By Christopher Coates

Editor's Word: The complexities of whisky collecting

The world of whisky collecting isn't quite as simple as it might seem
I’ve often joked with friends that there’s no such thing as a whisky collection growing too big, only a house that’s grown too small. I’m sure many of you know the feeling: every cupboard full to bursting, each shelf groaning under the weight of glass and liquid, miniatures in every drawer – I pity the disorganised whisky lover who also craves a clean and minimalist aesthetic in their home. In fact, it’s exactly the act of organisation, consideration and planning that I personally feel separates my own explosion of whiskies, which resembles a tragic accident at a bottling hall, from true ‘collections.’

Even those collections which develop organically seem to grow with some sort of goal (of which the collector may not be consciously aware) that in time delivers a degree of aesthetic and stylistic uniformity – whether it be gathering together every Ardbeg Day release, or one of every Kentucky bourbon. Even the (to me inexplicable) obsession some have with miniatures at least has a unifying theme. Though evolution of a collection can be spontaneous, it seems that these motifs emerge from the personalities of each collector, as the artist is reflected in their art. (A fact which makes me keen to ensure nobody who knows anything about whisky and psychology inspects my own collection too closely.)

My herd of drams is erratic and confused, resembling the starting line-up of a parents’ egg and spoon race on school sports day (plenty of aesthetic variety, wild variations in age, mixed quality, very little in common, and none quite sure how they got there) more than the curated selections of an informed palate. I suspect it all comes down to one’s motivations, and, truly, I never intended to collect whisky. I simply buy bottles faster than I can drink them, on the rationale that I’ll one day enjoy a very boozy retirement (or at least have a very lively wake).
It seems that these motifs emerge from the personalities of each collector

Though all of us think about money each time we pick up a new bottle (after all, one does need to be able to afford the other necessities for life, like those snazzy new Glencairn Crystal pipettes), there are those that specifically collect with the intention of seeing their bank balance rebound. Such is the financial impetus for some that they even skip the whole collecting jazz altogether and instead engage in whisky’s most impressively acrobatic activity: flipping the bottle right out of the distillers’ hands, over the heads of those waiting in line behind, and into the nearest auction house.

While flipping might feel a little icky to those of us who love whisky for what it is – a drink to be enjoyed – there is at least nothing too morally dubious about it, even if buying from a flipper does feel a little like being scalped by a ticket tout. A bottle, after all, is personal property, and if we’re all going to get behind the ‘drink your whisky however you like’ message, it would surely be hypocritical to police anything else a grown adult does with their bottles in private. Saying that, I couldn’t help but smile when I first heard about Royal Mile Whiskies’ Drammers Reward scheme, which incentivises customers to do the unimaginable and actually open their most hyped bottles.

However, if the growing professionalisation of flippers and rising prices in the secondary market makes you feel unbearably ill at ease then I suggest passing over this issue’s first feature, in which we delve head first into the bewildering and at times deeply troubling world of cask whisky investment. As is so often the case, warnings from the past have either been unheeded or perhaps simply unheard by those who most desperately need to pay close attention – namely, those without extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of cask ownership (which is almost everyone).

In particular, I fear for anyone susceptible to high-pressure telesales, particularly those for whom English is not a native tongue, or for whom engaging in rigorous research doesn’t come naturally before any sizable purchase. While I have no doubt that there are indeed responsibly managed cask investment businesses out there, just as one warped stave or loose hoop can make a whole barrel leak, right now this particular sector is in desperate need of attention and a thorough tightening up.