A month or two ago I received an email from Mark introducing himself and his business, a phone call later and I believed in his concept and ideas and thought it would be a good idea to give him the chance to properly introduce himself and explain a little more about himself.. A few questions later and this interview was complete.. Enjoy..
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Mark Littler Independent Antiques Consultant and Whisky Broker. I am also the founder of Cheaper By The Dram.
How long have you been working in the whisky industry?
I have been in the whisky industry for around 10 years, mostly working as a valuer. For the last 4 and a half years this has been through my own businesses offering independent whisky valuations alongside brokerage of other antiques and collectables. Prior to this I set up and ran Tennants Auctioneers fine wine and whisky sales alongside being an auctioneer and valuer.
Can you tell us about your day to day job ( within the industry ) and what is involved?
As part of my main business (Mark Littler LTD) I act as broker of many things: vintage cars, watches, antiques, and a large volume of whisky.
Within the whisky brokerage we sell both bottles and casks for clients. I’ve lost count of the number of bottles of Macallan we have sold in the last 4 years – but it would be thousands. We also broker a number of casks each year.
On a day to day basis we process a very large number of emails, work on receiving offers from our clients, and then close sales and deliver the goods to the buyers. One moment I can be speaking to a customer about a valuation of a Paul Storr candelabra, and then helping a customer sell their collection of Macallan the next; it really keeps me on my toes.
Recently a lot of my time has been spent setting up Cheaper By The Dram, which is my way of trying to bring bottles back to the drinker. I realised that businesses like mine have been part of the boom in the value of whisky in recent years and while this is great for investors and collectors, the drinkers are getting left out. I wanted to do something to restore the harmony a little.
There has been a huge amount of legal and regulatory red tape to overcome for Cheaper By The Dram; the last two years I have definitely spent a lot more time working with trademark attorneys and solicitors than I expected when I first came up with the project. But now that side of things is sorted and the marketing and promotion of Cheaper By The Dram is a big part of my day to day work.
What has surprised you most about your job?
The naivety of the general public when they read about cask investment!
Unfortunately the boom in the market over recent years has resulted in a number of brokers selling casks to the public and being very generous with the truth. The biggest problem is that they use market data from the rise in the value of bottles and try to use this to forecast the value of casks. The two are not comparable and a lot of people get misled.
For instance, I was approached by a customer who was about to pay almost £240,000 for a 1990 refill cask of Macallan on the basis that it would be worth closer to £600,000 when it hit 30 years old. When you get into the numbers it transpired that those figures were being forecast on the value of distillery released bottlings and did not factor in any bottling costs (which can be as much as 50% of the cost of the cask).
Couple the misinformation provided by some brokers along with the lack of market research available to customers and you have a perfect storm for bad investments!
I’ve taken it as my personal mission to try and put as much information in the public domain about cask investment as I can in order to help the public make a considered purchase. The cask calculator we’ve just had coded for our website is one part of that mission. The public can enter the purchase price, ABV and RLA of a cask and it will give a full breakdown of costs including VAT, duty, uplift charges, bottling costs etc. Most people are surprised to see just how much it can cost to bottle a cask, especially when the VAT on the purchase price is added.
We’re also just about to print a 52 page magazine that goes into all the highs and lows about cask investment so that anyone wanting to buy a cask can do so in an informed way. I’ve seen first hand the profits that casks can bring, but the public really need to be more educated about all the facts so they are not misled at the time of purchase.
Why did you decide on a career in the world of whisky?
I was a keen whisky drinker from my early 20s, so when I was working for Tenants Auctioneers and the opportunity arose to catalogue and sell a large collection of whisky from a deceased estate I stepped up to the challenge. At the time I was running the silver department for the saleroom (they didn’t even have a whisky department at that time) so it was at complete change in direction.
Whereas most of the silver I catalogued and valued was 18th or 19th century in date, most of the whisky in the collection was no earlier than the mid 1980s. That said, that collection of whisky flew out of the saleroom, with far more buyers in the room than in any of the silver sales.
That first sale led me down the rabbit warren that is the whisky world and I got hooked. When I decided that auction houses were not offering a completely fair service to customers I chose to set up my own company, a completely Independent Antiques Consultancy and Whisky Brokerage. Four years later we have 250+ five star reviews so I feel positive that it was the right thing to do.
What has been your biggest highlight to date?
It has to be the day that the bottles for Cheaper By The Dram were bottled. It was humbling and exhilarating to watch as the seals on tens of thousands of pounds worth of whisky were broken and that whisky was decanted into 30ml dram bottles. Watching these collectors items turn back into whisky for drinking, and knowing that it was my product to bring into the world, was an amazing moment.
What does whisky mean to you?
I will never forget the moments I’ve shared with people over a great dram. Often I’ll have a dram from a bottle I’ve not had for a while and it takes me right back to the time and place where I enjoyed it last. Glenfiddich 12 year old is one of those drams – it’s not the best whisky in the world but it was the whisky me and my dad would drink (and still drink) together while we chatted in an evening when I still lived at home.
What’s your favourite time and place to enjoy a dram?
At the end of a long day when my toddler is in bed fast asleep!
With all the NAS and various cask finishes available, what do you predict to be the next big innovation in whisky?
I think that we are going to see a lot more bottles released at 50cl, or smaller.
Given the constant rise in taxes, let alone the cost of casks, retail prices for bottles have jumped hugely in the last few years. I remember when Lagavulin 16 could be bought for under £30. Now it is over £50 at most highstreet retailers. As an entry level malt it is hard to see how that can continue to rise without alienating consumers.
The increasing cost of entry to the market has surely got to be a worry for brands so I think we will see more 20cl, 35cl and 50cl bottles to make bottles accessible again to the general public.
Some independent bottlers are already bottling at 50cl, which I think is great.
Have you got a favourite whisky?
Tough question! I had the chance recently to try a 1965 Glen Garioch 21 year old (it is the press bottle for Cheaper By The Dram) and it knocked my socks off. I’m also a huge fan of Drambuie – especially bottles from the 1970s and 1980s.
The whisky industry is a demanding job so what do you do to relax?
I love going out as a family with our toddler. It’s amazing to see the wonder and excitement a toddler can take from an everyday situation. Maybe we could all learn from this.
I am sure you will agree that this piece is quite an insight and provides a little more info into the brokerage side of the industry, it is very apparent that as in all walks of life there are some unscrupulous people who are just out to make money as fast as they can and with no remorse.. it’s is a good thing when people think of the drinker without it being all about the profit margin ..
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