Confession; I am addicted to whisky, but not to drinking it. When we think of alcohol and addiction, we usually assume substance abuse. Adam and Dora have previously written excellent articles on this topic, exploring the physical and mental health aspects of alcohol dependence amongst whisky enthusiasts. Interestingly, they both also mention a particular trait to which they attribute some blame; the fear of missing out, or FOMO for short. I think this plays an even greater role in some other aspects of addiction, even more widespread, not limited to alcohol, and too often ignored.
As far as I am aware, we are unique amongst animals in our need to collect objects that have no bearing on our survival. Apart from a select few who reject worldly possessions, most of us have an almost endless list of life’s trappings to which we impart sentimental value. Perhaps it is because our identities and personal connections are built around memories, which these objects embody. Through one or other of our senses, they elicit an emotional response as they transport us to a particular moment in time. In turn, this connection creates feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing.
As human beings, we are also bestowed with some degree of drive and focus necessary for survival. These traits are usually encouraged and essential for setting and acquiring goals. Unchecked or misdirected, however, drive and focus can become obsession and compulsion. An important balance must be found. There are many common examples where an otherwise healthy drive can spiral out of control. Most of us will know someone who began their career as naturally ambitious, before becoming consumed by it, to the point that we call them a ‘workaholic’. A healthy lifestyle and diet are also something that is encouraged, and yet many people develop extreme eating habits or obsessive exercise regimes. I was one of them. Luckily for me, an obsessive exercise regime has another more accepted and respected name; professional sport.
Similar to any activity, our innate need to collect means that any one of our possessions can become the unhealthy outlet for a corrupted drive and focus; a collection is born. The key ingredient is variation. This is true of whisky also; it is an ever-changing liquid. During its journey from raw ingredients, to cask, to the last drop in your bottle, whisky undergoes constant change through a variety of processes, with countless variables that will always remain outside of our control. When we taste it, we can only do so as it appears to our subjective senses in one particular moment in time. There is something magical about that. No matter how much we taste, or how much we learn about its creation, there will always be more that demands our attention. It is a never-ending journey of discovery and knowledge.
This boundless variation is the reason FOMO exists and thrives. It is the added ingredient that drives a humble collection into a full-blown addiction. FOMO poses the same question to us all; what if you never come across something like this again? It manifests itself in those who collect whisky in various ways. For those struggling with alcohol intake, it adds fuel to the fire; an obsession and compulsion to taste everything grows into uncontrolled and spiralling overindulgence. For collectors of wall bottles, it drives an obsession to collect certain brands, sequences or batches of whisky.
I have become addicted to discovering the next best whisky I have not yet tasted. I am driven to uncover the unknown, tick off flavour profiles or releases that pique my interest, all to have that eureka moment when lightning strikes and I stumble across a whisky that stops me in my tracks. I am then compelled to hunt down and buy several, because of that same question, because I am afraid that I might never come across something like it again. As a result, an enjoyable casual hobby has developed alarmingly quickly into an all-consuming addiction. As with any unhealthy relationship, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that you can really appreciate the many warning signs. Originally, I promised myself, and my wife, that I would stick to just one cupboard; I threw away all the tubes when I needed to make more space. Then, I simply changed the parameters to two cupboards. Much to my shame, there are now bottles lurking in the corner of the living room, as well as several waiting for me in four other countries. I realise now that chasing bottles, and the shame and guilt associated with each purchase, was increasing my stress and affecting my sleep; it has begun to have a profound effect on my mental health.
We must all take ownership of our decisions and actions; however, the whisky industry has to accept some responsibility for the part it plays. Whisky is essentially marketed and sold through FOMO: limited or batch releases, package design and wording, exclusive deals and discounts, embellished tasting notes. For one reason or another we are told that a particular whisky is unique and a must-have. We are destined to fail, and yet we cannot blame commercial enterprises for trying to survive and turn a profit in a crowded market. We should hold accountable, however, those companies who fail to employ morally and socially responsible marketing practices. There are many of us who aim to do just that, from the countless amateur whisky enthusiasts on social media, to the established online platforms such as this one. Unfortunately, I cannot help but think that we are caught up in the vicious cycle also. Our thoughts and words will influence purchasing habits, no matter the size of our audiences, or how well-intentioned we are. We can only hope that this is through helping people to make informed decisions, rather than triggering FOMO, though sadly I know that this is often not the case.
Awareness and understanding are essential; however, the question remains of how to proceed. The only permanent solution is to walk away completely; stop drinking it, stop buying it. Instead, I am hoping to find a way back to a healthy enjoyment of whisky. Time will tell if this is naive. Though several suggestions for practical solutions have been made, I am not confident that they will work for me. My worry with a one-in-one-out type policy is that it will encourage me to drink more, even subconsciously. While I am certain that I do not have a dependence on alcohol, there is a natural fear that this is the next step. The most common suggestion is bottle splitting, which has only exacerbated the problem. Buying splits increases the variety I can taste, the chance that lighting strikes and the number of bottles I am compelled to buy as a result. By offering splits, I am also able to use others’ interest to further legitimise and excuse purchases. There is arguably some benefit to those trying to reduce intake, however, even here I am uncertain. Purchasing in smaller containers does not necessarily equate to drinking less. On the contrary, buying more frequently in smaller amounts could actually make it easier to lose track of the overall quantity and ignore the problem. At best, these practical solutions only seem to fight the fire, rather than put it out. At worst, they provide excuses to hide behind while doing more harm than good.
It is only through writing this piece that I have taken the time to reflect on the qualities of whisky that draw me in. Understanding these qualities has also led me to realise that they hold the key to both the problem and the solution. As is true of so many things in life, they are two sides of the same coin, and the only distinction is a matter of perception. FOMO has corrupted my perception and appreciation of the variation in whisky. It has caused me to fixate on the individual moments, trying to preserve them with compulsive buying and collecting. Perversely, the obsessive need to collect them all means that most sit forgotten and neglected as I chase the next. I have lost sight of the bigger picture. During my whisky journey I will come across the good, the bad, the ugly and the great, however, they will all just be passing moments in a timeline of continuous exploration and discovery unique to me; this is something to celebrate in its own right. Much like whisky itself, the journey is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Altering one’s perception and changing bad habits is always easier said than done. I know that I cannot change overnight and there are almost daily temptations to contend with. Though I have reservations about practical solutions, I have decided to implement some firefighting measures to help strengthen my resolve while I buy myself the time to re-evaluate my relationship with whisky and how I interact with it. I will not be purchasing any bottles, splits or tastings during the month of March, and possibly longer; I need to prove to myself that I can fight the urge when something tempting shows up. When my wallet does reopen for business, I will be forcing myself to be more selective in my purchases by sticking to a strict monthly budget.
Time will tell whether this works, although so far, I have not faltered. I am optimistic. Only a few weeks in and I already feel more relaxed, as though a heavyweight is lifting. I am embarrassed that I allowed myself to lose control in the first place, however, I also relish the challenge and feeling of slowly regaining that control. I am feeling less of an urge each time a new release pops up, or a friend recommends something ‘incredible’. As the obsessive need for the next best thing is waning, I am enjoying what I already have open more. I am also rediscovering some of those forgotten whiskies at the back of the cupboard and I look forward to enjoying them patiently when their time comes to be opened, as well as the moments in time they take me back to.