How To Buy Whisky at Auction

Whisky auctions can open the door to a world of whiskies you never dreamed you would taste. While auctions may seem daunting at first, once you familiarize yourself with the process—from reserve prices to buyer’s premiums—you’ll be bidding like a pro in no time. Use this guide to get started at both online and live auctions. Good luck!

Get Familiar With What’s Out There

Whisky auctions have flourished online over the past decade, though the major name legacy auction houses still host the impressive spectacle of the auctioneer cajoling bids before bringing the gavel thumping down with aplomb. Online auctions offer the newcomer the discretion of round-the-clock bidding from the relative anonymity of a computer, tablet, or phone, sidestepping the need for familiarity with the rituals and conventions of the saleroom.

Browse different auction websites to look at the type of bottles you could acquire. (Get full details on Where to Buy, the 10 Most Collectible Distilleries, and Great Bottles for Every Budget in the Fall 2017 issue of Whisky Advocate.) You might fancy getting your hands on a tasty Lagavulin from this year’s Fèis Ìle, a surviving bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection from five years ago, or your first sip of a whisky from a distillery previously unknown to you. Whatever catches your eye, ensure that it fits your budget and that the auction house is permitted to ship alcohol to your state. No matter the auction, each lot attracts a buyer’s premium—a percentage of the winning hammer price. This can vary significantly between auction houses so examine the small print carefully. Pro-tip: Calculate some examples from the last auction to avoid any unexpected surprises.

Narrow Down What You Want

Before the auction goes live, register on the auction website (this sometimes has a small charge). Next, familiarize yourself with the site to make it easier to sift through the thousands of tempting whiskies on offer. Make use of filters to customize your view and better target your quarry. Lots can be arranged from high to low prices, alphabetically, by distillery or region, or listed by the latest bid. Online auctions typically span seven to ten days, so add your desired bottles to your watch list, or leave a low minimum bid to enable you to track them during the sale.

For most whiskies, bidding starts at zero with no reserve, but some websites allow vendors to set a minimum opening price, or to facilitate bidding until an undisclosed reserve has been reached. Typically, bottles without reserves attract a greater number of interested bidders who compete with each other, which raises the final value. High reserves screen out all but the most serious bidders and often result in final prices that are close to market value.

An auctioneer can work through a lot in as quickly as 30 seconds, totaling around 100 lots an hour. (Photo by Sotheby's via Business Wire)

Keep A Close Eye On Rival Bids

Bidders tend to jockey for position during the first 48 hours. Some place a maximum bid from the outset, then sit back to monitor rival buyers nibbling away their lead, while others prefer to nurse each individual bid, topping up their offer whenever they’re outbid. Don’t stop combing through the lots, as there are bound to be new discoveries you may have missed during your first survey.

By the middle of the auction, expect a lull in bidding. This is a good opportunity to contact the auction house to discuss provenance, authenticity, and the condition of your favored lots. Bid increments and bidding currency can vary between auctions. Fixed increments keep the bidding tidy and predictable, while others give you free reign, meaning you could be outbid by no more than a penny. During the final days of the auction, you should be able to speculatively spot which whiskies have achieved potential winning bids, while other bottles may still be an absolute steal. Be cautious, however: These bottles can rocket up in price during the closing stages of the auction.

Stay The Course

Individual auction sites have different practices for closing down the online sale, geared towards incapacitating “sniper software.” Each new bid automatically extends the auction by several minutes, thus preventing your bottle from being snatched away in the final second of the closing phase. This gives everyone a fairer chance of winning, but turns the final few hours of the auction into a tense, edgy affair. Take a last opportunity to carefully examine the images of the bottles to ensure you are satisfied with their condition. You may feel yourself anxiously clinging to a winning bid by your fingernails, secretly praying that nobody discovers your bottle and attempts a last minute bid. Hold your nerve! Conversely, sometimes, you may have bid on a few too many bottles, so losing a couple comes as a relief. In the dying moments of the auction, you will have to decide which bottles are most important to you.

Success! The Whisky Is Yours

Having secured your winnings, settle your invoice within a day or two. Unless you can collect your bottles in person, you will need to have them shipped. Postage to the U.S. from an auction house in Scotland is high for a single bottle, but it works out better if you wait to ship six to ten bottles at a time. Many auction houses will hold bottles you have paid for until you can ship several at a time.

Buying Whisky At A Live Auction

Traditional live auctions can be exhilarating and outdo online auctions for sheer excitement every time, though you need to put some work in ahead of the sale. Order the catalog up front, mark up the lots you will bid on (heeding the auctioneer’s guide prices), and ask for condition reports ahead of the sale. Check the buyer’s premiums and any extra charges for storage, insurance, and whether you can collect your winnings immediately after the sale or pick them up from an off-site storage facility.

Make a point of attending the pre-sale viewing. This can be a convivial affair where you mix with other collectors, quiz the auction specialists, and inspect collectible bottles over a couple of fine whiskies. During the sale itself, you will be competing with rival bidders in the room, on the phones, and online. Bidding can be over in less than 30 seconds, so anticipate the auctioneer working through the catalog at around 100 lots an hour. Use this as an opportunity to watch the body language of the bidders and study the etiquette of the saleroom. See how the guy skulking at the back places a few insouciant bids to the annoyance of the big collector sitting confidently in the front row? It’s pure theatre. When the auctioneer asks for your paddle number to write beside your unsurpassed winning bid, then you know you’ve made the grade.

Whisky auctions are the intersection where collectors, drinkers, investors, retailers, and whisky makers cross paths, and there’s room for everyone. Follow this advice, and with a bit of good fortune, there’s nothing stopping you from building up an enviable whisky collection of your own.

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