A unique way of getting involved with the whisky industry has turned into a scandal of epic proportions.
The Nant family of companies, based in Bothwell, Tasmania, ran whisky tasting rooms, an estate, and a distillery, as well as an innovative investment arm in which investors could buy two barrels of whisky which the company would hold in its bond facility until maturity. At that time, usually about four years later, Nant would guarantee to buy back the barrels, giving the investor a 9.55% return.
Only many of those barrels, it seems, don’t exist.
A Grand Scheme
Queensland property developer Keith Batt purchased the historic Nant Estate an hour outside Hobart in 2004. He quickly set about restoring the property before hitting on the idea of opening a whisky distillery on the land.
Commercial production of Nant single malt began in 2008, and the company’s Nant Single Malt Whisky American Oak Bourbon Wood was scored a superb 95.5 out of 100 by expert Jim Murray in 2012, propelling it to the global stage.
Around that time, founder Batt began selling a unique investment opportunity—aficionados could buy their very own barrels of new Nant whisky. For about $25,000, an investor would get two 225-litre barrels, which could be redeemed on maturity. The first of these contracts allowed Nant to dictate when the barrels would be considered mature, but later versions specified four years.
When mature, Nant would buy back the barrels for $36,000, offering a 9.55% return, much higher than the 2–3% return offered by banks at the time.
Investors flocked in, buying up thousands of barrels of the award-winning whisky.
In late 2015, though, troubles began to reveal themselves.
In late 2015, Keith Batt transferred all his interests in the Nant companies to his wife, Margaret. He then declared personal bankruptcy on December 21, 2015, due to losses from his property development business. He owed more than $16 million to various creditors.
Meanwhile, Australian Whisky Holdings, Ltd. signed an agreement to purchase the distillery and Nant Estate property for $3 million, taking on $5.5 million in company debt; it would not purchase the whisky bars or hotel also associated with the Nant Group.
Yet that deal was too good to be true—due diligence checks on the transaction revealed troubling problems with the distilling business and Australian Whisky Holdings backed out of that part of the deal, purchasing only the real estate.
During the due diligence audit, more than 700 barrels were discovered to be missing, and further checks seem to show that up to 1,330 barrels may be purely imaginary.
Investors, it seems, may have ponied up for barrels that were never filled or that were filled, then emptied without having their investment redeemed.
In a letter to Nant investors, Australian Whisky CEO Chris Malcolm that, "There are a large quantity of barrels which have been decanted, bottled, and the proceeds sold; however, the barrel investors have not been informed or paid." He went on to state that investor names had been sanded off a number of barrels for an unknown reason and that other “serious anomalies” had been found during the extensive audit.
Several investors who have tried to claim their barrels and move them to other licensed bond premises have been turned away, told that their barrels are perfectly safe but that they haven’t met the requirements to redeem them or don’t have the means to transport the liquor safely.
The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) has been called in to investigate, as have several other agencies and police departments.
Amidst the mystery of the missing barrels, the case is heading for a legal showdown as a major creditor, Eclipx Commercial Pty Ltd., has moved Nant into receivership, seeking $2.5 million in distillery assets.
It’s trying to move the barrels to a different bond store facility and has challenged the right of Australian Whisky Holdings to use the Nant name and property associated with the distillery.
Adding to the chaos, the Batts claim that Australian Whisky Holdings has no right to communicate with barrel investors, as it dropped its purchase of the distilling business, and stated that Nant is well on track to meet its obligations to investors.
In a March 10, 2017, press release issued on their Facebook page (since deleted), the Batts accused Australian Whisky of locking them out of the facility, failing to pay debts, and preventing them from making good on their contracts, all with the aim of scooping up the entire company at fire-sale prices. They also imply that any missing or empty barrels may be the fault of Australian Whisky, not Nant practices.
Yet another wrinkle comes as employees of the Nant Group’s Melbourne whisky bar walked off the job in March, claiming they weren’t paid for work in February and that they’re owed $10,000 in wages and thousands more in superannuation. The Batt family, which still owns the hospitality arm of the Nant business, has refuted employees’ claims, stating that the bar was closed due to routine maintenance and that staff would be paid shortly.
No End in Sight
At present, we’ve no idea how the Nant fiasco will turn out. The Nant Group Facebook page, on which the Batts had been posting their commentary and refutations, has been taken down. Eclipx Commercial’s appointed receivers and Australian Whisky Holdings are headed for a court showdown over who has first claim to Nant’s assets. Various government offices are investigating to find out just what happened and what sort of liabilities might be present.
And perhaps worst of all, those 1,330 barrels of premium whisky are still unaccounted for, their supposed owners having neither money nor liquor to show for their investment.
A group of Nant investors has formed a Facebook group to keep updated about ongoing developments and to help each other through the strife.
In a recent group poll, 38% of respondents indicated that Australian Whisky Holdings had told them their barrels didn’t exist, while another 1% was told their whisky was substandard. Of those whose barrels may be located, 51% favour selling their stock to Australian Whisky Holdings under the terms of their original Nant contracts, 6% want to try selling their liquor on the open market (which may not be allowed under the terms of the Nant asset sales and liquidation), and 1% prefer to drink what they’ve bought. Because of the controversy surrounding the audit, 3% of investors want an independent audit to be conducted before making any decisions.
A Personal Take
An Investor who would like to remain anonymous spoke with Whisky Loot about his experience. He’d known he was taking a risk by investing $30,000 in two barrels of Nant Whisky, but he presumed that the worst-case scenario would simply leave him with 400 litres of whisky that he could bottle and sell, if need be.
Sadly, that’s not the case—according to the Australian Whisky Holdings audit, his barrels were never filled at all.
He’d like to get his investment fulfilled, but that’s not likely—the interest was to be calculated from the time of the contract, not the time the barrels were filled (if they ever were). And with Nant’s assets held up in complicated court battles, most investors will never see their stake money, let alone the interest they were promised.
He said, “It seems pretty clear to me that Batt was gladly taking orders for investment barrels that he had no intention, nor ability, to fulfil given their production schedules and the number of barrels they sold.
“What I failed to take into account was the sheer malicious greed of Batt in taking investor's money without any possibility of actually fulfilling their orders.”
Himself and other investors know that they’re not likely to get their money or their whisky at this point—but what they do want is some sense of justice. Says Howells, “I just want [Keith Batt] to be held to account for his action.”
Will that happen? Time will tell. Right now, all we know for sure is that nothing is decided yet—the wrangling, investigations, and accusations continue and we can only hope that investors are made whole in the end.
As for the $64,000 question: Where’s the money gone? Only the Batts know the answer.