Once you discover good whisky, it becomes astonishingly easy to accumulate bottles. Purchase by purchase, you can plot your way around the world’s great whisky-producing nations, delving into a rich world of flavor. But after parting with your hard-earned cash, you owe it to yourself to look after your whisky collection properly. Whisky is pretty hardy, but it’s not indestructible. Educate yourself on how to store and make the most of your best whiskies with our advice.
Aging vs. Staling: why whisky isn’t wine
Take it easy. That fresh bottle of whisky you just bought at the store is in perfect drinking condition. You’re going to enjoy it. Yet you think you might just save it for a special occasion. Stored properly, whisky should still be perfect if it waits a year, ten years, a generation, or even a lifetime before someone pulls the cork. One thing that won’t change is the number on the whisky label, as that only relates to the time inside the cask. Tough luck; your 12 year old whisky will still be a 12 year old whisky in 20 years’ time, not a 32 year old. Compare that with wine, which continues to mature inside the bottle, though from a collector’s perspective, whisky holds numerous advantages.
Durability: There is no “drinking window,” so it’s much more robust than wine and less vulnerable to seasonal temperature changes. Good whiskies have a consistent flavor and, fortunately, they are not subject to the annual vagaries of good and bad vintages.
It’s ready, already: Whisky delivers instant gratification. It doesn’t require bottle aging, nor years of storage in a climate-controlled cellar before you can touch it. The master blender has combined the component whiskies impeccably to create this beautiful drink. It eliminates the guesswork for the novice collector; you are not left to complete the maturation process like some wines require, nor do you risk squandering the liquid’s full potential by opening it prematurely. Your whisky arrives ready.
It’s scarce: Boy, do we mean scarce. A limited edition wine might run to a few dozen cases, but a rare whisky can mean a release of only a dozen bottles.
Compact: A bunker of upright bottles of top quality whisky hidden in the cupboard under the stairs takes up a lot less space than several cases of fine wine.
Pleasure: Each whisky bottle contains more servings that can be savored over many evenings, over many months, unlike the limited lifespan of an open bottle of wine. Whisky should stay bright for six to twelve months, though it is still safe and drinkable long after that. Confession time: I still enjoy a dram from forgotten bottles of mine opened, my goodness, over a decade ago! I just wouldn’t hand over money in a bar for one.
Conditions: heat, light, humidity
Shhhh! Whisky sleeping. Whether you are storing whisky for deferred pleasure or with an eye down the line toward selling for profit, optimizing the storage of your collection is integral to protecting the packaging and liquid inside. Sustained exposure to sunlight can bleach the colors from the inks in the labels, affect the tone of the packaging materials, and could affect the whisky’s color. Sunned labels are certainly commensurate with authentic older bottles, but like rare print books, they would no longer be graded as mint condition.
Boxes, tubes, and cartons protect from light damage, but try to store your whisky in low-light conditions in a room with a stable temperature. Left in a sunny room without air-conditioning, the almighty power of the sun can affect the integrity of the cork and increase the evaporative losses from bottles. Call it ‘immobile warming’ if you like. Natural or environmental temperature fluctuations are not your friend. Perhaps this secondary loss to the atmosphere caused by that burning globe of fire in the heavens should be known as the archangel’s share?
On the flip-side, cloudiness can develop in whisky stored in very cold conditions, but this chemical reaction is reversible when the whisky warms up again. Extremes of humidity are another threat: stored out of sight in outbuildings, uninsulated attics, cellars, and garages, labels can be damaged by dampness in the atmosphere, direct damage from flooding, or from rain dripping through leaky shingles. Unsightly mold spots and water stains make them harder (though surprisingly, not impossible) to sell. As long as the closure is intact, that is.
Corks & Caps: keeping them, replacing them
I’ve attempted to pour giddyingly expensive bottles of whisky at tastings only to feel the cork crumble and disintegrate in the neck of the bottle and plop unceremoniously into the pricey malt. How can you best look after your closures and avoid your own cork catastrophe?
Most modern whisky bottles are closed with cork or by screw cap, although there have been some recent innovations using glass closures. Handily, no corkscrew is required for the common T-top closure made of natural or sometimes synthetic cork set into a wooden or decorative base. Spring caps or driven corks seal many earlier 20th century whiskies, which makes opening trickier. Cork’s natural characteristics are not invincible however, and hostile conditions can result in cork taint and cork degradation.
It is confusing to learn that fine wines are usually stored on their side to keep the corks moist, while whisky is stored upright to keep the corks dry. With wine, the concern is for the cork drying out, leading to air leaks and greater oxidation that could ruin the wine. Temperature fluctuations can force wine past the cork into the neck of the bottle. Whisky’s higher alcohol strength is a risk for natural cork. With horizontal storage, the continuous contact of cork and whisky can lead to leakage, flavor taints, and frustrating cork calamities. Please keep whisky perpendicular to the shelf!
As the Bottle Empties: preserving what you have
The day has come. The company is right, the occasion is significant, and it’s reached that time of the night. You retrieve your cherished bottle, measuring its weight in your hands, and tell the attentive gathering its history while you peel back the foil and ease out the cork.
The morning after, you modestly accept compliments on your hospitality as your buddies reminisce about the tasting. Secretly, however, you may be anticipating what to do with the remainder of the bottle. Here, whisky lovers exhibit five different traits. The Pragmatist will simply jam the cork back in the bottle and be done with it. Depending on the size of the headspace, oxygenation will slowly sap the vitality and character out of the flavors, but pragmatists will dedicate themselves to finishing the bottle in time. The Miniaturist will hurriedly decant the remaining liquid into clean sample bottles, top them up to the brim, and screw the caps on tightly. This shrink-ray preservation technique will significantly extend the lifespan of the liquid by minimizing oxygenation and keep future sampling closer to the original experience. There’s an aesthetic and emotional payoff however, as little sample bottles clutter your den while your once treasured bottle lies discarded and empty. The Alchemist may add the dregs to a demijohn of their own home-blended creation, adding complexity to their personal concoction in their pursuit of liquid gold. The Mummifier will tightly bind plastic food wrap round and round the bottle, hermetically encasing the closure to prevent evaporation. Therapy is available, I’m told. The Gadgeteer will pull out his Private Preserve and flamboyantly pump inert gas into the bottle to displace the oxygen. It works, but you’ll need to repeat the whole palaver every time you open the bottle. Before you ask, I’ve done all five, but I’m mostly an unreconstructed pragmatist.
Collecting vs. Drinking Strategy
Everyone starts with just one bottle. By the time the first one is finished, they may have bought three or four more for variety. Soon there are precious bottles set aside, and a dozen different open bottles for tippling. Your intentions should be pure; the goal of a drinking strategy is to experience the widest variety of whisky styles and experiences. The most common advice you will hear is ‘buy two: drink one, keep one.’ Not everyone can afford this strategy when you splash out on a decent bottle and, increasingly, retailers limit the most obvious collectibles to one bottle per person. My whisky strategy (if that’s not too grandiose a term for thirst) has always been ‘buy one, drink one, buy a different one.’ There is a lifetime of whisky exploration to be done, so I rarely buy the same bottle twice.
My sober advice is to limit the number of open bottles under your roof to the amount that you will realistically consume before oxidation dulls the flavors. I know few whisky drinkers who ever achieved this blissful state: most connoisseurs cannot resist an important new release, so they buy too much, open too many, and simply relish in the delicious indecision of what to drink on any given night. If you might finish a bottle in a month, then have ten to fifteen open at any one time. If the level is getting low, call in your friends to help you finish it off. Just don’t give in to temptation, run out of drinking stock, and turn to your valuable collectibles in an ‘emergency.’
So, my rules for new collectors: spot the trends, read everything you can, figure out how to get exclusives, buy at retail, and sell at auction. My rules for drinking good whisky: sample widely, figure out your favorites, don’t follow the herd, buy great single cask whiskies and limited editions when you find them, don’t overpay for packaging, and be open to all whisky styles and producers. Remember, from the oldest to the youngest whiskies, cost and quality have a non-linear relationship, so shop smart and never forget the rules.
The best ambition for the canny whisky enthusiast is to drink for free by judiciously selling or bartering older bottles (legally, of course) and using the profits to fund your everyday drams. Leverage your best earners successfully and you could be regularly imbibing those top-quality aspirational drams that you previously thought were unobtainable.