Whisky Auctions – A Haphazard Beginner’s Guide to Buying

Since March 2018, I have dabbled (read: wasted money) in purchasing and, on the odd occasion, selling whisky via online auction sites. Previously, selling alcohol in the UK could be done via sites like Ebay and Gumtree, however this was eventually prohibited because they were unable to verify that the products would not be bought by under-18s. Some sites, such as Amazon, will allow users to sell alcohol, however they must posses an Alcohol License and I suspect for even the most ardent whisky enthusiast, that this isn’t feasible – it certainly isn’t for me. Since these sites implemented these regulations, online whisky Auctions have seen their lots swell in size to become the main market for purchasing secondary bottles, in part because so much business was channeled their way after the clampdown, but also simply due to the sheer scale of supply and demand that consumes the whisky world right now.

As with every aspect of whisky, I have found that it’s a continual learning curve when buying (or selling) at auction. Which site you use, which bottle you desire, when you are buying, how urgent your need is…all of this matters when it comes to bidding for, or maximising the value of, a bottle.

Below I have attempted to lay out, from my own experience, a few pointers.

Research – Probably the most important ‘tip’. Don’t go in blind – I did, and I definitely overpaid on whiskies, usually from a mixture of naivety, being caught up in the bidding process, and not properly researching the average auction prices. Look at previous auctions and historic selling prices for specific bottles. Some sites, such as Whisky Hammer, show a price graph reflecting the previous lots of each bottle, however this is only reflective of their own sales. I tend to work out a mean score from several recent auctions across several sites and, as a rule of thumb, that’s what I usually set for my budget for that specific bottle.

Whisky Hammer Price History Graph (Ardbeg Perpetuum 2015 Bicentenary Release)

Budget – As touched on, set your budget and stick to it. Avoid chasing bottles – most will appear regularly across multiple sites, and there is rarely, if ever, value sought in overspending.

Patience – There are lots of auctions, with almost all sites hosting once a month, so there is usually an auction happening at any given time. I often found it hard to call it quits, particularly on certain bottles, so I have overpaid before. However, as I get a wee bit better at self-control, and as the fear of hiding an illicit addiction to whisky auctions from the better half consumes me, I have found it far easier to step away and call it quits once I hit my limit. Plus, the added satisfaction of sourcing elsewhere for less is a welcome feeling.

An example of patience when trying to secure a bottle within your budget are the Ardbeg Committee Releases (ACRs). There are few annual releases that can compare to the yearly scramble amongst enthusiasts, and this is reflected on auction sites. Committee Releases are only on sale to Ardbeg Committee Members and every member is restricted to 1. However, if you can control the urge to chase down a just-released ACR on auction, then you will be rewarded. Most peak selling prices for the ACRs are achieved within a couple of months of release, however the sale price eventually drops off after this period and tends to level off somewhere in between RRP and early auction highs. Of course, there isn’t an exact science to auctions, so all I wish to show is that, with the right approach, you can secure bottles at a good price.

Fees – Keep commission fees, delivery costs, and insurance in mind when placing bids. These will affect your budget, so bear them in mind. The average auction house fee for a Buyer will be around 8%, with this usually being the same for Sellers. There are some auction sites which waive Selling Fees, but check this prior to using. For avoiding delivery fees, most auction sites will let you collect bottles if you are nearby (almost all of them are based in Scotland), and save on delivery costs.

Track – Follow your bids. Don’t think that because you are the only bidder for a few days that there is no interest – there is, and, as mentioned below, you will notice an influx of bids at the last moment. This will happen for almost every bid (from my own experience).

Lurk – Even when I am not bidding on bottles, I will continually check sites for bottles that I have an interest in, or a desire to own in the future. It doesn’t hurt to keep abreast of current prices, and it’s not unheard of for buyers to find the bottle they want for less than they budgeted. Just keep those eyes peeled.

Auction Snipers – As with all auctions sites – and touched on above – you will encounter snipers. Auction Snipers are those that track lots and leave it as late as possible, often seconds before closing, to place bids which exceed the current maximum bid, thus ensuring there is no time for others to place further bids. Some auction sites use software which extends the closing time for lots which are seeing a high traffic of bids in the hope that this will go some way to making auctions a fair and level playing field for all concerned. Note: Sniping isn’t banned, just frowned upon – it’s the auction equivalent of queue pushing.

The Main Auction Sites:

  • Scotch Whisky Auction – By far, S.W.A. is the biggest and most popular auction site. They will have the largest selection each month, which should mean you have a good chance of finding some attractive deals, however as they are the biggest, they will obviously have the most customers, which goes someway to hindering good deals. Also, S.W.A. have an app, thus ensuring you can search, bid, and track, regardless of where you are (reception permitting).
  • Just-Whisky, Whisky Hammer, Whisky Auctioneer – I have listed these 3 auction sites together as, from my experience, there isn’t a great deal of difference in them. I have used all 3, and they were all easy to use and navigate, and I had no issues in regards to shipping and handling. I would base my usage on whichever site had a current auction, and whether the current bids on any lots that interested me were low enough to encourage me to place some myself.
  • Catawiki – An auction house which has weekly Whisky Listings. Catawiki is somewhat different to the afore-mentioned sites for several reasons. Firstly, you list your whisky yourself. Secondly, you arrange the shipping. Thirdly, you liaise directly with the Buyer. Fourthly, it operates a fairly steep 12.5% Buyer AND Seller Commission Fee. There is a positive in that how you advertise your whisky, and with attractive shipping costs, you can achieve a higher sale price, however don’t forget that there is the added risk involved of shipping it yourself.

However, the whisky community is an opinionated one, and auction sites often get a bad rep, with grumblings on forums relating to auction representatives appearing at festivals such as Islay’s Feis Ile to snare Limited Editions and Feis Ile Day releases from unsuspecting visitors. Indeed, if you view any auction site over the summer period, all of them are inundated with these festival bottles due to the high demand they generate, and the high prices they achieve.

Whilst they have localised the opportunity to buy whiskies, many in the community say that they have empowered the flippers (Sellers who buy up new releases to sell on for quick profit) by providing a continual platform and opportunity for them to flip immediately for profit (high price straight after release). However, to my admittedly limited knowledge, flipping has little-to-no effect on the wider pricing structure of distilleries and the industry – most pricing is based on supply and demand, and that remains the case here. If I miss out on a bottle on release, I know that there will be an opportunity to pick it up elsewhere, sometimes even for less than original RRP. Hopefully, with this blog, I have also shown you that this is possible.

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