To say that we’re in a golden age of whisk(e)y feels like the understatement of the century — at least in food and drink discourse anyway. Shelves around the world are flush with bottles from Kentucky, Texas, Japan, New York, Ireland, and beyond, with so many choices that it can all seem dizzying. And that’s just the bottles found in stores and online. Once you get into investing in rare and limited whisk(e)ys, things really get wild.
How wild? People have been known to drop six-figure sums on single bottles for collections valued well into the millions.
While most of us probably don’t have the spare cash lying around to pay, say, $200,000 for a bottle of rare Japanese or Scotch whisky, that doesn’t necessarily preclude us from breaking into the spirits investing game altogether. At least not according to one of the leading voices in that world, Nate Gana, who founded the massively popular Single Malt Daily shingle.
Gana came from a finance background, so becoming a whisky investor, critic, and expert doesn’t feel like the hugest leap. He’s a much sought-after tasting leader, a judge at the iconic San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and, now, a viral TikTok whiskey star — Gana’s trip to Barrell Craft Spirits this year racked up almost 13 million views on the platform. He’s also putting together a team to revive the iconic Whisky Live tasting convention in New York. All of which makes his Instagram and TikTok accounts must-follows for even the most passive whisk(e)y fan, but especially for a budding collector.
This week, Gana was kind enough to jump on a call with us and break down how you can get into whiskey investing/collecting. We also talked about what he actually drinks, the nature of whiskey influencing, and celebrity liquor brands.
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You have an amazing collection of rare, old, and new whiskies. Can you tell me what was the first bottle of whisk(e)y that was your “Ah-ha!” moment where you realized that whiskey was going to be a central part of your life?
The first bottle that was my “Ah-ha” moment had to be Macallan 18. That was one of those iconic bottles back in the day where — if you wound up with that — you were like, “Oh my God! I don’t even know how I got to be in the presence of this bottle!” So it has to be the Macallan 18 for sure.
Now that you’ve had this whole experience in years of tasting whiskeys and being in the industry, what do you think now?
I think that I am extremely fortunate to be in the position that I’m in because I get to taste through literally the best things in the world on a daily basis. And not only do I get to taste them, but I get to get paid to taste the best whiskey, which arguably could be constituted as the best job in the world period. When it comes to that Macallan, I still keep a bottle ready on the shelf.
With Single Malt Daily, you’re highlighting the rarer whiskeys and the older whiskeys — sometimes old in the sense of what’s in the bottle and sometimes when the bottle was released. What led you down the road to focus mostly on the rarer and older juice?
The reason I got into this was because of the investment side of things. I had a bottle of a Macallan that was at my house from a duty-free pick up that I paid $100 for back in about 2005. Anyway, someone came to my house and offered me $1,200 for the bottle. And I thought to myself, ‘Okay … That’s a great deal for me because I’m making 1,100 percent. But what kind of deal is this guy getting on it and what’s it really worth?’ Then the same thing happened again three months later with a bottle of Glenfiddich. I’d bought it for around $500 and someone offered me $3,000 for it. Then I really thought, ‘Okay, there’s got to be something that I’m missing here.’
So I started to look at the investment angle of whiskey and realized that there was a massive opportunity for alternative commodities investment, which is how I got started in this. I started getting access to some of the best whiskeys in the world by posting about them which led to being able to go and tour and do what I do now, which is really going and seeing some of the greatest things that have ever been made.
But back then in the whiskey industry, they weren’t necessarily making their whiskey to make it as an investment. Today, however, I would say that a lot of brands are making their whiskey for investment purposes. Only ten years ago they were just making it to make great whiskey. And that’s what makes the older stuff more coveted, arguably, because everybody was drinking it.
What do you think makes a whiskey worth investing in as a professional who deals with these whiskeys day in, day out?
Right now, I think that scotch hasn’t passed its time, but it has definitely slowed in comparison to bourbon, which has been booming lately.
Can you break that down a bit?
So essentially the Japanese distillers were the ones who started the trend of “collectible” whiskey. The value of some of these bottles … When the Yamazaki 50 was released in 2005, it cost $4,800. It’s now $350,000 on average. Part of that is that the quality was simply second to none. And that led to the whisky boom with Karuizawa, Nikka, Suntory. There were so many brands with such amazing quality out of Japan. And then Scotland kind of had to up their game a little bit and say, “We started this, really. We can’t be dethroned.” Then came the investments on a much larger scale, especially with names like Macallan, The Balvenie, and Bowmore and part of that is because they have more whisky than the Japanese did essentially. And they’ve been doing it for a lot longer. So, when you see the 1926 Macallan going for 1.8 million U.S. dollars, you start to wonder, “where does this end? Is there an end in sight in this?”
Then you look at bourbon and you see some of these prices — you know, $2,500 for a bottle of Pappy — and they are nowhere near the price point of some of these Scotch whiskies and Japanese whiskies. Right now, I feel like there’s a lot of bottles in the bourbon world that are extremely coveted. The quality of the liquid is outstanding from a craftsman’s perspective and they simply were not charging for it.
There was a great story of LeNell’s Red Hook Rye. LeNell grabbed four barrels distilled in 1984 and essentially each single barrel release was $159.99 at the store for a bottle. LeNell’s Red Hook Rye now is going for roughly a minimum of $45,000 for a single bottle with a $159 price tag still on the bottle!
If you are lucky enough to collect the set of four different barrels releases, you’re looking at least $200,000 for the four because they aren’t available as a collection, meaning you have to track them down individually. Yet that still pales in comparison to one bottle of let’s say Macallan or Suntory. So I feel like there’s so much room to grow in bourbon, which is why I’ve turned my attention there.
So let’s say you’re just getting into all of this and maybe you know allocations exist or maybe you don’t. Maybe you know there’s a place out there where you can get rare bottles, maybe you don’t. What would you recommend someone do if they were looking at a whiskey shelf to find a standout bottle that has real value down the road?
Right now there are so many good producers. We’re in a really great age because bourbon is just really starting to hit its stride. In order to get ahead of everybody else, you’ve got to make quality because people know the bullshit, and people can see through the pretty labels.
I think they’ve got to that point where they’re saying, “Okay, what’s in this bottle that’s going to do it for me?” One thing that I love about the bourbon industry is that a lot of what I see is generally over 50 percent ABV, whereas it’s very difficult to find something in Scotch whisky that’s over 50 percent ABV unless it’s a limited edition. That just speaks to the pure caliber of what people are making right now.
So you have to just start trying things and find your own home with what makes you feel like this is the best whiskey I’ve ever had. Luckily, it’s really easy to do that right now because a lot of what’s on the shelves right now is of a higher standard. That high standard is kind of the norm right now. That’s what I love about where we are with bourbon specifically. Bourbon producers are hitting their stride and we’re finding out exactly who can make the best and how often can they produce the best.
Right. An old-school label isn’t enough anymore when what’s in the bottle is so damn good whether it’s a heritage brand or not.
I think it’s going to be a very difficult thing for a bourbon brand to rely on its name moving forward based on the quality that’s out there. The coveted whiskeys — let’s say the Pappy van Winkles, the Willett’s, Michter’s — were always making this supreme quality bourbon and still are today. They’re never going to just coast on their name. They’ve never stopped making incredibly well-polished whiskey. They just had a leg up by being first to market. But now you’ve got all these companies making this great quality juice.
So if you can’t find yourself a Pappy or a Willett or a Michter’s, well don’t fear! There are another 500 companies that are making something truly fantastic.
Shifting slightly, when you look at something like Irish whiskey, it has become the comeback of the century. It’s growing faster than anything else as an import into the U.S. In your professional opinion, why do you think Irish whiskey is capturing people’s imaginations right now?
It’s got a much different flavor profile than any other whiskey in the market, period. Without question, the triple distillation of Irish whiskey is allowing for a much more mellow palate. I hate using the term “smooth” because I feel like a whiskey wasn’t meant to be “smooth.” Call me crazy when I say this, but if you’re drinking something at or above 50 percent ABV and it’s smooth, then I think the whiskey company hasn’t gotten to what they want.
What term feels more right to you?
I think that the term should be, maybe, “mellow on the palate.” And if you can have a mellow palate at 50 percent ABV, I think the company has done its job because you can have a very harsh whiskey with a 40 percent ABV. But you can have a more mellow whiskey at cask strength and that just depends on the quality, right? So with Irish whiskey, you’ve got triple distillation which is taking out any of those harsh notes that you would typically find in other whiskeys, whether it’s scotch, Japanese, bourbon, Taiwanese. That’s what I think is coming through and appealing to everybody’s palate right now.
That Redbreast Cask Strength is just ridiculous.
Everything Redbreast does is outstanding. That’s the thing. I’ve spoken with people and asked, “have you had the Redbreast 21?” And more often than not they’ll say, “Yes. And I prefer the 12.” That’s wild! But that’s how good the whiskey coming out of Ireland is right now. It’s amazing.
The other one that I’m a big fan of is Teeling. They are very, very explicit with what kind and what style they’re making. Plus, they’re experimental. There are bottles from them you’re not going to see again that are excellent. For instance, their 28-year-old has to be one of the best whiskeys I’ve had. I hosted a tasting of, I’m not kidding you, a Hibiki 17, an Old Rip van Winkle 10, Macallan 30, and the Teeling 28 and the Teeling won.
So let’s say you got a little bit of money and you want to invest in whiskey legitimately. But maybe you’re not a connoisseur. What’s your advice to someone who’s looking to get into the game? What guidance would you give them? Or do you think there’s room to start from scratch at this point in high-end whiskey investing?
You know what, I think there’s very little room to get in the business and figure it out right now. There’s at such a high price point for entry now. You have to start by reading a lot of the articles about what has gone on in the industry to see what’s boomed and what’s booming. That makes it feel almost too late to start learning from the bottom up, in my honest opinion. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that in a positive way. There are so many resources out there now where you could educate yourself. You can simply Google “best whiskeys to invest in” and you’ll find tons of information. It’s just really that easy right now to get in.
The hard part is the cash you need to deploy to get into the game. Then on the flip side, some people have the cash and don’t know where to invest it, right?
For instance, finding a Yamazaki 18 going for less than a thousand dollars in New York City is probably the harder thing to find than having the money itself on hand. It’s become one of those things where it’s so bloody coveted that you might have a thousand dollars to invest on that bottle but no one knows where to find it. That’s probably the most difficult thing right now. If you read the articles and you see, “okay, yeah, that’s a great investment, no question.” But the question is, where do actually find that bottle? Building that network takes a lot of time and it’s not the easiest thing to do and that’s where things get really tricky.
So, what’s a tip for a pure beginner to start building that network?
One of them I can tell you is going into your local liquor store or your big corporate chain liquor store and becoming a gold or platinum member (or whatever their top tier is) for their system. Once you’re in the top tier, you’ll be automatically entered into the lotteries to win all the coveted bottles at retail price. That’s probably the best thing I can offer as a tip to anybody.
Next, enter every lottery you possibly can. If you win, you’ll get amazing bottles at retail prices that will never be happening ever again. You might wind up with the Pappy 23. Then you could arguably be winning by 2000 percent instantly. It’s really just trying to get your leg up when you can and where you can.
Beyond that, it’s all about reading as much as you possibly can because every day there’s a new article coming out about what to buy and what’s coming out that’s cool and limited. Everything is going up right now. It doesn’t matter which category. If it’s limited, it’s going up. So there’s the upside there too.
The question is when does that stop?
That’s the million-dollar question. Something available to both the investor and the consumer are barrel picks. They seem to be on a lot of people’s minds at the moment when they’re talking about both investing, but also having a special experience with a brand they love. What’s your take on barrel picks as an investment? Or is it something where it’s just like, you’re going to have 250 bottles that you’re not going to be able to sell?
You hit it on the head in the latter statement. I am very, very wary of cask purchasing for the investment side of things. There are so many bourbon distilleries right now that are doing cask programs. What makes this one more coveted than the other 5,000 out there?
These programs are just crazy right now. I can see that not ending well for the investor with the way it’s been going just based on how many people are buying a cask the second they get offered it. What if you can’t sell your 200 bottles, but you spent the ten, 20 grand on doing everything, then what? And, of course, that’s going to happen. Plus, how many single cask bottlings of different whiskeys can you possibly do that the distillery’s not already doing for themselves and their own brand?
So let’s end this by talking a bit about the online aspect of all of this. You’ve built Single Malt Daily into pretty much the highwater mark of whiskey influencing today. That has opened a lot of doors for you to enjoy some of the most unique drams on the planet but also talk with some of the most interesting people who make and love whiskey.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s super cool because every year, pre-pandemic, I would do a tasting at the Nike campus in Oregon for around 800 employees. The last one we did was honoring NFL legends, and I got to do a tasting with Jerry Rice, Bo Jackson, and Brian Urlacher. I get to do tastings for really, really cool people and some celebrities. And that’s an amazing thing.
Plus, I get to do really cool live interviews where we get to highlight really cool stories in whiskey. For instance, I’m doing an interview with Brother’s Bond Bourbon with Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder from Vampire Diaries. If you know them, you know that they’re incredibly popular online and globally, really. Their Brother’s Bond Bourbon might actually be one of the biggest whiskey brands if you look at the following it has on social media alone. And for me, that’s because they’re such good people who truly care about what they’re putting out there in the world from their image to acting to, now, they’re whiskey. So for me to be able to get an interview with those two amazing guys is probably the coolest thing that’s happened so far.
That’s coming up soon, right?
Yeah! That’s actually happening on August 31st at 11 am Pacific on my Instagram. This is going to be one of those things where I get to interview them and talk about their love for bourbon. And look, a lot of celebrities produce — let’s just say — not as great quality liquors as the big brands. Of course, there are expectations to that like, say, Ryan Reynolds. Aviation Gin is legit.
It really is.
It is and Brother’s Bond falls into that category in that it’s actually a really good bourbon. And that’s one thing I really look for in an interview like this is that I can go in there with confidence knowing that I’m tasting through something that’s actually genuinely awesome. And even with the bounty we have, that’s not always the case. I feel like there’s a lot of people out there making a lot of things. I won’t name any other brands. But when you get to have a brand that has a heart behind it and it has the quality behind it, that really is so nice and refreshing in the celebrity world and in the whiskey world.