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?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Now this is a story all about how... I invented a Fresh Prince drinking game

As ever, this post was written a few months ago, but it seems strange that fate should determine I consider posting it so soon after Alfonso Ribeiro should reprise the awesome Carlton dance on America’s Dancing With the Stars to the delight of the entire internet.So while I wasn’t sure I was even going to bother posting this at all, in honour of that excellent dance, this week I’ll throw off my pretence of being a civilised drinker and encourage you to chug it down as we play… The Fresh Prince Drinking Game.

I was waiting for Mrs Cake to finish making her brew so that we could watch some Breaking Bad, and decided to just flick the telly on for a couple of minutes. What I saw was an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, in which Will and Carlton compete in a gameshow against DJ Jazzy Jeff and another guy. It was pretty funny, and that reminded me of a Fresh Prince drinking game that I invented with my friend Pits when we were flatmates.

The Fresh Prince used to be on TV early on Friday evenings – right about the time we’d be warming up for a night out. So one evening we decided we needed a party starter of some kind – something that would encourage us to drink more quickly and get our buzz on.

Despite enjoying The Fresh Prince throughout our youth, we had both come to the conclusion that the show was a bit lame by now, but these were the early days of Freeview, and there wasn’t anything else on, so we found ourselves watching it anyway. If you aren’t British and/or don’t remember the era I’m referring to, just think about now and The Big Bang Theory… it would be the same if I could bring myself to watch that for more than two minutes without developing into a seething mass of rage and murderous intent.

We still got a few laughs out of the Fresh Prince from time to time, and that led us to the theme of this game – you had to drink three fingers of your beer or a shot (dependant upon what you were drinking) every time you laughed at a joke.

It turns out you can get pretty smashed in half an hour in this way. The alcohol you imbibe as a result of that first laugh inevitably leads to more laughs and more drinks as you start to find things amusing that would normally make you tut or go, “meh”. For me the laughs were coming so fast that I’d incur another three finger penalty (sounds er… interesting) before I’d even refilled my glass or drank my last penalty.

I suppose that’s where The Big Bang Theory game would fall down; there wouldn’t be a first laugh to get you started. Instead though, you could have to drink every time the “studio audience” laughed, but that would be less subjective and fun.

Anyway, by 6.30 we would be tanked and ready to hit the streets of Didsbury.

Most tv themed drinking games rely on everyone drinking at the same time, or in concert with something that happens in relation to a designated character as it’s a case of ‘drink every time this happens, drink every time that happens’. Ours was purely dependant on whether you could control your rapidly widening sense of mirth. We didn’t have time to think up drink triggers, but if you wanted to, you could go with something like ‘everytime Carlton does that funny dance’, ‘every time Carlton mentions Tom Jones’, ‘every time Will makes a fat joke at Uncle Phil’s expense’, ‘every time Hilary says something stupid’, ‘every time Geoffrey says something sarcastic’…

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any tv shows that you like to drink to? What are they, and what are the drink triggers? Answer in the comments. I’m thinking How I Met Your Mother (every time there is a play) and Arrested Development (every time there is immediate irony) would make good drinking game source material, though I’ve heard there is also a drinking game based around Grand Designs that sounds particularly brilliant. 

And I'll leave you there for this week. Next week... I might be discussing the practice of collecting whisky. See you then.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Is it worth spending that little bit extra on gin? Oliver Cromwell vs Plymouth

We’ve been going through quite a bit of gin recently. Mrs Cake has grown fond of the odd gin and tonic and that combination has become her standard drink for taking to parties, so I’ve quickly gone from never having bought a bottle to… having now bought a few bottles. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of my apathy for this particular spirit thus far, but a spirit it is, and therefore not undeserving of some attention on these pages.

Now, the last bottle I bought was the Plymouth brand and admittedly, it was the result of some woefully shoddy mental arithmetic on my part (particularly for someone who works in accounts – shhh…) concerning a certain cross-spirits offer that was on at Tesco that day. I didn’t mind though because I didn’t have to buy Gordon’s, and for my money (£20.30, I believe it was) I got a litre of gin at an encouraging 41.2% ABV. We tried it almost straight away, and agreed that it was… all right.

Moving on, and a short while later it was time to gin up once more. This time Mrs Cake and I agreed between us that she should buy it, since as I say, she drinks most of it. We happened to be in Aldi, and though we’ve had it before, we decided to try the multi award winning Oliver Cromwell – Aldi’s finest. It’s only £9.49 for the obligatory 70cl.

First test was head to head gin and tonics. Like the drinks themselves, the results were mixed. Mrs Cake preferred the one made with Aldi’s finest while I preferred the one made with Plymouth – expensive tastes. As expected though, there wasn’t much to choose, and consequently I still haven’t found any definitive reason for spending all that much money on gin.

I moved on – this time ably assisted by Mrs Cake, as opposed to being joined by her – to doing a neat gin test. This time I figured we may as well go blind, so I asked Mrs Cake to do the pouring for me. Without keeping you in too much suspense; I was able to correctly identify that sample A was the Plymouth. It was sweeter both on the nose and on the palate, though only marginally. The most noticeable difference was the strength. Plymouth holds a 3.7% advantage over the Cromwell, and it shows – not that the Cromwell is unpleasant, it just tastes watery by comparison.

As ever, it leaves you with the question of value; is the extra strength and a very slightly preferable taste worth that extra £10? It depends what you intend to use it for. If you’re going to drink it neat, you need the extra strength and flavour in my opinion. If it is for mixing though, which so much of the market of gin seems to be, I can’t see the justification. You pays your money, you takes your choice. So you decide.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Duke vs The Lord

Good evening! We’re looking at brandy this week, and comparing two brands of admittedly different varieties from mainland Europe. From Spain, and in the brandy de Jerez solera gran riserva style, aged around 10 years, it’s Gran Duque D’Alba – henceforth to be known as The Duke.

Its opposite number is from France, and represents the Armagnac style. It’s Bas Armagnac delord – or The Lord, as it will be known from now on, and it is of the Hors d’Age variety which means it should also be around 10 years old.

The Duke was procured from a duty free shop in San Javier airport in Spain, while The Lord was a very generous and thoughtful gift from my friend Geoffray Westside, when he visited from France in July.

I had asked that Geoffray bring me some Armagnac, and provided a list of potential targets, but I had to cancel when I spent more than I had planned on the Golfageddon holiday. Geoffray ignored my instruction and brought it as a gift. Good man.

So what are we looking at here:


The Duke: 21 euros, but you can expect to pay around £45 in the UK.

The Lord: I don’t know how much Geoffray paid, and I haven’t been able to find the exact same bottling online, but it’s looking to be somewhere from £45-60 here. Check this page though, where certain vintages push the price up to beyond £1000. Clearly it is quite renowned.


The Duke: quite fancy; it comes in a box that is trying to look old, while the bottle itself is in an interesting cylindrical Benedictine style, according to this website. The top is quite large and it is topped off with a large cork, making a refreshing change from the booze resistor cap you get in so many Spanish liquor bottles. Then there is a faux wax seal and (for some reason) a bit of ribbon, giving a three musketeers feel to the whole thing. Overall it gives the effect of potentially being quite special.

The Lord: here we have the brandy coming in its own little wooden coffin – very special – while the bottle is a kind of flask shape and is frosted. There’s a bit of faux wax on there also. It all adds up to a great package. Of course, you wonder how much you’re paying for the packaging, but who doesn’t like that little bit extra?


Both are bottled at 40% ABV.

In the glass

I can’t tell any difference; deep and dark.


They actually smell the same, but The Lord is better, giving more of an impression of wooden barrels and a gentle smokiness on top of the fruity tones that they share.


Again, they taste the same, but The Lord is better. It’s just that little bit more complex and varied even though I can’t put my finger on a single element that makes this so. I suppose it’s the recognisable Armagnac tang that just edges it over the Jerez bite.


Equal length. Nothing specific to note.


While I can’t compare the value of these two products, since I don’t know the cost of one of them, with the one that I do know - The Duke – it does have to be a consideration. At £45 I certainly wouldn’t be buying it here in the UK when you think of all the classy single malt scotch you can get for that price. However, it does make a decent souvenir to bring back from your Spanish holiday.

Pricing considerations aside, it is plain to see that I have a slight preference for The Lord – great package, fine brandy. Nowhere near approaching delivery of the kind of pleasure that my favourite whiskies bring, but that’s entirely subjective.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Next week I’ll be dipping my toe into the waters of one of my least favourite spirit genres: gin, and asking what’s so fucking special about gin?!? So until then… I’ll see ya.