For some time now I have been flummoxed at auction prices for limited releases.
Who pays £1,800 for something that was just £75 18 months ago? Who are these mysterious collectors? Fortuitously, during lockdown 1.0 my whisky network took a bit of a new turn when I joined a whisky club and met several serious collectors. Even within the polite confines of the club there is a real tension between those who see themselves as whisky drinking enthusiasts and those who bartered and traded for whisky to be added to collections. I personally have never had the urge to collect anything; any accumulations being accidental rather than deliberate.
I have pulled togther some background about collecting including biological and psychological factors that can drive people to collect anything and follow with the collectors interview. I finish the article with a review of a sample 1975 Ben Nevis which I received from Rohit; another collector and whisky club member.
About a third of people in the UK collect something. Their reasons and manner vary hugely. For some, like the football fan who collects club memorabilia, it is a way to express loyalty; for others, like the stamp collector proud of rare finds, there can be an obsessive streak.
Biologically the dopamine hit in the frontal cortex (nucleus accumbens) is similar scientifically to substance abuse – not that collecting is necessarily an addiction, but it does highlight the compulsive nature of collecting. The nature of the collecting whisky involves multiple hits of dopamine at each point in the acquisition process from finding and securing a bottle to receiving the delivery. Beyond the biological there are almost as many theories in psychology as there are collectible editions of Macallan.
Psychologically Sigmund Freud first talked about collecting as object fixation related to potty training. Now much of Freud’s work has been set aside by modern experts and I’m not sure any of the collectors I spoke with would regard themselves as anal retentive! More recent scholarly articles have suggested collectors are spurred on as a reaction to childhood loneliness:
“Child observation shows us that the infant may look to alternative solutions for dealing with the anticipation of vulnerability, of aloneness and anxiety, and often will be looking for a tangible object like a comforter, a cushiony doll, or the proverbial security blanket to provide solace which is not, or rather was not, forthcoming. Thus, the collector, not unlike the religious believer, assigns power and value to these objects because their presence and possession seem to have a modifying-usually pleasure-giving-function in the owner” (Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 44 (1), 312-315, 1996)
More recently multiple theories have emerged in psychology including suggestions the urge goes back to Hunter gatherer roots. Or the theory about collecting being driven by a desire to master one’s universe. To control it. That control can also be seen in a desire for reviewing and rearranging of a collection.
There can be pleasure from acquiring the greatest collection and certain perceived bragging rights. Reinforcers can be related to acquiring an object below market value. Others simply enjoy the thrill of the chase, which in whisky terms can span the planet and involve multiple platforms and huge personal networks. Since the internet collecting is increasingly social, via Internet forums and clubs. Another social aspect is the pleasure of visitors sharing their admiration when viewing a collection.
All the reinforcers mentioned above involve an element of anticipation and, according to Shirley Mueller MD (“The Neuropsychology of the Collector” 2009)
“In its nascent stage, as yet unactuated, the collector’s desire allows her or him to imagine anything she or he wants to about the desired returns the object will bring. It is in this hopeful phase that the pleasure center burns most brightly. When magnetic resonance imaging is performed the nucleus accumbens erupts with activity when a reward is anticipated.”
I’d like to introduce you to my colleagues from the whisky club and begin by thanking them for their openness. John* is in his 20s, lives in London and manages investments in stocks, businesses, and property. Jimmy is in Denmark, 40, a family man, focussed on living a great life now without worrying too much about the rainy-days, enjoying nice holidays and of course whisky. Jay runs a property company in London involving sales, leasing, and management. When not hunting down limited whisky he is a bit of a car nut enjoying an incredible family car collection in Zurich. Ritchie* is based in Europe, running complex international logistics for an intergovernmental organisation. They have been collecting whisky for between 2 and 7 years and will certainly have a cumulative collection of whisky greater than half a million quid. Added together their monthly budget for whisky can exceed the average UK income. I think I have found the guys I used to wonder about!
Malt: Have you collected other things besides whisky? And is whisky the main focus of your collecting now?
Ritchie: Before I started collecting whisky, I already collected watches and old Italian bicycles which have been used at the Giro or Tour de France. Within the last years I switched onto collecting whisky and I am putting most of my free time into this affection.
Jay: Yes, I have always been a collector even as a teenager, started with DVD’s and CD’s and moved on to collectible model cars and at the moment vintage movie poster amongst other things; but now whisky is my main focus.
John: I used to like collecting stamps and old bank notes. I really love watches and will start collecting watches more seriously soon. But for now, whisky is my only collection.
Malt: What was it about whisky that triggered your interest in collecting?
Jimmy: I did start drinking whisky in my youth, enjoying having a nice dram. Through the years more expensive brands and rare bottles came to my knowledge. For some years ago, new distilleries start to open up. Having a chance of being a part of them from the beginning. I started to search the web for the exact Distillery for me. One day I fell in love with this great story, this great telling. I found my distillery; I even had the chance to be a part of something special: The Bimber Distillery Founders club this distillery is now my sole collecting focus.
John: Some of my close friends have incredibly beautiful whisky collections. The sheer beauty of different sets; and their stories of the chase to complete these sets really resonated with me. In addition, the whisky community makes the whole experience very satisfying and enjoyable, I have made a lot of friends who share the same passion for whisky; which has actually made me fall in love with sharing and tasting all sorts of whisky. We often share a dram with friends and geek out a bit about the complexities of them. I have not come across other areas of collecting which are as social.
I think you can appreciate that whisky more than old coins or bank notes has more a tangible feel. Old stuff might be historically significant and even more rare but the only ever enjoyment is seeing it, which is not enough for me. With whisky you have the physical, but you can also get the sensory through tasting, and social by sharing.
Malt: What Whiskies are you currently collecting and why?
Jay: I enjoyed drinking whisky so started collecting various to drink, then I wanted bottles that looked nice for the shelf and it grew from there. That’s why my current collections are Hibiki/ Suntory; the beautiful design on the bottles, Blue Label also due to the beautiful limited bottle designs, Bimber because it is a local brand and I like what they do.
Ritchie: Right now, I am fascinated by Irish whiskey and my main priority is Japanese whisky, especially Chichibu and Hibiki. The design of the brands bottlings is very important for collecting them. Therefore, I mainly collect Hibiki and Chichibu. But I like unusual bottlings as well like Puni from Italy and the small 20cl Akkeshi bottlings.
John: I am currently collecting Macallan (mostly vintage bottles and some recent collectables), Chichibu, Karuizawa, and older bottles of Imperial, Springbank and Laphroaig. Any Closed/demolished distilleries, interesting labels for distilleries I enjoy that might that catch my eye, t limited edition sets that seem interesting or are well presented. Various independent bottlers, distillery first releases, so you can see I am not too specific, but I collect with my intuition and feeling.
Malt: Some non-collectors point out is that whisky is a drink to be consumed, not stored and collected. How does the consumable nature of whisky influence your collecting as opposed to something like collecting ‘paperweights’ or other inanimate objects?
Jay: For me, the limited editions become an inanimate object. To be enjoyed visually.
Ritchie: I simply like the fact, that I do have various options on what I would like to achieve with any whisky bottle. For me it’s important, that there is at least the value of consumption if the whole whisky bubble would be reaching its peak. I prefer to put 10-15% of my savings into resources like whisky to be secured against any hyperinflation, which might appear due to Covid/Brexit etc.
John: I may eventually open drink and share every bottle I have collected one day. As I am not focussed on investment their opinion does not influence me in anyway. I buy what I choose, and I choose when to enjoy them. Furthermore, my enjoyment is extended by seeing my collection beautifully stacked and remembering each story of how hard I worked to obtain that specific bottle. So my consumption with hard to find bottles is actually each time I see them which is an enjoyment over and over until I open one. Not that anyone has a right to tell me how to enjoy my whisky or to be honest impose their own opinions about what they think someone should do with whisky on me.
Jimmy: Off course whisky is to be collected, why not? Stamps are to be put on letters. Coins is to be used, making sure economy keeps on, not to be saved in a drawer.
There a different type of collectors out there. Sometimes things have been collected only to be found many years later, to either enjoy or to remind us about the past.
Malt: how do you store your collection? In a display or in ideal conditions to protect the whisky?
Ritchie: My bottles are stored in a secured warehouse and insured. Some special bottles on display at home as I am living with wife/kids and I promised to display only 30 bottles within our living room.
Jay: I keep them in my home office in a cabinet that doesn’t get direct sunlight. Due to covid some are in temporary storage but will eventually all be on display. [Jay’s collection photo is used above]
John: I only display a few special bottles at the moment due to some space restrictions, but I hope to create a more extensive display in due course.
Malt: Does the investment value in whisky influence your collecting behaviour?
John: For me the love of whisky comes first. But it is also fair to say that I do not want to throw money away; so, the value of whisky and paying a fair price with an eye on future value must always be a consideration.
Jay: Yes, at times, I will buy bottles because of the investment value or I will sell if I hear the value is so crazy, I need to.
Malt: What sort of strategies to you employ to help you with collecting?
Jay: I have an extensive private network of individuals and we all work together to source bottles from around the world. I have a contact in most countries including Australia, America, Africa, Japan, Europe etc. I also have contacts directly in shops, at companies and I keep my eye on auctions. I also keep my ear to the ground on releases and will sign up to newsletters.
John: Most important is my personal network of other trusted collectors for trading and swapping; searching through auction sites to an extent; and maintaining strong relationships with retailers to secure pre-orders and pre-sales.
Jimmy: I do have one store, put away bottles for me, priority customer. Also, I have a great network of swapping bottles. Lots of friends in the whisky society, alerting me. They know what I like to collect. I don’t use of bots; this is for me not a part of the game. Though it seems more and more to be used by flippers, to get those unicorns.
Ritchie: I purchased 2 bots from which one of them is working pretty successful to order my requested items. Secondly, I am having a network of colleagues which all of them are working for an International Organisation. This means, they are coming from all over the world. Therefore, I have contacts to almost all countries which gives me the opportunity to purchase all kind of limited-edition bottlings.
Malt: How do you feel having to buy new releases at auction from flippers when you were not able to secure one at retail for yourself?
Ritchie: I simply don’t have to do this as I am the guy being able to secure those bottles for my friends and myself for retail price.
Jay: I dislike it but accept that sometimes it is the only way you can go. From time to time, you can buy a release from a flipper or at auction for not a bad price comparatively.
John: I try to make sure that does not happen, not to jinx anything, but it does not happen much. Buying flipped bottles makes the problem worse. But if the price is right to allow me to complete a set I may reluctantly do it. However, when the price is too much, I would rather offload the incomplete set than feel like I had been ripped off for the last one. Ultimately, I don’t care who is selling the bottle, or their motivation. If I want that bottle, then I am prepared to pay for it.
Jimmy: to be honest, once in a while, I only get THAT bottle, because some flipper got it. Once in a while I may have paid a bit too much for a bottle. But I was able to secure it in my collection. For example: Bimber Tudor House 25th anniversary, was sold on some website, for three times the RRP and more. I hated that, and waited it out, just to pay 4 times the price. Today its 10 times the price, if you wanted to buy it.
Malt: What’s the most you’ve spent on a single bottle and do you regard that as good value?
Ritchie: I have paid an insane amount of money for my Karuizawa White Warrior bottle. This bottle will probably never be opened by myself and I will sell this bottle probably with a massive return-on-investment.
Jay: £5500 for a 35yo Karuizawa Fazzino Edition. It was an incredible piece, but I felt I had too much money in the bottle and ended up selling it for a small profit. I have spent £4000 on a Hibiki bottle and on a few occasions £3000-3500.
John: Absolutely my best buy was when I bought a few Macallan Folio 1 for £1500 each and see they are now going for £8500. Some of most costly bottles I bought include a Karuizawa in region of £20k; it’s difficult to be sure if that’s always good money now or if it’s going to be long term good value. I did buy a Macallan 52 for roughly £45k; that used to sell for £80k-90k but has really dropped in value now. Good value? I’m not too happy about it; actually, I may offload this one.
Malt: Do you worry about fakes in the secondary market and what measures do you take to protect yourselves?
John: I do worry about fakes. Even though I only use reputable auction houses or trade with people I trust I have still been caught out. On one occasion once I paid £500 for a vintage SMWS bottle but once I had it in my hands a few things did not feel right. I did some personal investigation and saw that it had been sold a month earlier at another auction house (there were tell-tale clues on the label), I wondered why someone else would have offloaded it so quickly. Then I found that the colour of the liquid did not seem right either in comparison to other bottles from the same cask. When I raised it with the auctioneer their service was excellent, and they took the bottle back and refunded me very quickly. Without any fuss. Since then I have been more cautious.
Jimmy: For sure, I worry. These fake bottle stories come up a lot in the collection world. I am super cautious when swapping, getting to know people takes time and I am prepared to walk away at the last minute if I can’t trust that person. It’s not just the fakes, I got badly scammed on my credit card when trying to buy a bottle once.
Jay: Of course, anyone who is not worried is reckless or lying. The best advice is if you are unsure don’t buy it. Also know what a real one looks like is critical. For example, in 2018 I was approached by a non-whisky collector with a super rare Hibiki at a great price, but he was 10,000 miles away. My first thought was this was too good to be true. But I was able to send someone I trust who was nearby to photo and video key parts of the bottle and I was satisfied it was genuine and could continue with the purchase.
Malt: Within collecting what is your greatest satisfaction and greatest frustration?
Ritchie: My greatest frustration is getting every week cancellation emails or increasing of prices. And my greatest satisfaction is the achievement in being able to purchase those bottles which everybody wants.
Jay: For me the greatest frustration is when you are 1 or 2 bottles away from completing a collection and they are exceptionally rare or impossible, like the The London Whisky Club Exclusive Bimber. So, my greatest satisfaction is completing these tricky sets.
John: My greatest satisfaction is the chase for something hard, very hard, and getting it and seeing it on my shelves. The most frustrations occur because I do not enjoy technology and the retail market for new releases is increasingly cut-throat. For the bottles one needs to buy in seconds I usually miss out. I know other people out there know the tricks and work it faster. Hence, I lose out a lot to flippers.
Jimmy: The greatest satisfaction is the hunt. Simple as that. That’s why my greatest frustration is missing out a bottle, that I didn’t even know had released or existed. Not ever being in the game.
Malt: Do you have a fixed end goal for your collection and, if so, what would you do with it when it’s complete?
Jay: Some I am looking at casks 1-100, some it is to complete a set and some I like the look of labels or packaging. I will probably keep turning the collection, no end goal really.
Ritchie: I will collect a special bottle every year for my kids and once they reach 18 years, they gonna receive a collection which should be worth enough to let them buy a very fancy car. After I complete this goal I will probably focus on a new mission.
John: With some new distilleries I have bottles from casks 1-100 for other new distilleries I am working towards that target. I’ve no specific end goal but I do want to ensure the collection is worth more at a later stage. I also hope that it would be a respected collection known for being quality bottles renowned for flavour. I reserve the right to change my collection by selling off some stuff and targeting new things. If some bottles make a lot I might sell and go on to rarer or harder to find bottles.
Jimmy: All Bimber, as long it makes sense. I guess at some point I’ll fall too far behind to make this a realistic goal. Then who knows?
Malt: What whiskies are you drinking at home at the moment?
Jimmy: Bimber, Kingsbarns, Fary Lochan [Danish Single Malt Whisky], Daftmill, Kilkerran
John: I am currently enjoying a number of Ardbeg committee releases; I just finished the Ardbeg 25 and Glendronach Kingsman with friends. I have some Chichibu open but the cheaper end one like the London, Paris and On the Way editions. And a lot of SMWS and various IB Bottles.
Ritchie: Springbank Local Barley, Springbank 17 Madeira, Redbreast Dream Cask, The Whisky Agency The perfect dram Irish 29y
Jay: Chichibu, Hibiki, John Walkers.
Malt: Finally, collectors have been getting a bad name for inflating the prices at auction, in turn inflating the retail prices of new releases. Do you believe that? Do you have any comment?
John: As is said before I don’t understand when the rule was made that whisky has to be consumed if you own it. When I start collecting watches and don’t want to wear one for fear it cannot be replaced or I may scratch it will someone say you have no right, it’s made to be worn? I don’t think so. Why is whisky any different? Everyone should do what suits them. Don’t get me wrong I hate flippers though it’s really none of my business. Everyone has a right to do as they wish with anything. I know some people are passionate that every bottle should be opened immediately but tough luck. Living to change others will never work; the flippers have made it harder for me too, but this is life.
Ritchie: I don’t care at all about this point. All consumers have equal chances to purchase those bottles.
Jimmy and Jay chose to pass on this one.
Well. Phew. I’m sure a few readers will have been a little triggered at points but consider this: all of these guys are passionate whisky drinkers like you. They are equally bought into the distillery stories as we are. They exhibit between them most of the characteristics of all collectors of things; these guys just happen to have landed on whisky. There can be no doubt that these guys have worked extremely hard to build the kind of networks that give them a fighting chance of reaching their collection goals in tough market conditions. They too love to get a bargain. They too hate the flippers but some of them accept that some trading is always required to build a collection.
I’m going to wish, Jay, Jimmy, Ritchie and John the best of luck in their endeavours and mind my own business! Let’s get on to a whisky review. I’m sure ready for a stiff drink.
Ben Nevis 1975 26 Years Old. Bottled in 2001. Cask Number 945. ABV 53.9%
Nose: Prickly gooseberry, damp orchard, unripe mango, unripe honeydew, petrichor, camphor.
Taste: Smooth introduction; lemon opal fruits; tinned pineapple juice leading to pink peppercorns; a beautiful incredibly oily mouthfeel; fennel bulb and after fennel seeds; crystalised ginger; the finish is mildly woody; a hint of salt; slightly drying but the oily nature of the spirit carries the mid palate late into the finish.
Well this is a lovely dram not quite a fruit bomb but nicely juicy with plenty of the interesting funky notes Ben Nevis is known for. If someone had insisted that the original purchaser in 2001 had drunk this whisky, neither I, nor at least 10 other whisky club members who shared this, could have tried it 20 years later. Let’s leave it at that. Thanks to Rohit for sharing his bottle with us and for the photo.
*’John’ and ‘Richie’ asked that their names were changed to protect their privacy.