“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.