Collections

Why do people collect whisky?

Whisky is made to be drunk, yet many of us are inclined to accumulate treasured bottles, often with no intention to ever open them, and even put them on display
By Hans Offringa
The Diageo Claive Vidiz collection on display at the Scotch Whisky Experience  in Edinburgh.
The Diageo Claive Vidiz collection on display at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.
When Scotch Whisky International acquired Valentino Zagatti’s world-famous collection of whisky bottles in 2015 (see: Whisky Magazine issue 175), the new Dutch owner purpose built a museum to display the Italian collector’s life’s work, roughly at the same time as commissioning Hans and Becky Offringa to create a new set of books about the collection. The undertaking took the couple two-and-a-half years to complete and, in addition to cataloguing each bottle, the research inevitably involved getting under the skin of both the core themes of and motivations behind collecting whisky.

According to established psychologists, neurologists and other expert authors on the subject, there appears to be a number of different motivations for collecting. People may collect items for ‘bragging rights’ on a subject they assume to know all about; thus, a particular collection may enhance self-esteem. For others, the thrill to explore and find an object they desire may be the driving force. Then some may be interested in the history of a particular domain and want to gain intellectual satisfaction by accumulating everything worthwhile or noteworthy within their field of study. In doing so, they consciously or unconsciously preserve the past.

Investing money can be a motivation, too, with collectors directing their attention to domains like art, furniture, coins, watches, jewellery, stamps, wine and, as has become more common recently, whisky. Another reason may be that in sharing their fascination with others, preferably like-minded people, it may enhance the collectors’ social life and open up related avenues for relationship building and relaxation away from the pressures of work. And, just maybe, some simply like to arrange and re-arrange objects, out of a desire to have an area of their life entirely under their control, subject to their whim and fancy, or merely to demonstrate their superior cataloguing and organisational skills.

The old and trusted cliché comes to mind that very often the possession of the object is the end of the enjoyment. According to Shirley M. Mueller, the neurology and psychology-board certified collector and author of Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play (2019), anticipation of a find is more rewarding than actually owning the found object. She explains this scientifically: by finding an object of desire to add to a collection, nucleus accumbens, that part of the brain that can be described in plain English as a primitive form of pleasure centre or ‘reward circuit,’ is spiked and leaves the collector with a happy feeling. On the opposite end, the primitive fear centre can be agitated as well, by too high an asking price or by not trusting the seller, which will lead to not acquiring the object. Then the chase is on to seek out other prey. And this will continue ad infinitum, since hardly any collection will ever be complete. So, one could technically argue that it’s all more about the chase than about possession of certain objects.
Walls of whisky history on display at the Unseen Valentino Zagatti Collection museum in The Netherlands

Ravi Chandra, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and author, compares collecting with creativity in a video on popular psychology website psychologytoday.com. According to him, collecting is a form of creativity and creativity a form of collecting. “We prune, hone and develop impulsivity,” he says. “At the same time, we highlight and explore an area in-depth, as we do in creativity.”
Valentino Zagatti flanked by friends at the museum

Chandra, who is also a biologist, points out that creatures other than humans collect and gives examples of rats gathering coloured beads for no apparent reason and squirrels hoarding more nuts than they can ever eat. One can also add magpies, known for their fascination with glimmering trinkets, to the list of collectors in the animal kingdom. He is not surprised that the phenomenon is ingrained in human beings, illustrating this with research indicating that 70 per cent of all children under the age of six begin building collections. For example, stuffed animals and miniature toy cars.
Volume One of "The Unseen Collection" by Hans and Becky Offringa

When acquiring objects becomes an obsession, a term often used instead of collecting is hoarding. Primary differences between the two are relatively easy to distinguish. Where the former behaviour leads to continuous pleasure for reasons already described, the latter is seriously disturbing and negatively influences the daily life of the person involved. Collectors usually concentrate on a particular domain and have a tendency to catalogue and organise their accrued collection. Hoarders assemble in an entirely different way and stuff their houses with an incredible array of seemingly unconnected items. In obtaining new objects, they are pathologically inclined to a lack of restraint. What started as collecting objects turns into obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

Neurologist Steven W. Anderson, an expert on studying hoarding behaviour, noted that the urge to gather things is initiated in the subcortical and limbic parts of the brain where a basic drive exists that leads humans to collect their basic needs, like food and drink. He further states that people need their prefrontal cortex to determine what is worth saving and what is not.

In his research, Dr Anderson found that many compulsive hoarders with brain injury had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex – a region regulating cognitive behaviour like decision making, processing and organising information. People with brain injuries who did not display hoarding behaviour were not damaged in the frontal cortex zone, but throughout the right and left hemispheres of their brains.

Alternatively, starting a collection may have more to do with our identities and egos, being rooted in our desire for legacy and, ultimately, a shot at immortality. In that respect, humans are unique among earth’s inhabitants.
Volume One of "The Unseen Collection" by Hans and Becky Offringa

Collecting obviously gives us happiness and, intriguingly, is not a behaviour created by the emergence of consumer capitalism but a habit that’s at least tens of thousands of years old. Even when people with no fixed location roamed the earth, moving from one place to another, driven by the urge to find food, shelter and water, collecting was already a habit among nomadic hunters, who would hold on to the teeth of predators and turn them into necklaces and bracelets. Accumulating larger objects became possible only after humans settled in one place and with it came a growing urge to possess things.
Claive Vidiz reunited with his collection at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh

Psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology Christian Jarret describes this, in a short column for The Guardian, as a phenomenon known as the ‘endowment effect,’ which describes our tendency to value things more once we own them. And that seems to involve a healthier attitude than hoarding.

All collectors have one thing in common: they develop a passion for a certain type of object and in accumulating more of these objects they start to create a story, a personal tale only told to themselves through these objects. However, it becomes a much broader story when a private collection is elevated to the status of a museum. Many museums started out as personal collections.
For instance, the famous Musée du Louvre in Paris, France, would not have existed in its current form had the French Royals of the 15th century not started to collect all kinds of objets d’art, with the main goal of demonstrating their wealth and power to guests.

The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, makes a few interesting observations in a short video on the psychology of collecting for bigthink.com. In his view, a private collection only shows personal wants. In contrast, a museum collection transcends history through the objects it represents and puts collector and collection on a pedestal – legitimising it, as it were. In his novel The Museum of Innocence he explores these ideas and more on a much deeper level.

Of course, Zagatti’s whisky collection was not the first to be elevated to ‘museum status’. In 2009, the Diageo Claive Vidiz collection was incorporated into the tour at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, as its tour’s crowning finale. Comprising more than 3,300 bottles of Scotch whisky spanning the entire modern history of the drink, it is now viewed by around 300,000 people annually (pre-pandemic). Founder of the Brazilian Association of Whisky Collectors, Vidiz started collecting in the 1970s and for 35 years sought out bottles of all kinds – from the rare and unusual to the commonplace and (at the time) mundane.

In a 2017 interview with Whisky Magazine, Vidiz explained that his collection grew organically as a result of him asking friends and colleagues to pick up bottles of whisky in duty-free when flying to Brazil, which at the time had a poor selection available domestically, to add to his home bar. Things really kicked off, however, after he was gifted six ‘special’ bottles by a Scottish friend. “I took these six bottles and didn’t open them, they just sat in my bar. But then I started thinking that ‘I could put a Johnnie Walker beside this one’, or ‘I could put a Buchanan’s beside that one’ and my collection grew and grew to what it is today,” he explained. “For me there are no specific criteria for a collectible bottle, the collection grew very organically. From the six bottles I had in the beginning I added another, and another. The more I collected, the more interested I became in Scotch whisky and I never stopped being interested!”

Dutch professor of psychology A.J. ‘Ap’ Dijksterhuis, a self-declared avid collector of wines and whiskies, describes in his book The Curious Psychology of a Wine Drinker that starting a collection most of the time is not a conscious decision. It happens to us. In Dijksterhuis’ words, “More or less coincidentally one creeps unnoticed in the direction of what may turn into a collection. Friends will give you the odd bottle of wine and as soon as you have defined a series of objects as a collection, problems arise. If it becomes compulsive behaviour there is even a name for it: oniomania.”

When Valentino Zagatti and Claive Vidiz started their collections of whisky bottles, all these thoughts probably did not cross their minds. They were just fascinated by whisky and accumulated all these bottles for personal enjoyment. In doing so they preserved unique snapshots of liquid history, consciously or unconsciously. Only when their collections were purchased were they taken out of the individual realm and lifted into the public sphere, now telling the story to a far larger audience, while at the same time offering Zagatti and Vidiz a form of immortality that they both rightly deserve.