Why collect wine when you can collect whisky?

Gathering a collection of rare and wonderful whisky is far less mystifying than wine buying, says Joel Harrison. Here he explains why and shares his insights on how to collect whisky from scratch

Words by Joel Harrison

Collect whisky
Joel Harrison believes it's much easier to build up a good whisky collection compared with wine – a dozen or so bottles will last a very long time

I’ve always been a collector. In my youth, at the height of the Britpop era, my passion was collecting vinyl records. In my early 20s, it was street art, and I was lucky enough to purchase a couple of pieces directly from a local artist who worked around the area of London where I lived. His name was Banksy. I think he went on to bigger things…

At around the same time, I discovered whisky. It started with buying from duty-free while travelling around the world, and before I knew it, I had a collection of bottles – 10 to be precise. There I was, suddenly a whisky collector.

Why did I start to collect whisky? I had an initial passion for it; I loved the product, and was intrigued enough by it to start reading around. This increased my appetite for the subject, if not for the product itself, and I embarked on a journey of self-discovery, visiting Scotland as often as I could.

Collect whisky and wine
It's harder to keep wine in perfect condition than whisky – and you'll have wait many years for certain wines to be ready to drink

One question I’m often asked is why I collect whisky instead of wine. My answer is quite simple: I always found whisky much more approachable and, dare I say it, easier to understand.

With whisky, the bulk of the focus is on the final product, rather than the complexity of its production. With wine there are so many moving parts to entertain and remember: you have to have the ability to recall a telephone directory of vintages; the names of a multitude of grape varieties (and their Italian alternatives); if a producer is located on the Right Bank or the Left Bank – whatever that means. And much more besides.

This is all too much for me; I struggle with the list of characters in Game of Thrones. After a year of lockdown, I can barely remember what day of the week it is, let alone trying to recall if a particular vintage was a good year in Bordeaux or a bad one in California. Or both. Or neither.

The great thing about collecting whisky is that you get to decide when to open your bottles

Layer on top of this the need to remember when to drink these bottles, figuring out when they are at their peak, and it all seems like a mind-boggling task to me. The great thing about collecting – and drinking – whisky is that you get to decide when the time is right to open and consume your bottles, rather than the liquid telling you that the time is right. How very French of a product that it decides when and where it works, not its employer.

Storage is also utterly complicated when it comes to wine. Firstly, there is the purchase of cases. I find it hard enough to store the number of single bottles of malt whisky that I purchase, let alone a case of each. Secondly, a good place to store whisky is simply somewhere dark and temperate. No need for complicated cellars, moisture control and the like. Thirdly, your whisky collection can be stored at home, not in a bonded warehouse somewhere off the M25. As such, it is always at your fingertips, ready to either admire or drink.

Herein lies my biggest piece of advice when it comes to collecting whisky: only buy bottles you’d want to drink yourself. There is a lot of chat at the moment with regards to investing in whisky. Yes, whisky can be an excellent investment; but what happens if the market falls (and the demand for whisky is historically turbulent) and you’re left with a collection that doesn’t reflect the price you paid for it? Well, if you know the bottles you’ve bought, if you’re aware of the quality of the liquid hidden under the cork, then this will always have value to you as a drinker.

In my personal collection, there are bottles that I have designated for investment. These tend to be from marquee distilleries, big names with a big fan base, and where I know the quality of the product reflects the demand. Often they are the bottles that will fund the purchase of another bottle I really want to drink.

Then there are bottles purchased simply because I love the output of certain, individual distilleries. They might not be classed as widely collectable, but to me they are special. These are bottles that will be opened one day.

Whisky collect 1979 vintage
Buying whiskies from a landmark year such as your birth year or anniversary is a great way to start a collection

Finally, there are bottles, the quality of which I know not, that have been specially purchased for a designated event. The best example being bottlings where the whisky was distilled in 1979, my birth year. I spent both my 30th and my 40th birthday opening examples of these bottles with close friends, with varying degrees of success in terms of the overall quality of the spirit. But it was the experience that mattered, not the grade of the whisky.

Ultimately, collecting anything should come as a result of passion. Collecting is not just about putting physical items away; memories can be collected, too, and memories are arguably the most valuable of all collections. For me, the journey of collecting whisky is not fulfilled by bottles in my cupboards or those long gone, but the memories made in securing these items, and – most importantly – in sharing them with friends. It’s the collection that has seen me through the past 18 months, and will be the collection I hold on to most dear as I get older.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • The “hashtag summer of sport” is finally upon us, with events such as the delayed Euro 2020 and Olympics finally being held, and another Wimbledon in full swing. The weather hasn’t been too kind for the tennis, but that hasn’t stopped me enjoying a refreshing Gin Collins using Sipsmith Strawberry Smash, which is distilled with the unused strawberries from last year’s cancelled championships. Deuce-y!
  • When it comes to cocktails on my green list this summer, the one that takes me to other shores is the Mint Julep, a drink that shows dark spirits are not just the preserve of the winter months. To get the best results, always use a high-quality bourbon such as Eagle Rare, and if you have access to a metal julep cup, then all the better. If not, stick a moist glass in the freezer for half an hour. One sip and you’ll be transported to a veranda in the Southern states.
  • Away from spirits, I’m discovering the world of traditionally made cider, the forerunner to Champagne’s famous in-bottle fermentation method. Traditional cider is complex, fruity and sparkling and if you’re after a really great example try The Winston. A product of the Cyder Celler at The Newt in Somerset, it is the first in the world to be bottled in a 568ml pint bottle in honour of a certain Prime Minister known to enjoy an actual pint-sized bottle of Champagne.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.