How to Start a Whisk(e)y Collection
To be honest, when I started collecting whiskey I did it all wrong! I started out looking for a common interest with my wife, J’Ann. We were both interested in a couple of TV series that were based in Scotland. We also both enjoyed good Scotch and often had a dram or two while watching those TV shows. We belonged to a whiskey club that studied Scotch; and, as a course of that study, we learned where Scotch whisky was made and a bit about the process of making the spirit. One thing led to another and before long we found ourselves in Scotland touring distilleries and really getting into how Scotch whisky is made. Up to this point, all was good and, if I had the knowledge then that I am about to give to you, all would have been perfect.
Alas, the more I studied Scotch the more I realized how broad the topic was. There were over 120 active distilleries in Scotland each producing several products. This does not include the 100 or so distilleries that are not presently in production but some of which have collector whiskeys that still can be found. I realized that if I wanted to begin a Scotch collection, I needed to define the limits of my interest.
I first decided to collect whiskeys from each of the recognized whisky regions: Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown, and Islay. I found that Whiskies made in the islands of northern and western Scotland, apart from Islay, are technically part of the Highlands, but they are often referred to as Island Whiskies. You can see by the accompany picture that I considered collecting whisky form the Isle of Jura. I bought a few of the Jura expressions currently available in the U.S. and even became an Honorary Diurach. To really get the collection going I found a nice 30-year-old Camas an Staca. Having done all this I began to realize my problem. Just to start a collection of one type of whisky (Scotch), I had to make a bunch of decisions.
Nevertheless, I was plugging along and purchasing Scotch whiskies as I found a new one that fit my budget. J’Ann, however, was getting a little concerned with the growing size of the collection and the decreasing size of our discretionary funds.
Next came the big killer. My business partner, Doug, and I decided to write the book titled, Guidebook to Whiskey and Other Distilled Spirits in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. In this venture, Doug had the Editor/Publisher skill set and that left the tough jobs of tasting and writing to me. Of course, if you are going to write about drinking, it naturally follows that you must do a bunch of drinking. So, I just expanded my drinks collection from the very broad topic of Scotch from Scotland (the only place Scotch can be made is Scotland) to the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Also, if you did not pick up on it from the book’s title, I am now collecting “Other Distilled Spirits.” This includes American Whiskey, Vodka, Gin, Rum, Malt and Tequila (Agave Spirit). Give me a break because this is insane. I figured I was in desperate need of a plan!
Step 1: Decide if you are going to be a dry collector or a wet collector. These are my terms to differentiate between a person who collects for the future and has no intention of drinking the whiskey (dry collector) and a person who buys two bottles of each drink-one to drink and one to keep (wet collector). I am always a bit concerned about dry collectors. Although they stand to make some significant money in the long run, it is at the high cost of the enjoyment of tasting some fine whiskey. Remember, after you open a bottle its collector value is zero!
Step 2: Understand your collecting motivation. Decide what you personally like to drink. You are going to make a significant investment in your collection, so make sure it is something in which you have a deep interest. The positive side of spirit collecting is that if the market goes bad you can always drown your sorrows in great whiskey.
Step 3: Decide what you want to collect. Whiskey is a very large umbrella term so delimit your collection strategy. Are you interested in whiskeys from a certain part of the world? If, for instance you select Scotch whisky as J’Ann and I did, you are faced with the same problem we had--way too many choices. If you want to go with American Whiskey you may want to select the type of spirit you want to collect: Bourbon, Rye, Wheat, Corn, Malt or Specialty Whiskeys.
Step 4: Considered collecting products from a single distillery. For instance, if you are a bourbon drinker, become an expert in past and present expressions from your favorite distillery. You can start out inexpensively by purchasing a couple of bottles of everything that is currently on your local liquor store shelves. Today, distilleries are constantly coming up with new whiskeys, newly packaged whiskeys, commemorative bottlings and annual or seasonal products. While buying these products, you will begin to research past offerings by either scouring small, out of the way, liquor stores for that forgotten bottle on the back of a dusty shelf or you will begin to pay attention to whiskey auctions on the Internet. Either way you will have a shopping list gathered from the distillery of your interest or one of the many websites that provide information about and sell whiskeys.
Quick story-recently I was telling a friend about Scapa, a very nice Highland Scotch from the Islands of Orkney. I grabbed a bottle off my bar and, without checking the label, quickly popped the top. I thought I was offering my friend a dram of Scapa’s latest offering-Skiren. Instead I mistakenly opened a bottle of Scapa 16-year-old. Now the 16-year-old had been replaced by Skiren in 2015. Prior to the 2016 bottling there was a short lived 2014 and prior to that a very successful 2012. My point is that brands are constantly making new releases and once the new release is out it quickly becomes difficult to find the older expressions. In this case, after a moment of nausea, I remembered that my spirit purveyors back in 2015, Matt and Cristie Rambeau, at Rambo’s Longhorn Liquor, in Estes Park had given me the heads up that Scapa 16 was being discontinued so I bought two bottles. I paid $82.75 for each bottle and today, a check of the computer indicates a bottle is worth, on average, $293.08. In the accompanying picture you will see the Skiren I thought I was opening, the 16 I inadvertently opened and the boxed 16 that thankfully is still on my collection shelf. I asked my friends at Rambo’s to check with their distributor to see if there were any bottles still out there. The result: None in north central Colorado. My point here is that collecting the products from one distillery can be exciting and fast paced. Who would not like to have a complete collection of say, all the Jack Daniel’s products!
Step 5: Identify a separate space for your collection. For instance, your home bar should contain a variety of products set to accommodate not only your taste but the taste of your friends. A good bourbon and rye, a good blend from Canada and a range of Scottish whiskies to include a blend, and a couple of single malts should be there. Throw in a good Irish and a Japanese whiskey and you are set. DO NOT keep your collection whiskeys on your bar. Have them in a separate space so you do not have a mix-up like I did with my Scapa. Also, you will find that if a friend likes your first offering and there is an upgrade on the bar he will ask, or you are likely to offer a dram from a collectable whiskey. Just saying.
Step 6: Keep Records. I recommend that you get a three-ring binder and begin to add information on what you have. If you go with the two-bottle rule you can open one bottle and record your tasting notes and overall opinion of the whiskey plus where and when you bought it and how much it cost. Also add the tasting notes from the distillery and independent nosers. Comparing your impressions with the professionals will help you begin to identify and verbalize taste and aroma elements from your own background.
To bring this session to a close I will say that I am often asked “What whiskeys (or spirits) should I collect?” Unless you are a very wealthy person the check list above should be an effective guide. If you are a very wealthy person just know that I would like to start a collection of the Buffalo Trace Distillery products and I am thinking a donation of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve would be nice.
Until next time,
“Keep the wind to your back and a smile on your face.”
Howell F. Wright