Perfecting Your Whiskey Collection During The Stay Home Era

Though certain cities are starting to ease their #StayHome mandate, many have not, and even with the easing of the government orders, hot spots for typical leisure activity are far from back to normal.  So many of us will still find ourselves at home doing everything from attending Zoom cocktail parties to catching up on reading to even hitting the virtual nightclub.  Somehow, a fine whiskey makes all of this even better, and if you've been meaning to start or expand a cool whiskey collection, now could be the time to do that, especially since liquor stores are considered "essential," and this fun task could give you something to do, albeit while maintaining 6-feet apart on your way to, in and from the store.

If you like whiskey, this is a good time for drinkers and investors, with more diverse bottles available than ever before—and we don’t mean the nine Game of Thrones bottlings. A new generation of collectors has embraced a boom in online whiskey auctions, too, which offer thirsty aficionados around-the-clock bidding from where most of us are right now: home.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, for example, is offering a stunning online sale of treasures through May 5. And in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, whiskey-focused bars and restaurants are selling off prize bottles to stay in business.

Most people drift into collecting because they like the taste and romance of a particular whiskey, then they get more curious, says Ben John, co-founder of  Fine Taste, a consulting business that values collections, advises collectors, and issues market reports.

Although Scotch whiskeys come from only three ingredients—water, malted barley, and yeast—there are huge differences in aroma and flavor that depend on the source of the water, the type of still, and, most of all, the kind of cask a whiskey is aged in and the amount of time it spends there. The famous smoky taste of Islay bottlings comes from the use of peat fires. (American whiskey is a whole different category, good for another column.)

Japanese examples started getting acclaim in the mid-2000s, but excitement about them began only after the 2008 financial crash, Fowle says. Suntory recently held a lottery to give collectors the chance to spend 3 million yen ($27,600) on a bottle of 55-year-old Yamazaki single malt. With shortages and increasing popularity, prices of major brands have only increased. One problem is loose regulations, so producers can, for example, bottle an imported whiskey and label it Japanese, which many call “whiskey laundering.” 

Consistency of quality and a distillery’s reputation are all important, and age rules. A 30-year-old whiskey from the same distillery is more valuable than a 20-year-old bottle. The numbers that count are the date of distillation and the date of bottling, at which point a whiskey stops aging. A 1983 25-year-old would have been distilled in 1983 and bottled in 2008, for example.

Rarity also counts, which is why whiskeys from silent distilleries continue to be hot; discontinued bottlings also fetch a premium. A 10-year-old Laphroig from Islay that was bottled in the 1970s is way more valuable than one bottled recently. Some distilleries create “a collectible” by releasing a limited number of a special bottling for only a short time, as giant spirits company Diageo Plc does with its annual Special Release Collection.

Whiskeys with a darker color are generally more prized than paler ones. Only 10% of Scotch whiskeys are aged in sherry casks made from European oak, which gives them a dark color and flavors that are rich and fruity, like a spicy Christmas fruitcake.

And, hey, watch out for fakes. As prices have risen, counterfeits have become a problem.

The best way to discover what you love is to taste as widely as you can. In ordinary times, we'd recommend attending WhiskyFest (the New York event was rescheduled for Oct. 29, 2020), visiting a whiskey bar, or forming a whiskey club with friends. But even in lockdown you can tune in to #whiskywednesdays, live virtual tastings with Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s Brandy Library, on the membership shopping/entertainment club Spirits Network, where you can order the ones he’ll be talking about.

Oh, and don't forget to store all your finds with the bottles upright in a cool, dark place. Bottoms up!


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