Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ruminating on whether to start a proper whisky collection

Purchasing a cheap blend called Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1 (which you can read a bit more about here and here) on a trip to Islay, started me thinking about people who collect whisky. For me, having a whisky collection is essential, but only from the perspective of wanting a selection of whiskies to choose from whenever I want a drink (and perhaps to some extent for the purpose of learning about whisky), but some people collect whisky for other reasons.

Buying a new bottle of whisky is one of my favourite things at the moment, which sounds a bit sad, so it would be a shame if I only allowed myself to buy one at a time rather than maintaining my collection or allowing it to grow (slightly). Given the amount that I’m learning about whisky, could I put that learning and enjoyment to a more useful purpose, I wonder? That’s one of the things I’ll be asking in this feature.

My main motivation in buying whisky is that I like to drink whisky, and I want to know what they taste like – let’s say with a view to experiencing the pinnacle of what distilled spirit can offer (for some reason – why distilled spirit and not tea or something cheaper and non-alcoholic is a question for another day). I don’t know yet if one day I’ll feel like I’ve achieved that – presumably it is possible that I’ve already enjoyed a glass of whisky more than I ever will again (it certainly feels that way from time to time - and what is the greatest it, or any sensory experience can be anyway?), but for now my journey continues.

Until very recently then, I literally couldn’t imagine me purchasing a bottle of whisky for any other purpose than to drink it. If I buy a bottle with the intention of not drinking it, then I’ll always need to purchase another bottle for drinking, and I don’t have that much disposable income.

To be fair, my collection method probably doesn’t even really count as a collection any more than having four different types of pasta in your cupboard counts as having a pasta collection. If it does, I’ve got one of those too. No, I buy whiskies (special and not so special), I cherish them, I open them, I drink them, I don’t cherish them as much as I did before I opened them, I buy more (but different – I ver y rarely buy the same bottle twice).

People like to collect things, so for some, having an impressive collection is an end in itself, but when it comes to whisky, that’s something  I actually have trouble understanding – what are you keeping it for? It is at odds with the essence of what whisky is; that, as a distilled spirit – it is for drinking, unlike you know, people who collect pigs or whatever – those items are made for collecting; they have no other purpose (not real pigs, items in the shape of pigs). Even a collector of cars presumably drives his cars occasionally.

What I can understand though, is the value of actively collecting whisky as an investment. Rare bottles can sell for thousands of pounds, so with a little long term planning, smart buying and a lot of luck, in 20+ years even I could be making profits in the thousands… maybe… assuming whisky will be valuable in 20 years time. It probably will.

Presumably some whisky collectors don’t ever even drink whisky, though I expect there is some crossover for most people. They enjoy whisky, become intrigued by all those rare, expensive bottles, then maybe they realise that they could have one in the future if they start a collection now.

 What intrigues me about those expensive bottles though is what does it taste like? I’ll never actually find out – unless I buy something now, keep it, and get lucky enough for it to be rare and expensive in 20 years. However, it will only taste the same in 20 years as it does now, so in reality, I could already know what it tastes like, I just don’t know what those bottles that are already vintage and expensive now taste like – and some collectors will never know despite owning a bottle. So isn’t it still better to buy it and then drink it? Yes, but then of course, I haven’t made any money. But nor will I have had to keep something for 20 odd years.

It just brings me back to how good can it be? In some last minute research before posting this entry I looked up the most expensive bottles that are available on The Whisky Exchange and found an Ardbeg at £3500 (not the most expensive by a long way, to be fair, but I chose to focus on Ardbeg that day) that Jim Murray had supposedly raved about… giving it 96 out of 100. But the ordinary 10 year old Ardbeg that you can buy for around £40 scores 97 out of 100… so there’s really no point, is there?

The ultimate, innocent ideal in terms of collecting is probably someone collecting whisky for fun, as a child does, and then one day realising their collection is worth a staggering amount of money. Overall though, there can only be three purposes behind collecting whisky; drink it, sell it, bequeath it to a loved one. You can’t take it with you, so collecting for the sake of it doesn’t make sense. One day you’ve got to decide am I going to drink it, am I going to sell it? And if neither… well your heirs might appreciate it, or they might just have a party and throw it away, all the while shouting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” and going, “Woooooooo!

And that would be a massive crime. On your part.

Or if you haven’t got heirs, you could have a massive house made of scratching posts constructed for your cats and feed them fresh trout for the rest of their natural lives. Or get someone else to.

Buying whisky for investment isn’t all that attractive to me anyway. It begs the question, if a bottle of whisky can be sold for thousands of pounts… what is the motivation of the person who buys it? Presumably doing so is no longer an investment, so must surely be a vanity project – to own the most expensive whiskies.  

It’s been a while since we had an imaginary conversation on the blog, so imagine you met someone who told you they had an impressive vintage whisky collection, and took you to see it:

wow, this is amazing! I’d love to try… this one… and this one… and in fact, all of these…

Well you can’t.

Have you tried any of them?


Do you think you ever will? Cos if you do, can I come?

I probably won’t open them.

[collective sadface]

An acquaintance of mine tends to buy two of everything – one for drinking, one for collecting. That’s all very well, but not all whisky is cheap, and it seems likely that a good proportion of the whisky that one day is going to be valuable is already fairly expensive, so in the short term, that £70 you’re indulging yourself with… just became £140 [yes dear, we can still go on holiday… it’ll just be Clacton-on-Sea this year.]

Of most potential value is going to be anything that isn’t widely available, and particularly bottles from closed distilleries and limited editions – where the bottles might be numbered, or from a single cask, and generally particularly old. That stuff don’t (necessarily) come cheap, though it is useful as a guide for whether you should buy two bottles of something.

My thinking at the moment is that I would rather have had a rare bottle and drank it, than to have one and never find out how it tastes. So maybe one day I’ll be perusing expensive bottles and find one I’ve already drunk. And then I think I’ll feel smug rather than upset that I didn’t save it. Perhaps some collectors reach a point where it doesn’t matter how the whisky tastes – it is in fact purely a commodity and no longer an example of one of life’s finer pleasures.

Nevertheless, THIS interesting and informative website has some interesting points to make on the matter of tasting and collecting – two of which are very good pieces of advice.

Firstly, if you are serious about starting a collection, you should agree an investment budget with your partner per year. That sounds doable, and I have even mooted this possibility with Mrs Cake. I reckon that for £200 a year  I could select between 2 and 4 bottles that might give me some chance of turning a profit a number of years down the line.

But what if you don’t live long enough to either sell it or enjoy it? That brings me to the other suggestion which actually deals with the dilemma of collecting versus drinking. The solution? Not buy two bottles, buy three. Then you drink one, save one to sell in the medium term in order to accrue more funds for investment, and keep the third indefinitely to accrue maximum value – except then you have to triple your outlay… which is frankly ludicrous.

Collecting whisky for investment is obviously a long term endeavour. You aren’t going to make much money for a good while and you’re going to need somewhere to safely keep that growing collection, but if you can keep it up and forget about it, one day you might find yourself sitting on an impressive sum and maybe even afford that yacht you’ve always dreamed of (but still probably not).

For now, I’m content to simply buy and drink. The future’s a long way away and, thinking about it, the potential benefits probably aren’t that significant anyway, once you’re ensconced in the reality of life and money. It’s like recently when Mrs Cake and I were thinking about getting life insurance, and based on how much we were willing to pay each month, they determined we could have a £150,000 policy, so if I or Mrs Cake died, the other would get that sum. Frankly that just doesn’t seem enough to be worth bothering with. It would help if we had kids, but since we don’t (Operation Impregnatron pending), I can’t see an Aston Martin or a paid mortgage or a lonely holiday in Asia and a few years off work mending a broken heart (aw).

So with whisky, clearly I’d have to be making a profit of lottery jackpot proportions in 20-30 years if I was going to consider it worthwhile and, given that so many bottles have a price in the thousands for age, vintage and rarity when released by the distillery is it actually going to be those that I can’t afford in the first place that are more likely to increase in value to astronomical levels rather than my modest £50-£100 efforts? Probably. I’d want the return on my investment to be life-changing, not representative of a fairly large drop in a cosmic sized ocean. I’ve never really been motivated by money anyway.

So I think I’ve talked myself out of it for the moment. Don’t let me convince you it isn’t worth your while though. Perhaps you can justify the kind of investment required more than I can. You have to speculate to accumulate after all, they say. It’s just that my speculation leads me to thinking I’m not really that bothered. You’re not me though, are you? No. Make your own mind up. And just think, if I keep drinking all those bottles that might be valuable one day, that only serves to make yours more valuable (because there will be less of them). You’re welcome.

That’s it for me for another week. Thanks for staying till the end if you did. I’ll be back uh… perhaps not next week as I think I’m going to Amsterdam and Berlin to seek out some beer, jenever, absinthe and possibly brandy but, after that, as ever I’ll be back with something equally as interesting as this week’s post no doubt. In the meantime, enjoy yer week, enjoy yer booze and if you’ve already got a whisky collection, leave me a message eh? I’d be interested to hear what your motivation is, how it’s going, how you got started and, more importantly, what’s in it?


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  2. Hello Neil, I’ve been enjoying your blog and since you asked I thought I would let you know about my whisky collection which occurred accidentally.

    My whisky selection method is not dissimilar to your own in that I purchase when the bottle is offered at a nice discount so one needs to be a few bottles in front to avoid a gap appearing in consumption whilst waiting for a suitable offer.

    This year I decided to try blended scotch which necessitated purchasing several bottles to get started and as there turned out to be more variety of blended scotch than I had realised my whisky cupboard has overflowed and the newly created secondary cupboard has also overflowed, as I only have 3 to 5 bottles on the go at any one time I have acquired a collection larger than most small grocery shops. Of course the upside is I can drink whisky until the cows come home for the next year or so and still have a collection left at the end of it.

    The anticipation of the pleasures to come is priceless.

  3. Thanks for visiting and sharing Ray. It sounds like you have a nice collection there. I'm actually trying to keep my purchases to a minimum as I've tended to get a bit out of control in the past, but it is Christmas, and there's a good chance some interesting products might be falling into my lap...

    Have a great Christmas, and I'll hope to see you back here in the new year.