gavin smith

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John Lamond is author of The Malt Whisky File (now into its seventh edition) and The Whisky Connoisseur's Companion. He has created "the world's first Scotch whisky evening class", an eight week course which runs at Glasgow College of Food Technology. He is also the tutor on Moray College, Elgin's CD-based Whisky Course, available to Open Learning students from around the world. John has worked in the drinks industry since 1974 and lectured for the past 16 years.

Whisky collectors; to be praised or pitied?

by John Lamond, 03/07

I'm torn, undecided, confused.

I believe that distillery managers make whisky to be drunk. All of their efforts - the finest barley they can obtain, the purest water available to them, the centuries of experience amassed by their staff - are directed to produce as high a quality as possible so that we, the drinkers, can receive truly ecstatic pleasure from each glassful. Therefore, it is almost obscene for collectors to squirrel away rare and superlative bottlings which will only be looked on and admired by themselves, their friends, competitors and their acolytes. Never to be opened. Never to be tasted. Sad, isn't it?

   I know that there are people out there with collections containing upwards of 5,000 bottles of whisky. But, is collecting bottles of whisky not a bit like collecting art? It gets to the stage where you have so many paintings that you have to put some in storage, to gather dust, unseen.

Your wall space is full of your latest/best purchases and there isn't room for those languishing in a warehouse somewhere. Paintings desire to be looked at in the same way that whisky desires, nay, demands to be drunk! As I have said before, distillery staff "...don't make spirit for stripping paint off doors, for preserving human organs, or for disinfecting wounds."

For these collectors, the contents of the bottle should be (relatively) unimportant, but, as we know, there are unscrupulous individuals out there in the big, bad world who see a way of making a fast buck from an item that has become very collectable.

Klaus, a friend in Brisbane, once contacted me to ask my opinion of the value of a bottle which belonged to a drinking buddy of his in Oz. He advised that it was a 16-year-old Macallan. My first reaction was, "No, Macallan have never produced a 16-year-old", but he was adamant and finally sent me a photograph of this bottle. The label looked very good, and, on the whole, so did the bottle - until I noticed the cap. No Macallan bar top cork covered by a capsule, this was a Stelvin screwcap, something which the company has never used. When this was pointed out, his friend was not a happy little bunny.

You and I will never experience many of these disgustingly expensive bottlings, we will never get to sample the ecstasy of their ancient flavours. So, should the whisky collectors of the world be legally enforced to throw parties during which these glories should be opened so that you and I can taste them? All in the wider interests of education, of course!

Recently, disturbing thoughts have been sown in what I laughingly call a brain; thoughts that these collectors are actually preservationists. By not drinking the last few bottles of these gems - and more mundane bottlings - collectors are effectively acting as archaeologists of alcohol and preserving our disappearing spirituous heritage.

Their collections have enabled large distilling companies, which didn't discover heritage until quite recently, to buy back some of these historic bottles at auction. This has enabled them to expand their archives and push their museums of distilling some way closer to completion. As such, the collectors' acquisitive - and abstemious - habits are to be commended.

Thus, as I sit here, uncertain of which way to turn, you can appreciate my quandary - do I vilify them, or extol them?


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