How to build a whisky collection – with meaning and feeling

How to build a whisky collection – with meaning and feeling

Collecting whiskies can be a lucrative endeavour, but starting a collection with feeling can only lead to a fulfilling pastime rather than a competitive sport. Here’s why your collection should be one you love

Whisky Learning | 19 Jan 2024 | Issue 194 | By Millie Milliken

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One of those facts I have no recollection of learning, but like to wheel out about once a year, is that octopuses have a habit of collecting shells. They often collect them to protect themselves, hiding under them when faced with danger from larger predators, or to hurl at their enemies in direct combat – an image that defies belief, but brings me unbridled joy.

 

These eight-limbed molluscs are not the only beings that gather objects. Humans can be devoted collectors too, of objects often meant not for combat, but for study, preservation, or sheer pleasure. Eggs, TY Beanie Babies, stamps, records, sci-fi figurines, and of course whisky are just some of the categories that have been recorded as collectors’ items. There are plenty of theories as to why we collect, among them to quieten existential anxieties, express loyalty, and as a result of the endowment effect (that things become more valuable to us when we own them).

 

But where some collectors can be viewed with derision, whisky collectors seem more likely to be considered with reverence. “There are different types of collector,” agrees Isabel Graham-Yooll, auction director of Whisky.Auction. “Some people are embarrassed – it’s almost a pejorative term for that nerdy kid at school. But in whisky it’s not seen the same way.”

 

High-stakes whisky collections are well storied. Vietnamese businessman Viet Nguyen Dinh Tuan’s US$16.7 million (£13.03 million) collection saw it added to the Guinness World Records list in 2019 (it comprised 535 bottles, including one of the world’s only complete Macallan Fine & Rare collections), while Richard Gooding’s The Perfect Collection (made up of 3,900 bottles) had a final hammer price of US$9.1 million (£6.68 million) and included a Bowmore 1964 Single Cask 35 Years Old. Pat’s Whisk(e)y Collection also made headlines in 2023 as the largest private whisky collection in the world to be sold at auction; standing at 9,000 bottles, it was sold at numerous auctions over the course of 14 months and reached a total of US$4.5 million, with some of the final bottles sold being a Springbank 1966 Local Barley and a Highland Park 50 Years Old.

 

While collections such as these have given the whisky community cause for excitement, and preserved some of its most historic bottles, they often start and are maintained without the sound of a hammer falling. “It has to be about more than commodity trading, some emotional reasoning has to be associated with it,” says Sam Simmons, Atom Brands’ head of whisky and an avid collector.

 

There are lots of excellent articles offering advice on what bottles to start buying, where to find them, and what you should (or shouldn’t) be paying for them, but the message that I – and other whisky professionals – impress is that the best way to start a whisky collection is with bottles and brands that mean something to the collector.

 

This is how Simmons’ collection grew legs (despite the fact that some bottles have ended up garnering quite a few quid – and paying for his loft). “It’s always tied to some emotion, a personal vignette that was more about the nostalgia.” Simmons’ whisky career began with a love of the category, before a memorable stint as The Balvenie’s brand ambassador and now his role at Atom, owner of That Boutique-y Whisky Company. His collection is made up of bottles he’s worked on, along with personal favourites, such as Dewar’s 32 Years Old, Compass Box Magic Cask, and the first Thompson Bros.

 

A broken fridge is also home to more high-value items. His most popular bottles with his friends, though, are those that are open – or “drinking stock”, as he calls them. “Nobody buys a record to sell, you want to play them, have your friends to go through them and look at the sleeves,” he says.

 

Simmons’ collection is an oft personal nostalgic endeavour, which also makes way for what Graham-Yooll sees as an overarching benefit and meaning of collecting whisky – the ability to peer through a window to the industry’s past, in our own homes.

 

Not only does it allow for greater understanding of how whiskies are made, she explains, but it’s also a glimpse into what was happening at a certain distillery at a certain time: what production methods were being applied, why these might have changed, what the label design can tell us about the industry at large. It’s also a chance to become part of that distillery or brand’s history: “It can be about understanding what happened after that whisky left the distillery to the point you’re receiving it. Sometimes it’s been in the same family for years, so as a collector you become part of the story – you become the hero.”

Isabel Graham-Yooll examines a bottle of Macallan whisky. Credit: Whisky.Auction

Beyond collecting what you like, there are certain niches and quirks to most peoples’ collections. For Simmons, a single cask sates the whisky nerd in him; Graham-Yooll has dealt with people who want to taste every official release from Brora, or indeed every closed distillery. “Most people tend to zone in on something,” she says, such as closed distilleries, single style, single distillery, first releases from new distilleries, or more personal factors such as birth year. Completists are a burgeoning market too – and are often responsible for other collectors nabbing bottles they know might complete someone else’s set one day.

 

A very specific group of collectors she homes in on are the miniature collectors of the 1990s and 2000s who were mocked for collecting whisky for the bottles and labels as opposed to the contents. Jump forward 30 years and these miniature collectors now serve as “unofficial archivists of production history”, allowing distilleries to piece together their history and whisky lovers to try a more affordable bottle of a liquid they revere. (Google Brian Marshall and his £30,000, 4,000-bottle collection that he amassed over 40 years for the sheer joy of collecting.)

 

One rather charming collection niche is that of Heather Storgaard, a senior marketing and communications officer at Whisky Auctioneer. “I have a wee collection of bottles with ‘heather’ in their name,” she explains. It started when she was based in Denmark, where the ‘th’ sound is non-existent in the native language.

Nevertheless, she came across a Stauning whisky called Heather. “I found it quite entertaining that a Danish whisky company had christened a release with a name their fellow countrymen mangle so badly, so I had to have a bottle.” She quickly realised that other distilleries had adopted her name for their releases – notably, Highland Park’s Heather Smoke & Sherry and the now-revitalised White Heather 21 Years Old blend.

 

She keeps on top of her collection by searching the word ‘heather’ when auction catalogues are released and seeing what comes up. As it turns out, her hobby brings up more intrigue than just the liquid: “Whiskies named after ‘heather’ are often quite pretty in terms of packaging, with flowers and, in the case of older bottles, some excessive tartanry and glitzy decanters, particularly from Italian importers. It entertains me more than anything.” All the bottles are eventually for drinking, Storgaard says, another important element to her collecting.

 

Another collector is whisky enthusiast and tastings provider Charlie Thevarajah. “Honestly, my collection is all over the place,” she admits. “I suffered from the well-known FOMO [fear of missing out] for a while and bought things I shouldn’t have, but I have evolved into buying things I know I’ll like.” (This includes a lot of Irish whiskey.) She doesn’t have any specific methods for collecting but is active on social media, follows several distilleries, and tries to stay up to date on releases that interest her.

 

She does own a few series – such as the Renaissance from Teeling and the Bivrost Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology series from Norway’s Aurora Spirit Distillery – but recognises a certain disconnect in doing so. “Buying whisky to share and enjoy makes collecting series a bit unnecessary. Even though I have enough whisky to last me at least a couple of lifetimes, I don’t buy to collect or sell – I buy to drink, enjoy, and discover.”

 

There are, of course, some tips and tricks that can help collecting novices to build confidence and set them on their way. Graham-Yooll suggests registering on an auction website, putting small “cheeky” bids on some bottles, and watching it unfold from the start to understand how the process goes.

 

Looking at rising stars can pay dividends too, says Simmons. “Australia is producing some of the best whiskies in the world, for sure. In 30 years people might realise, like they did with Yamazaki 12.” Looking to first releases of new distilleries is also becoming well-trodden ground for new collectors. “New distilleries, early limited release seems to be getting a lot of interest, being at the dawn of something,” says Graham-Yooll, who adds that these collectors often go on to be loyal to the distilleries (although it is also impacting prices of these relatively young releases).

 

If you’re looking to buy old and rare, Graham-Yooll is an advocate of playing the long game, watching the prices and being patient. It is also worth searching online to check the performances of previously auctioned bottles and secondary market prices of bottles to decipher what is and what is not a ‘good deal’.

 

Unlikely havens for bargains are off licences, says Simmons, who has already rated the ones in his area having stumbled upon two dumpy Highland Parks for £26 and The Glenlivet 18 Year Olds for under £40. We’ve all heard stories of bottles that were near misses, regretful non-purchases that prompt pondering of what could have been. However, when playing in this more affordable end of the collecting pitch, getting it wrong is part of the game. It’s a point Simmons makes that anchors this article’s overarching premise: “Which bitterness tastes worse: the regret of missing out on possibly making money on what you enjoy, or misfiring on something you don’t enjoy because it’s worth less than what you bought it for? I’d rather have missed it and have the story, than be stuck with it.” 

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