Is The First Cask Collection The Next Big Thing?
Anybody who has spent a lot of time trawling the whisky market for exciting bottles will have, no doubt, come across the First Cask Collection. The collection, created and distributed by Direct Wines Ltd, ran from the early 1990s until the late 2000s and has over 800 bottles in its portfolio. The First Cask Collection bottles can be obtained at auction for as little as £100 and you can even get your hands on a vintage 29 year old Macallan for less than £1,500. So, why is it that the First Cask bottlings are so cheap? And does that make them a good purchase?
How Was The First Cask Collection Created?
Direct Wines Ltd created the First Cask Collection in the early 1990s. The company was a successful wine merchant operation, with multi-national outreach in Europe, the USA, and Australia. However, in 1992, the company decided to expand its horizons and began bottling single malt whisky. The first Direct Wines single malt release was a run of four casks of Balvenie distilled in 1972.
Following the success of these Balvenie bottlings (of which only 13 have ever appeared at auction) Direct Wines began bottling vintage whiskies for distribution to their exclusive members’ club: The First Cask Whisky Circle.
The casks were provided by another well-known independent bottler, Signatory – well known for producing high-quality single malts with impressive vintages and age statements, and the releases proved extremely popular amongst the First Cask Whisky Circle members. According to Whisky Base, there are 824 bottlings in the First Cask range, which is a truly astonishing number.
The First Cask Bottlings
Direct Wines have bottled some very impressive single malts over the years including whiskies from Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Caol Ila, and many more.
The current auction record for a First Cask bottle is £2,050 for a bottle of Laphroaig 1967 28 Year Old. This was achieved at Whisky Online Auctions in July and November 2017. In fact, the top five auction results for First Cask bottlings are for the Laphroaig 1967, second to the Macallan 1965 29 Year Old First Cask, which achieved £1,700 at Whisky.Auction in May 2020.
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It would take a very long time to list all of the 824 bottlings in the series but, thankfully, Whisky Base have done just that. You can view the list of First Cask bottlings here.
The bottles are very unassuming, with a cream label displaying the First Cask logo and the vintage. The age statement can usually be seen below this. The distillery information is displayed in very small text at the bottom of the label. The bottles were most likely designed this way because they were conceived for the purpose of drinking. The members of the First Cask Whisky Circle were, first and foremost, accustomed to drinking wine. As such, the specific distillery and age information was almost a secondary consideration to the tasting notes amongst the original drinkers of First Cask whisky. Of course, in today’s collectors market the distillery and age information is much more front and centre.
It would be easy to dismiss the First Cask whiskies as independent bottlings. However, there are a number of independent bottlings on the market with plenty to offer both the collector and the drinker. As such, answering the question as to why this series is so undervalued requires a look at auction prices for comparable independent bottlings.
As an extreme example, a Laphroaig 1967 15 Year Old Samaroli last sold at auction in January 2023 for a whopping £42,000. Samaroli is a very well-respected and infamous independent bottler and Samroli bottlings regularly command huge premiums at auction. Despite this, the First Cask bottling is almost twice the age of the Samaroli and yet can be bought for £2,000 or less at auction, hence our opinion is that this bottle is extremely undervalued.
Moving onto a somewhat closer comparison, the Macallan 1965 Signatory Vintage 29 Year Old last sold at auction in January 2023 for £2,700. It is incredibly close in age to the First Cask bottling and has a similarly understated label, and yet sells for over £1,000 more than its First Cask counterpart, with the Macallan 1965 29 Year Old First Cask achieving £1,700 hammer in May 2020.
If you compare a First Cask bottling to a similarly aged counterpart from, say, Signatory Vintage, Gordon & Macphail, or Douglas Laing, chances are the First Cask will command less of a premium. This makes the series very cost-effective and gives increased potential for a long-term investment.
Why Is The First Cask Collection So Cheap?
There are a few reasons why we think the First Cask Collection bottles can be bought for relatively low prices in comparison to other independent bottlings. It is not to do with the quality of the whisky in the bottles. However, Angus MacRaild from WhiskyFun recently gave 91 points to a Glen Grant 1973 First Cask, so it is safe to say that the First Cask whiskies are very nice on the palate.
We have regularly discussed how the quality of a whisky does not affect its price on the whisky investment market. When whisky repositioned from being a humble beverage to a luxury asset there was a huge focus shift onto the branding and packaging of a whisky rather than the value being based on the taste, as is the case with wine.
Take, for example, the Compass Box Whisky & Ink. This bottle was released in 2015 as a limited edition of just 300 bottles and, since its first appearance at auction in 2020, has sold for between £2,000 and £6,000. An impressive feat for a whisky that is not only an independent bottling but also a blend. The whisky is NAS, non-vintage, and the distilleries from which the whisky came are printed in very small text on the back of the label. The packaging, however, is very well designed in a black and gold gilded fashion that is reminiscent of the Art Deco period. Made in collaboration with Multi-Colour Labels, the label is made from “luxury black paper with flatbed embossing and hot foiling creating a multi-height three-dimensional premium label” according to the accompanying tube.
This is a perfect example of how branding and packaging can affect the price of whisky on the secondary market. The Compass Box whisky has none of the traditionally attractive attributes like an impressive vintage and age statement but instead capitalises on the aesthetics of the bottle and the branding of the company to drive the price on the secondary market. Conversely, the First Cask bottles do have impressive vintages, high-age statements, and far from humble beginnings at very famous distilleries.
The First Cask bottlings are extremely undervalued in today’s market because of the general public’s focus on modern, beautiful releases with excessive packaging. The First Cask bottlings, by comparison, are unassuming with a cream label and a lot of small text. They also did not come in boxes. However, there is a significant portion of the whisky market (long-time collectors, investors, retailers, brokers, and connoisseurs) that still prize attributes such as vintage, age, and rarity alongside the branding and the standing of the distillery in the market.
First of all, it is important to note that the First Cask bottles were, initially, distributed only to members of the First Cask whisky circle. Most of the bottles were probably drunk soon thereafter as the bottles were released at a time before whisky was considered a luxury asset. With no real public market and a distinct lack of bottles to be sold, it is no wonder the releases flew under the radar for a time (the first First Cask bottle to appear at auction in the UK was a Craigellachie in 2011). This means that by the time the secondary market was becoming aware of the First Cask bottlings, a shift was already happening in the public perception of whisky as an asset thanks to distilleries such as Dalmore, which arguably began the trend. As such, these understated and relatively unknown bottles fell to the wayside on the secondary market.
Secondly, the design of the labels has had an impact on the success of the First Cask bottles at auction. Due to licencing laws, independent bottlers cannot use the name of the distillery on the labels of their bottlings. However, they can say ‘this whisky was distilled at XXX distillery’. This is because geographical locations cannot be trademarked. The standard practice for independent bottlers is to have the brand name in large lettering and the geographical statement in smaller lettering. When Direct Wines Ltd were designing the labels on the First Cask bottles (as a drink, not as a collector’s item) they decided to print all of the distillery information in very small text at the bottom of the label. Whilst this may seem like an inconsequential decision that was right for their market at the time, it makes it much harder to identify a bottle if you do not know what you are looking for. And so, many people who are buying whisky at auction see a non-descript bottle of Speyside whisky with a cream label rather than seeing the whisky for what it is: a 29 year old Macallan distilled in 1965.
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Should You Invest In The First Cask Bottles?
With all of the above information, you would be forgiven for thinking that the First Cask ship has sailed. After 30 years on the market, these whiskies are not being recognised for what they are. So, why would that change? Well, because it has to.
There is a very limited number of First Cask bottles on the secondary market, not to mention that vintage and age statements are becoming increasingly rare as distilleries find new ways to vat and bottle their casks without the restrictions that vintage and age statements impose. As such, the increasing rarity of bottles similar to the First Cask bottles means that supply is going down and demand is going up – the perfect conditions for a price rise.
What you shouldn’t expect if you invest in the First Casks is an astronomical price increase in a short amount of time. The bottles have, no doubt, increased in value since they first came to auction, but it has been a slow and steady process. That being said, the data is consistent, the whisky is high quality, and it is increasingly rare. There is a reason why they are highly valued and sought after amongst whisky collectors: because they see the potential in the First Cask bottles.
You may also be wondering how we propose that this perception shift will take place across the entire secondary market. Well, as has been proven many times before, it takes only one bidding war in one auction to inflate the price of a particular bottle. Take, for example, the Macallan Private Eye.
In April, May, and June 2021, we saw some really strange auction results for the Macallan Private Eye. In the first few months of 2021, the average price at auction for a Private Eye was around £4,000. However, in May 2021 a bottle of Macallan Private Eye with a poor fill level sold for £5,100 at Whisky Auctioneer, immediately followed by one for £5,200 at Whisky.Auction. As you can see in our YouTube video, we began to think that a small group of people were pushing the prices of Private Eye at auction. As Mark states in the video “it just goes to show that it only takes a few interested parties to start bidding on a bottle, and suddenly the perceived value of that bottle absolutely jumps”. In other words, the act of increasing the value of a bottle at auction is something of a butterfly effect. It could only take a few bidders to change the mindset of the entire market.
The First Cask Collection is full of impressive whiskies from highly regarded distilleries with high age statements and old vintages and yet the prices have, to date, remained relatively low. So, are the First Cask bottlings a missed opportunity? If you ask us, quite the opposite. As an investor, you may have to wait a while to see a decent return. For collectors, these undervalued bottles remain gold dust.
If you are interested in purchasing some bottles from the First Cask Collection, browse the category on our shop and discover some amazing whiskies at fair prices. Begin your First Cask collection today.