The Collective Mind

Of the whisky drinkers you know how many are male and how many female? How many collectors of whisky do you know? How many of them are male and how many female?

I expect the answer to the first question is weighted towards men while to the last, few, if any, answers will include female collectors. The range of interest in whisky stretches from total dis-interest (actually even beyond that to feelings of animosity) through casual dealings, active pursuit to near obsession. The hobby of collecting bottles of whisky, as well as related items like books (a personal weakness), labels, etc., strays into the pro-active extreme.

So why do some people spend time and money tracking down particular examples of the distiller’s art with often no intention of ever opening the bottle?

The fascination of building up any collection needs little explanation. The satisfaction in carefully piecing together a complete set rewards with a sense of accomplishment, while the challenge of hunting down the individual components can call upon ingenuity, patience and effort. Much like a round of golf or fly fishing. Beyond the universal appeal of such a hobby the specific draw of whisky collecting may lie in the multi-dimensional nature of the drink.

Obviously most purchases of drams are intended for consumption. So, unlike a stamp collection, the whisky collector can liquidate (pun intended) the collection and enjoy the benefits – flavour, aroma and that warming glow.

Due to the time it takes between production and maturation, bottles carry with them a sense of the passage of time. A bottle might date back to a special year for the collector, even beyond their own vintage. Or maybe it is more the location of the distillery which is meaningful. Or, when a collector focuses on a particular brand, perhaps it is just the appeal of that company’s unique approach in the market.

Simpler still, the attraction might just be an alternative form of investment. Some lucky or intelligent purchases might, even in the short term, return a profit the envy of many a bank’s best promises.

So where to start?
Although blends are by far the most numerous in availability and accessible in price, it is the malts that offer the variety and the more traditional appeal of heritage and perceived superiority. It pays to think out at the beginning which direction you want to take rather than randomly gathering brands.

A popular approach is to concentrate on those distilleries no longer in production. Now is a good time to pick them up as, due to the development in demand for whisky, especially the top of the range bottlings, most of these malts have actually never been so common. This explosion of availability can’t last forever so don’t become complacent that the supply is a permanent feature. Also, some of the more obscure examples of short lived stills can cost many hundreds of pounds.

Another idea is to pick a distillery and gather up every expression that comes out. This will mean your collection will have defined limits so a goal can be achieved. Again caution needs to exercised due to some very limited out-turns, especially of older examples, coming out at wallet wincing prices. Another problem can be that some companies release particular bottlings in isolated markets, such as duty free, which may make acquiring a bottle tricky.

One issue worth consideration is where and how to store your bottles. With limited space, maybe miniatures are a better option. Full bottles not only take up space but need shelving or cabinets if they are to be displayed. Whisky should always be stored upright, unlike wine. Direct sunlight can bleach the bottle contents so keeping the bottles in the original gift tube is practical as well as adding to the presentation. Temperature fluctuations are to be avoided, with central heating leading literally to the cooking of the bottle’s contents as well as evaporation.

If things get serious then perhaps a word with your insurance company might be prudent!

Where to go for advice and actual purchases? These days many outlets offer unique bottlings and, with the leap in online retailing, shopping can be done from the comfort of your armchair – with dram in hand. Certainly price comparisons and stock checks can be rapidly completed while on-line. However the rather neutral experience of screen gazing doesn’t compare with the good humoured discussions possible when visiting outlets. Auction houses have not been slow to recognise the interest in collecting either with sales becoming larger, more common and more frequent.

So even if you don’t have aspirations to stock pile what you would rather savour as a treat, spare a thought for any dusty bottles lying half forgotten in a cupboard or passed down to you from a relative. Sometimes, what may appear to be a mundane example of a famous name could be the missing piece of a keen collector’s jigsaw. Maybe you have an old bottle which you have decided has been with you long enough. Rather than opening it, perhaps it could be sold and the return converted into a case of a current malt every bit as enjoyable. I myself owe it to collectors ‘preserving’ bottles for some of my more memorable drams.

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