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In Praise of the Closed Bottle

“OPEN YOUR BOTTLES!”

This is a frequent exhortation from all corners of the whiskeyverse. We’re told by some that a shelf full of unopened bottles is a cardinal sin, with all manner of accusations leveled at those who have yet to break the seals on their prized purchases. Whiskey is for enjoying and sharing, and you can’t do that so long as you haven’t yet popped the cork, right?

While I agree that some of the sentiments expressed above are well intended, I think that a blanket insistence that every bottle must be immediately accessible is misguided. In a few moments, I’ll argue against this viewpoint and mount a defense of unopened bottles.

My meditation on this subject was prompted by the feedback I got on a recent Twitter post. It all starts when I was welcomed by a friend to his house to celebrate our national holiday back in July. He had recently completed a renovation of his wine cellar, with a few shelves in the corner erected specifically for displaying some of the bottles in his whiskey collection. I snapped a photo (included above) and posted it, asking for reactions. Boy oh boy, did people react…

Some took issue with his choices. In total honesty, he has a few bottles on the shelf that I’d never buy [cough] Kentucky Owl [cough]. That’s OK, though. His tastes don’t have to correspond perfectly to my own. It’s his collection, and he’s entitled to his own opinion on which whiskeys are worthy of his personal expenditure.

More of the comments, however, were focused on the fact that all of the bottles pictured were unopened. I’m happy to report that this guy is one of the most generous fellows I know. I’ve been the recipient of his largesse in the form of numerous bottles gifted to me for birthdays, housewarming, and “just ‘cause.” Had I expressed enthusiasm for one or more of the particular whiskeys in his collection, I have no doubt that he would have promptly opened any of these bottles without a second thought.

You wouldn’t know that from just looking at the picture, though, so speculation ran rampant about what kind of person would accumulate such a stash without seeming to have actually sampled any of it. “Hoarder” and “flipper” were but a pair of the epithets hurled at him, with some hypothesizing that he was in it for the money rather than for a love of the water of life.

I, and numerous others, have railed in this space against those whose interest in whiskey is purely financial. Those who seek out bottles only to resell them for a profit are enriching themselves at the expense of others (often, it bears noting, illegally) and are the worthy subjects of scorn and condemnation.

“Hoarding” is a bit more problematic. As a concept, it is not clearly defined. A handful of bottles on a home bar shelf are clearly not a “hoard” by any reasonable interpretation of the term. How about a dozen bottles in a box in the basement? More of a collection if you ask me, and – based on my own experience, as well as a perusal of the collections of others – a modest one, at that. How about two dozen, or four dozen, or more than a hundred bottles? We’re getting into more murky territory here. If someone gazed upon my (always growing) pile of whiskey boxes and concluded that I was hoarding whiskey, it would be hard to argue convincingly that this wasn’t the case.

I’d posit that the delineating factor between buying, collecting, and hoarding resides in intent. For example, I only buy bottles that I plan to open immediately, or at some point in the future, even decades from now. Not a single one has been procured with profit in mind; on the contrary, I give away bottles for free or – when I do sell them – always pass them along at cost.

I’d suspect that most folks – even those with collections of bottles numbering in the triple digits – earnestly expect to enjoy the contents of those bottles “at some point.” That may not come quickly enough to satisfy those looking to throw stones, however, hence the approbation directed at my friend and those of our ilk, whose undisturbed accumulation of bottles outnumbers the ones that are ready to pour.

My friend Brett Atlas offered a novel and eminently sensible perspective on this during a discussion of “dusty whiskey.” For those that have not yet become acquainted with this term – here or elsewhere – “dusties” are bottles from the distant past, so-called because they have accumulated a dingy patina from years of storage.

Brett once observed that we only get to enjoy dusty whiskey today because someone didn’t open that bottle years or decades or (rarely, but not never) centuries ago. In fact, my first taste of dusty whiskey came courtesy of Brett, who opened and shared a taste of the legendary Old Crow “Chessmen” series from his own collection.

Speaking of boxes in basements: I have my own small “time capsule” of sorts, consisting of a set of bottles that I have sealed in a box marked “The Dusties of 2050.” These are whiskeys that I enjoy, and that are commonplace(ish) today. As a student of whiskey history, I know this might not always be the case. I have therefore chosen to preserve them so that, someday in the distant future, I might share them with others. That wouldn’t be possible if I opened them today and started pouring them.

All this to say: rather than engaging in a knee-jerk condemnation of the accumulated bottles of others, I’d urge you to reserve judgment. You might have your suspicions, but none of us can know what’s going on in someone else’s mind.

I had initially intended on appending a review to this meditation, but that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the spirit of the piece, now would it? I’ve got any number of bottles that would make for fine fodder, and they’ll be opened at some point in the future… just not today.

      1. Taylor says:

        Appreciate you saying so, thanks Matt. As with everything in life, moderation (in this case, a combination of opened and unopened bottles) is probably the wisest course of action.

  1. Tim says:

    Well said, Taylor. I have a collection approaching 300 bottles, many of which are open, many others are not. But I do plan to open every one at some point. And the best of them I have marked for what I hope will be momentous life milestones–my kids getting married, the birth of my grandchildren, the Jets winning the Super Bowl! And I think most “collectors” feel the same. But regardless, my response to the haters is this: ‘my bottle, my choice.” Cheers!

    1. Stretch says:

      Ooh, sorry about the Jets thing. At least the other milestones are achievable in your lifetime. Cheers and happy holidays!

    2. Jason Coates says:

      Hear hear! I’m glad someone’s saying this. People get far too possessive of others’ whisky and too few of us call them out for it.

      I happen to be sipping on a Glen Garioch 10 from the early 80s as I read this which really drives the point home. As Brett astutely pointed out, someone in ~1983 decided not to crack this bottle open and now, 40 years later, i get to enjoy both the rather tasty liquid as well as the fascinating lesson in spirits history it represents.

      Last month I picked up a handful of birth-year bottles at auction. I’m a 1979 vintage but not a multi-millionaire, so a ’79 bottled in 2023 is laughably off the table. ’79s bottled in 1996-2002, however, have proven well within my means. (And now, within my collection.) Another exciting opportunity I am afforded because someone at the turn of the century chose to stash these away for later and never found the right moment.

      I’m in the triple-digit camp with my bottles. The open ones are for drinking and the closed ones are for drinking later. I don’t flip. I’ve sold a grand total of one bottle, at my cost, to the penny. But it’s inevitable that I won’t get around to some of them, and in a few decades I’ll likely return the favor I’m experiencing right now to some thrilled whisky geek who never thought they’d get a chance to taste a Glendronach 18 from the mothball-extended years. Or whatever.

      This is the circle of whisky. It won’t spoil… relax.

      1. Taylor says:

        Jason, thanks much for the comment. So long as you’re one of the “good folks” who share generously, I certainly won’t be casting judgment on the size of your collection. And yes, everyone needs to relax!

        1. Hughie mcwean says:

          Taylor when my dad died the bottom of a four door wardrobe and a three door sideboard were full when his body came to the house my mum said to me what are we going to do with all this and she showed me I said why she said that was all his special bottles well e VC erybody who came to see him that night went home with a carrier bag each a son got it done you’re right whiskey for sharing and enjoying awe the best or down the hatch

  2. Alex says:

    And don’t forget the remarkable transformations spirits can make through bottle ageing. In northeastern France / Southwestern Germany, we like to rest Schnapps in their bottles for at least 10 years. I have a few young rough fairly cheap IB Islays that I think will evolve beautifully in the next 20 to 30 years. There is chemistry in spirits that works over very long timescales.

      1. Jason Coates says:

        Whisky absolutely changes in the bottle. Corks aren’t hermetically sealed and there is evaporation and oxygen exchange happening in there, albeit at a slow pace. Whisky is not chemically inert. It takes decades where wine only takes years, but bottle aging and OBE are very real.

        1. Aaron says:

          vinepair.com/articles/does-whiskey-age-in-bottle-after-opening/

          There are so many sites that prove you’re wrong. Here’s one of them.

          1. Alex says:

            Please be careful of the many inaccurate articles on the internet like the one you referenced written by non-specialists, and take care not to spread them. Instead, a fascinating place to start is to learn about the undisputedly most famous independent bottler, Silvano Samaroli, who was a strong advocate of bottle ageing, and some of his most famous bottlings which are so coveted because they have benefited trememdously from bottle ageing. To be clear, the science of bottle ageing is not understood (neither really is that of cask maturation), so we are left with impressions from whisky experts, but I urge you to try old young whiskies, especially peated or sherried (or both) ones, and you’ll probably be able to sense it yourself. Sometimes OBE can lead to loss of flavour, or somewhat unwanted metallic notes, but often it can lead to much improved texture, alcohol integration and a diversification of scents and flavours, if the bottle was stored in a good cellar.

  3. Oh really? says:

    I don’t know; I used to think that Malt tended towards well reasoned views, but this feels like a “hot take” that is willfully blind to one of the major issues driving the “open your bottles” chorus. Most of us who are interested enough in whisky to be reading this site have plenty of unopened bottles, and there is no harm in that alone. This issue only arises when … drumroll please … someone insists on posting photos of unopened bottles, or a collection thereof. Now normally it’s not the same scenario as that presented here — based on my experience, it’s most often the purchaser posting the photos — so this piece feels a bit contrived. But think, for a minute, why this response inevitably greets such photos. What’s the motivation for displaying one’s capped collection for a whole hörde of complete strangers to see? In my view it rarely has to do with a discussion of what’s in the bottle, as the poster likely hasn’t tried it.

    Also, as an aside, I want to point out that the diversion on “dusties” is, at best, an incredibly weak post-hoc justification for this type of attention seeking behavior. As the author should know, the term originally sprang from bottles that sat on store shelves for years, because not nearly as many people at the time cared about the spirits inside — so that people on the front edge of this current boom found lots of old stock at places where it had been neglected. This had very little to do with some conscientious group of collectors who never drank their old bottles and then decided to do current consumers the favor of letting them taste the past.

    1. Aaron says:

      This is 100% correct on all fronts. I know that this website suggests that they don’t take funding from large companies, but this article feels like it was paid for by Jeff Bezos haha.

    2. Taylor says:

      Brian, sorry the piece didn’t land for you. To selectively focus on your comment about dusties: I’m not pollyannaish enough to believe that every dusty bottle was the result of some wise and generous preservationist keeping them for posterity. Obviously, not a lot of people wanted the stuff until relatively recently. However, history (as always) has lessons for us, and one of those is that the same bottles won’t be available in perpetuity. If only for my own personal satisfaction and enjoyment, I’ll continue to keep bottles closed for decades to come.

      1. Alex says:

        Please be careful of the many inaccurate articles on the internet like the one you referenced written by non-specialists, and take care not to spread them. Instead, a fascinating place to start is to learn about the undisputedly most famous independent bottler, Silvano Samaroli, who was a strong advocate of bottle ageing, and some of his most famous bottlings which are so coveted because they have benefited trememdously from bottle ageing. To be clear, the science of bottle ageing is not understood (neither really is that of cask maturation), so we are left with impressions from whisky experts, but I urge you to try old young whiskies, especially peated or sherried (or both) ones, and you’ll probably be able to sense it yourself. Sometimes OBE can lead to loss of flavour, or somewhat unwanted metallic notes, but often it can lead to much improved texture, alcohol integration and a diversification of scents and flavours, if the bottle was stored in a good cellar.

  4. Aaron says:

    There are so many things wrong with this article that I don’t have space here to write them all, so I’m just going to focus on one of the biggest issues which is your “future dusties”. The biggest problem with what you are talking about is the fact that whiskeys were made completely differently before 1985. First of all, the oak trees used for barrels were older, so the barrels were a lot better quality and more compact. Secondly, before 1985 distillers were allowed to use fertilizer in the distillation process. This is highly regarded as the the reason why actual “dusties” have such a rich flavor. So no, your dusties won’t be anywhere near as good as the actual dusties of old. They physically can’t be. And if you wanted to talk about the actual problem with these rich hoarders, the problem is that most whiskey lotteries are completely classist. They give good allocated whiskeys only to the people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year on the hobby.

    1. Taylor says:

      Aaron, I am not laboring under the delusion that a bottle stashed away today will bear any resemblance to the dusty bottles of yore. As you point out, production processes changed in certain key regards that produced changes in flavor profile, which is why dusties from the 70s and before taste the way they do.

      With that in mind, what’s to say that things won’t change again? The industry is adding massive amounts of capacity. This means new equipment, new stills, and new warehouses. Might that change the flavor profile of the whiskey to be produced in the future? If so, wouldn’t it be fun to have an older bottle around to reference? I think so, which is why I am keeping my little time capsule of bottles.

  5. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,
    much of what has been said if not all that has been said is absolutely right – viewed from a certain point of view. Or absolutely false with the same certainty and another point of view.
    I am not a collector nor a hoarder and certainly no flipper – I am just a guy behind on his drinking for years. Too many years.
    In the glory days of whisky now past and seen from an European point of view – between 2010 and 2020 give or take – it was easy to buy two or three bottles of whisky to try and to keep or because one read a interesting review about it. But those were the days when every day another new and interesting bottling you could afford materialised and you bought another two to three bottles of it to sample in the near future and to be able to repeat the experience but along came those other interesting bottles in rapid succession…. and so the weeks months and years passed and the cellar filled up.
    To cut a long story short – my whisky buying in the last five years is in the negative now but that is another story.
    As I didn’t steal the bottles and they are legally mine what is it to you what I do with them ? If or when I open them? I totally agree that whisky is made for drinking for sharing and enjoying in company in the best of cases but if not then not.
    I also agree the the flipper ist the enemy of the true connoisseur because his behaviour lead the whisky industry to get the idea that they should participate in this price driving scheme and to partake in the ever rising prices. The called this short sighted strategy premiumisation another word for shrinking one’s own market. But that is still another story.
    So in a way everyone is right or everyone is wrong. It just depends on where your priorities ly.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    1. Taylor says:

      Cheers, as always, for the comments kaskallander. The whisky/whiskey industry and market continue to evolve and change. Of course, everyone has an opinion on this (as evinced by the volume and tone of comments on this piece), and this reflection is just a collection of my own thoughts on the matter. I agree with your assessment that the flipper is the enemy of the connoisseur; we’ve seen the industry respond as you noted, with heritage distilleries moving pricing closer to “secondary.” All that to say: we’ll continue to watch this space, and I’ll continue to share my thoughts on it.

  6. Jerb says:

    I really appreciate this article. For me, I have a small collection of unopened bottles that I bought because the opportunity presented itself and these are bottles that are not usually just readily available on the shelf or that I can’t find in my state and so buy when I am traveling. I have probably 70-80 bottles open in my collection right now and it takes me forever to drink a bottle because I don’t drink too often (a couple times a week isn’t often, is it?) and have so many bottles open.

    Having unopened bottles that I fully intend to open someday gives me something to look forward to. There are few things that match the feeling of opening a new bottle of whiskey that you are excited about and having several bottles in my collection that are unopened means that when I am feeling in the mood to open a new bottle, I can just go to my cabinet and pick a new bottle and enjoy opening and trying something new. I will always have a collection of unopened bottles that I can look forward to.

    1. Taylor says:

      Thanks much for your kind words, Herb. I share your sense of hopefulness and excitement about (as yet) unopened bottles, even more so when the opportunity arises to share them with others. Cheers!

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