These are intriguing times for the luxury end of the Scotch whisky category. For years – decades, even – the direction of travel has been incessantly upward. Every time you felt prices couldn’t possibly rise any higher, they did, whether we’re talking about new releases or bids in the world’s auction sales rooms.

The first million-dollar bottle… the first million-pound bottle… auction houses appointing spirits specialists and hosting single-distillery sales. Blocked roads around distilleries as collectors scramble to acquire the latest limited-edition offering; overnight queues on Islay to snap up festival bottlings. All a long way from the days when you could pop to Oddbins in the UK and spend £100 ($126) or so on a bottle of Black Bowmore.

For industry old-timers, it’s faintly surreal and mildly disconcerting. Many have instinctively warned of a market bubble, or at least cautioned that such stratospheric price rises couldn’t possibly last forever. The former has not yet materialised – but the latter is increasingly evident.

Tracking the rare and collectable whisky market is notoriously difficult, not least because there isn’t enough volume from which to draw firm conclusions, in contrast with fine wine. As vintage follows vintage, it’s relatively straightforward to track price movements for top Bordeaux but the secondary market in Scotch whisky, ironically, simply isn’t liquid enough.

With that caveat in mind, there’s growing evidence (for example, from Rare Whisky 101 indices), that auction prices for Scotch have cooled over the past year or so; more than cooled, if you factor in the real-terms impact of spiralling inflation rates.

Arguably, this changes little, for the moment at least, for those distillers chasing the HNWI dollar, yen or yuan. It’s not that the appetite for long-aged single malts from the famous names has gone away, just that the relentless, hamster-wheel speed of value growth has, at long last, eased off.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

That said, this pause, blip or mild correction might also be a reality check that causes some distillers to think about where they want to be in the market, how they want to communicate their brands, and to what audience.

The luxury Scotch whisky benchmark remains Edrington-owned Macallan, with its £140m art installation-meets-distillery, its tie-ins with Lalique and its futuristic, cross-category partnership with Bentley Motors. I’ve written before about the potential dangers of leaving too much of the whisky behind in redefining yourself as a luxury lifestyle icon – but if it can work for anyone, it’s Macallan.

Why Scotch brands should play to their strengths

Others, though, will have to find another path and one that plays to their individual strengths. I was intrigued the other week to visit Whyte & Mackay’s Dalmore distillery in the Highlands for the first time. Like Macallan, Dalmore has made great play of targeting the wealthy collector with a slew of high-end releases; like Macallan, it too is building new distillery capacity.

What is taking shape on the shores of the Cromarty Firth will, I’m sure, be eye-catching enough, but the £40m expansion (a neat £100m cheaper than Macallan’s new plant) is, in production terms, a simple mirror image of Dalmore’s existing still house. Notionally, it will double distillation capacity to 9 million litres of pure alcohol a year when all is on stream sometime in early 2025 when the upgraded ‘old’ still house resumes production alongside the new.

Building the new still house is also shining a fresh light on Dalmore’s quirky (an understatement) distillation process: Heath Robinson stills (flat-topped wash stills, spirit stills with cooling jackets), some of them double the size of the others and weird-looking horizontal condensers on the spirit stills. It’s as if someone set Salvador Dalí loose in the design department.

Much of the modern Dalmore story, and its ascent up the luxury food chain, has been built on the influence of the cask: the relationship with Sherry giant González Byass, the head-spinningly complicated maturation programme for expressions such as King Alexander III.

Switching even a little of the attention back to the creation of Dalmore’s spirit would, it seems to me, be a savvy move in a market where people are more and more concerned about how their whiskies are made. This doesn’t stop Dalmore from continuing to focus on luxury; this isn’t a zero-sum game, and there’s nothing to say that the same brand can’t target whisky geeks alongside well-heeled collectors.

All very interesting, you may say, but what does any of this have to do with the ‘real’ world of Scotch – the £6bn export industry that is driven not by the playthings of the super-rich, but by mass-market consumption from Brazil to Beijing? When Johnnie Walker shifts close to 23m nine-litre cases a year, who cares how many zeroes there are on a single bottle of old Scotch bought by a billionaire?

It’s a fair point, but one that also misses the point. Alongside its geographical reach – being strong in so many markets around the world provides a natural hedge against localised dips in consumption – Scotch is built on aspiration: buying it, drinking it and letting others see those things happen are all signs that you’ve made it in life.

Listen to this from Alvaro Cardenas, Diageo’s Latin America & Caribbean president, at a recent presentation on the prospects for Scotch in the region. “Whisky in Latin America is directly associated with status and aspiration. The consumer wants to show they know they are successful, they want to show that they know how to appreciate quality, and they want complexity and intensity in flavours. All of that, basically, is Scotch.”

Aspiration takes many forms. It may be yearning to join in the bidding for an early 20th-century bottle of Springbank; envying the person along the bar who orders a glass of Blue Label; or it may simply be having enough cash in your pocket to stick a supermarket blend in your shopping basket.

But whatever form it takes, aspiration is the lifeblood of Scotch, the single most important factor in luring people to try the drink in the first place; managing and maintaining that status is the key to the category’s future growth, whether your brand sells US$20 – or US$20,000.