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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff
Saturday, 03 December 2011 02:45

A Whisky Bubble May Be Out There

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I have no problem with people who want to collect whisky.  Good luck to them.  I collect rocks so I shouldn't throw stones (the goods news though is that I have lots of stones to throw if required).  However I do have a slight question about what they are actually collecting if there is no intention to drink it.  It seems to me, to paraphrase Jim Martin, The Malted Muse (www.themaltedmuse.com) that whisky is a drink.  Every definition describes it as a drink.  You drink whisky.  Therefore if you have no intention of drinking the stuff in the bottle, whatever it is, it cannot be whisky as it is not a drink.

As for whisky as investment, after 21 years in the oil and gas industry and watching oil prices rise and fall, it struck me that whisky is just another commodity to trade and the phenomenon of rising prices and the meteoric rise of the WM index in Whisky magazine, which if I am reading it right has increased by 300% in just 2 years,  has the potential to be another investment bubble as people are buying whisky which while in short supply or rare right now, it could be available in greater quantities in the future, and will be, if prices continue to rise.

This is the same phenomenon we see with oil, with the recent oil peak of $147 / bbl in 2008 then it dropped to $40 in a few weeks.  The market price of oil is driven by demand, and in general global energy demand is increasing, which in turn attracts speculative investment as commodity price rises, which in turn drives up demand, and with no short term supply available to suddenly meet new demand, leads to greater price escalation, further speculative investment and the cycle continues. 

Then of course the oil producers see the higher price, drill more wells and invest more capital to produce more oil (all which takes time, sometimes years) and eventually, often slowly, they increase production and the supply in reaction to the higher prices.  Once supply can meet demand then the inflation caused by speculation is reversed the price begins to fall again. 

The effect on price is even more pronounced if increased oil supply coincides with a drop in demand as happens in a recession and then price can literally collapse.  We saw $10 / bbl oil when the Asian economies slumped in late 1990s just as OPEC had ramped up production to meet what it thought was growing demand in the mid 1990's due to global economic growth and in particular the "Asian Tiger" economies.  As Time magazine said at the time, the world was "drowning in oil".  The same happened with the credit crisis in 2008. Global demand declined in part driven by the high energy costs, and oil price collapsed.

So back to collecting whisky.   If there isn't enough supply of collectable whisky today then prices become artificially inflated due in part at least to speculation as we see in the index, and like oil, it is not possible to increase the supply quickly.  However, just like the collectors, I am sure the distilleries will be looking at today's prices, and my guess is many of them will be laying down and planning more "collectable whisky" for that market in the future and saving casks to release later than they would usually to capture those premium (and artificial) prices, just like an oil company drilling more wells for increased future production, and eventually there will be over supply and prices will fall.   In addition, if the WM index continues to rise then the eventually costs will escalate to a point that they drive down demand (just as high energy costs drove down demand as people look to reduce their energy consumption) and reduced demand coupled with over supply means that the bubble will burst.  I think it is possible to envisage a scenario where the world is "drowning in collectable whisky" (which I have to admit would not be a bad way to go).   Bowmore can produce a lot of 50 year old Bowmore if they just wait long enough.

After 21 years in the oil and gas industry I think the potential for a whisky bubble is out there, and the more prices escalate and the WM Index rises, the greater the risk.   It seems I am in good company on this position as well.... here is a link to an excellent recent article by Ian Buxton on the same subject of whisky as a potential investment  http://www.just-drinks.com/comment/comment-spirits-is-investing-in-whiskey-as-good-as-they-say_id105625.aspx

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