An Enthusiast's Guide to Collecting Scotch Whiskies

An Enthusiast's Guide to Collecting Scotch Whiskies
Dalmore 45 Year Old, Source - Christie's

Whisky has long captivated connoisseurs and collectors with its depth of flavor and complexity, but the past few years have witnessed an intensified interest in this liquid gold, especially Scotch whisky. As this passion and curiosity for whisky spread worldwide, collectors find themselves fascinated not just by the drink but by its rising potential as an investment. We delve into the world of collecting scotch whiskies using additional insights from the 'Collecting guide: Single malt Scotch and Japanese whiskies by Christie’s' and 'Collecting guide: 7 key things to know about Scottish and American whiskies by Christie’s'.

Whisky Making: An Art of Time and Tradition

The production of whisky, often referred to as 'the water of life', primarily involves three ingredients: water, grain, and yeast. After a journey through fermentation and distillation, the raw materials transform into a high-alcohol spirit, the foundation for the final whisky product. But the magic doesn't end there; the newly created spirit must undergo the all-important process of ageing in oak barrels, which significantly shapes the whisky's final character.

The choice of oak barrel plays a pivotal role in determining the whisky's profile. Most Scotch whisky distilleries age their spirit in second-hand bourbon barrels carved from American oak, infusing the whisky with a sweet, fruity, and slightly spicy palate. European oak, primarily in the form of sherry butts, is also used, lending the whisky a darker color, heady aromatics, and robust flavors.

The Appeal of Scotch Whisky

One of the highlights of collecting Scotch whisky lies in the myriad of styles within the category, ranging from the potent, peat smoke-scented Islay malts to the light, fragrant lowland whiskies. The single malt from Scotland also differs from its American counterparts, which are typically softer and sweeter, given their primary grain base of corn or rye.

Collectors often have specific distilleries they favor. A standout among the most collectable whiskies at auction is The Macallan distillery. Known for its small stills, the distillery emphasizes the importance of the oak casks used for ageing, contributing up to 80% of the whisky's character. The result is a whisky recognized for its rich, sherry-accented character, round mouthfeel, and enduring finish.

The Whisky Market and Collecting Whiskies

The whisky market has grown significantly in recent years due to increased interest from collectors globally. Scotch whiskies offer a wide range of styles, from robust, peat smoke-scented Islay malts to light, fragrant lowland whiskies. American whiskies are typically softer and sweeter, whether Bourbon or the spicier Rye whiskies.

Collectors typically favour specific distilleries or compare styles produced in different decades to understand the evolution of distillation and ageing techniques. They are often drawn to atypical whiskies that deviate from a distillery's traditional style and whiskies from 'silent stills'—distilleries no longer in operation.

Bottles from 'silent stills' or defunct distilleries carry a sense of history and scarcity, making them highly sought after in auctions.

Getting Started with Whisky Collecting

For beginners, it's essential to start with the styles of whisky they enjoy or are intrigued by. The variety of whisky styles allows for an exciting exploration of different characters, regions, and distilleries. Starting a collection doesn't necessarily require hefty investment since many exceptional examples are available at relatively low price points.

Provenance is crucial when buying whiskies, and new collectors should be mindful of the source. Compared to wine, whisky is relatively easy to store since it is less vulnerable to temperature fluctuations. Spirits do not evolve in the bottle the way wine does; instead, their character remains unchanged until opened.

Collectors' preferences on how long they retain bottles in their collections vary widely, ranging from those who amass collections over decades to those who trade bottles shortly after purchase. The dynamic whisky market caters to multiple styles of collecting, providing a fascinating and rewarding hobby for enthusiasts worldwide.

Sources

Collecting guide: 7 key things to know about Scottish and American whiskies | Christie’s
Specialist Noah May looks at the upswing in the market, key distinctions in style and taste, and what collectors look for
Collecting guide: Single malt Scotch and Japanese whiskies | Christie’s
Noah May, Head of Wine & Spirits in London, introduces the most collectable whiskies in the world. Illustrated with examples offered on 9 September

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