A trend that has accompanied the rising popularity of American whiskey is American whiskey collecting. The voyeuristic fascination with hoarding, a staple of reality television, leads naturally to the question of where the line between a healthy pastime and an unhealthy obsession lies.
There are many people whose whiskey collection numbers in the hundreds of bottles who don’t seem in danger of being found buried beneath them. Others lose control after a few cases. What's the difference?
Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College and the author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, draws the line this way:
“For collectors, new possessions become part of a larger set of items and considerable time and energy go into organizing and displaying them. When collecting is healthy, the display or storage of these things does not impede the use of active living areas of the home. When a collector expands acquisitions beyond well-defined collections and loses the ability to keep these possessions organized, it becomes a hoarding problem.”
So, if your collection is neatly arrayed on shelves in one room, organized by distillery or in some other fashion, you're okay no matter how many bottles you own. But if they are hidden in cases, stuck into every nook and cranny, you’re not quite sure what you have, nor how many, and your kids can’t find their bikes, you may have issues.
If all or part of your collection is in a rented storage locker that your spouse doesn’t know about, seek immediate professional attention.
Psychologists say one way to keep collecting in a healthy range is to have clear goals and strategies.
What constitutes a collection? This is arbitrary, but let’s say if you have more than a dozen bottles of any one type of distilled spirit, i.e., more than a case, and you don't live in the wilderness, days from the nearest liquor store, that’s a collection. You may collect primarily to give yourself a diverse inventory for future drinking, but you're still collecting.
Whiskey collectors should be distinguished from bottle collectors. People who try to collect all or a subset of the commemorative bottles put out by Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, or another producer are bottle collectors, not whiskey collectors. Commemoratives rarely contain special whiskey.
Whiskey collectors collect for the contents, not the package, which is why the contents must be consumed. This gives the pastime a charmingly evanescent quality. If you’re drinking from your collection, and consider few or no bottles to be off limits, that’s healthy. It should help keep things from getting out of control, even if there is more net ingress than egress.
For some whiskey collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt more than the acquisitions themselves. The size of their stash may rise exponentially when they score, then shrink as those finds are depleted and not immediately replaced.
Such collectors typically have very specific things they look for and when they find them, they don’t stop at one or two bottles. They clean the place out.
What do people collect? In one sense or another, most collectors seek scarcity. If the selection in your bunker mirrors that of your local whiskey monger, what’s the point?
The trick is buying in anticipation of scarcity. Age-stated bottles of Weller Special Reserve, for example, were in ample supply when the NAS label appeared in 2011, but are now scarce. Some might say, “but it was a label change, the whiskey didn’t change.” Yes and no. Label changes may not indicate an immediate product change, but they usually predict that one is coming.
When a limited edition product has several releases, some people have to have every release. With single barrels, some people try to collect one bottle from as many different barrels as they can find.
Sazerac makes more than 30 different brands of bourbon, many with multiple expressions, and Heaven Hill has a similarly large stable. They are constantly tweaking their portfolios and don’t generally announce when something is being discontinued, nor when they change a proof or drop an age statement. All such events are opportunities for collectors.
There are ways to get advance word of some of these changes. In control states, producers typically have to notify the state when something is discontinued and that information is usually public. Most ABCs put that information on their web site, but you have to know how to look for it. That requirement typically covers proof changes but not age statements. You only learn about those when the new label ships.
The window to snap up abandoned versions is typically small, but you might get lucky and find them marked down. Some retailers don’t like the potential for confusion when they have two different labels for the same product on the shelf together, so they may blow out the old stock. If the store has a cut-outs bin, watch for them there.
(For more suggestions, buy the book.)