People invented whiskey for ordinary workers to enjoy, but over the years some whiskeys have become a collector’s paradise. They are either that good, that rare or packaged in expensive decanters. Or all three.

When it comes to the most expensive whiskey in the world, it’s not surprising that Scotland leads the way. That doesn’t mean Scotland holds exclusive rights to great whiskey – Kentucky bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and Japanese whisky are enjoyed worldwide.

For the beginner, whiskey can seem a bit confusing. Like beer in the last few decades, the variety of whiskey available has multiplied. A good place to start is to understand the difference between the two most popular kinds of whiskey, scotch and bourbon.

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The Difference Between Scotch and Bourbon

Technically, the term whiskey refers to an alcoholic beverage distilled from grain mash. Those grains can include barley, wheat, rye and corn.  Both scotch and bourbon are types of whiskey.

Distilleries in Scotland created scotch centuries ago, using mostly malted barley. Bourbon is made in Kentucky, distilled from corn. The name comes from an area of Kentucky called Old Bourbon, now called Bourbon County.

What about Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniels? It’s distilled like bourbon in Kentucky, but then filtered through sugar-maple charcoal to give it a distinctive flavor.

Distilling whiskey is a labor of love. It’s also complicated to do right. Here’s just one example. For a whiskey to get named a bourbon, it must contain 51% corn, get distilled at 160 proof or less, put into a barrel at 125 proof or less, contain no additives, and get aged in a charred oak barrel (usually white oak). That’s all from the federal “standards for identity” for alcoholic beverages. The phrase “attention to detail” seems inadequate to describe what the process requires.

What about moonshine? That’s a kind of whiskey, too, unaged and distilled from corn, although some use a malt of corn, barley, and rye. The name comes from the fact it was made under cover of darkness, by moonlight.

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The Most Expensive Whiskeys

Here are some of the most expensive whiskeys in the world. The majority come from Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, although Japan also has become a producer of luxury whiskey.

Isabella’s Islay

Isabella’s Islay

This has nothing to do with the scotch, although it’s high quality, single malt scotch. Rather, it’s the bottle. An Isabella Islay original, made by the Luxury Beverage Company of the United Kingdom, comes in a decanter made from English crystal, then covered with white gold, then layered with diamonds over the entire surface. The designers spelled the name of the whiskey in red rubies on the front. The decanter’s stopper is made from white gold. One bottle costs $6.2 million.

For those with slightly less disposable income, the Isabella’s Islay Special Edition Whiskey features fewer diamonds, white gold and no rubies. It’s available for $740,000.

The Macallan

The Macallan makes the most sought-after scotch on the planet. The distillery, founded in 1824 in northeast Scotland on the River Spey, has made many famous batches of whiskey, none more so than cask #263. London auction house Sotheby’s calls the cash the Holy Grail of whiskey.

Examples of the best and most expensive whiskeys from The Macallan include:

  • The Macallan Red. Six bottles sold for $975,756 in a November 2020 auction.
  • The Macallan Lalique Six Pillars Collection. A set of six from this collection in crystal decanters made by French glassmaker Lalique sold for $993,000. All contain single malts aged between 50 and 65 years.
  • The Macallan Peter Blake 1926 60 Year Old. This single malt whiskey comes from the famous cask #263. Filled in 1926, the sherry-seasoned cask sat untouched until 1986. The Macallan then divided it into 40 bottles. Twelve of the bottles had labels designed by Sir Peter Blake, who designed the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just one of those sold for $1.04 million in 2018.
Hanyu Ichiro Full Card Series whisky


Hanyu Ichiro’s Full Card Series

This collection of 54 bottles from the Hanyu distillery in Japan sold for $1.52 million in 2019. The bottles are part of 400 caskets preserved from the distillery by the grandson of founder Isouji Akuto, who began the distillery in 1941. Akuto is from a long line – long as in about 19 generations – of sake makers who also started years ago making Scotch whisky (because they liked it).

Brands For Beginners

Whiskey is a controversial subject because so many people love it worldwide and have their own idea about what is best. But people shouldn’t feel intimidated – people invented whiskey for enjoyment, not as vehicle for snobbery. As for where to start if you want to try whiskey, the following are suggestions from a variety of whiskey-related sites, magazines and experts.

Bourbon: Buffalo Trace, Four Roses Bourbon, Wild Turkey 101

Japanese whisky: Suntory Toki

Irish whiskey: Jameson

Single malt scotch: Any of the “Speyside” brands from Scotland, including Craigellachie, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and (recommended by many) The Balvenie Caribbean Cask.

Whiskey – whether bourbon, scotch or Tennessee – is one of the fine things in life. With so many quality options available, it’s hard to go wrong. Just don’t set your sights on a bottle of Isabella Islay.