elder son, I should probably do it for my younger son as well – so he doesn’t feel left out.”

This could end up being a very serious amount of whisky, especially if Mr. Gao is planning to extend the family still further. Still, I think this is a wonderful gift to one’s kids, and Dad will no doubt end up the beneficiary to the tune of a few drams. It’s also an excellent way to ensure a good supply of 18yo whisky, for not 18yo whisky prices – one just requires some patience.

As for the type of whisky, Mr. Gao is still deciding. He’s a firm fan of the Speyside style malt – Islay levels of peat still lead him to question –

“Are you sure this isn’t something that’s come from a hospital?”

There are almost 50 Speyside distilleries to choose from, so it’s hardly a limiting factor. Under consideration are the distilleries that favour sherry casks – maybe Glenfarclas or Mortlach – but Mr. Gao may go for Teaninich again, perhaps sensing some family politics brewing:

“It’d make things easier, so I don’t have to answer the question 15 years down the road {Why did you choose this for my elder brother, and this for me?!}”

 

Strengthening the bond.

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A personal cask of whisky comes with some non-negotiable bragging rights.

Even if the whiskies are eventually intended for Mr. Gao’s children, he is holding them in trust for the next 15-16 years. And it was his own love of the drink, cultivated over the years following that fateful night of Karaoke and green tea highballs, that led him to the point where he wanted to actively be a participant in the story of his whisky.

When I asked him whether owning a cask had led to him enjoying whisky even more, his answer was clear:

“I think it’s mutually reinforced – I like drinking whisky, now I own a cask – and owning a cask makes me want to drink more whiskies. I think the answer is yes!”

So this story has not yet ended – the ultimate fate of the whisky in the cask will be chosen 15 years from now, maybe even later. Until then, it’s a reassuring thought that some superb Scottish malt is patiently maturing, waiting to become a unique Gao family bottling of whisky. It even has some good value before that day, as Mr. Gao drily observes:

“Owning a cask of whisky, at minimum, is something to boast about in front of your friends, right?”

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