There is no good or bad whisky, it’s (literally) all a matter of taste – or so I’m told. While this may be true to some extent, not all whiskies are created equal. So why does someone decide to become a whisky collector and more importantly, how do you choose the bottles in your collection?
I’ve always been confused by the fact that whisky is a drink but collectors typically don’t actually drink their collectable bottles. So whisky worth thousands of dollars in beautiful bottles is displayed and admired for years, decades, but rarely – if ever – opened. Perplexed as ever, I went to Lebanon’s authority on whisky, Makram Salha, beverage & tobacco curator at Vinum Ltd., and a man who over the last decade has amassed arguably the largest and most impressive whisky collection in the country – if not the region – at Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel.
The first thing I learned is that whiskies aren’t typically referred to as “luxurious” – the industry calls them rare, collectible and limited edition. But whatever you call it, if you’re purchasing a bottle worth hundreds or thousands of dollars there are many factors to carefully consider. Patsy Christie, bar advisor at Vinum Ltd., boils down value: “two things make something valuable, the story of how [the item]was made, and the fact that you can’t get it anymore, it’s exclusive. As long as this item – whether it’s a vintage designer handbag or a bottle of rare whisky – stays in perfect condition, its value increases every day.”
That means collectors must look out for the specifics that make whisky collectible (see part three: How to select a rare whisky). Salha and Christie agree that every detail can change the liquid – everything from the weather, the soil at the bottom of the warehouse, the position of the cask in the warehouse (it gets hotter the higher you go), humidity, etc. Some distilleries are more reputable than others and certain collectors have a greater affinity for specific brands because they trust their process. The Macallan distillery in Scotland, for example, controls its whole supply chain from start to finish, starting with the land on which oak trees are grown, down to the distribution and sales of the bottles. “By having so much control the distillery has more economic stability, quality control and the means to innovate – it’s your own so you can do anything,” explains Christie.
This is also why many distilleries try to win over clients, inviting them to their premises for unique experiences that include tours, sampling raw whisky straight from casks, blending workshops, and, very rarely, even allowing top clientele to make their own whisky, where they can choose every detail themselves and wait for years and years before tasting the result.
Making, maturing and marrying
Jonathan Driver has almost three decades of experience in the whisky industry and currently serves as the director of Rare Whiskey at Whyte and Mackay, which owns and operates The Dalmore distillery in Scotland and others. He explains that to make whisky, you basically have to make beer, which is then distilled. That liquid is further distilled a second time, and that’s where the character and flavor of the whisky starts to come through.
One of the most important factors in the taste of whisky is the wood in which it is stored for many years. “When you make a cask of whisky, you can never ever make that cask again. It’s the same for any alcohol that spends time in wooden casks, because each cask of wood is different,” Christie says, adding that this is the reason people also collect cognac, brandy and rum (which mature in wooden casks) but not vodka (which doesn’t) nearly as much. “It’s all about the wood. What makes aged spirits rare is the fact that they’ve spent time in oak, and that turns them into something that can never be replicated,” she says. Salha agrees that a really valuable whisky is single cask, because it’s completely unique. “Most whiskies are made by man; a whisky maker goes around and tastes different casks and blends or vats them together to create a specific taste. But a single cask whisky is made by nature, and it can never be replicated,” he says.
All casks must be made of oak but the species of oak and region in which it’s grown, as well as how it’s been treated and what was in the cask before, all have an affect on the final product. The size and shape of the cask also make a difference. Whisky in smaller casks matures faster, points out Salha. In the world of whisky, a barrel is not a synonym for cask, but rather, a specific size of cask that usually holds 200 liters. A 500 liter cask can be called a butt or a puncheon, each of which is a different shape – and even the shape of the cask affects the liquid.
Some whiskies are more rare because they are fewer in number. Sometimes a distillery will produce a limited number of bottles simply because it can’t produce anymore – because of evaporation, a factor that can’t be predicted or controlled. Salha explains, “evaporation is close to 2 percent annually and it’s the quantity of liquid and the strength of the alcohol that decrease,” adding that distilleries need to be careful not to let ABV drop below 40 percent as this would no longer be considered whisky.
“A cask is a complex, unregulated environment, and because it’s so unpredictable these are the fingerprints of what makes this cask and the whisky inside it unique,” says Salha. Each time they fill a cask, whisky distilleries are taking a risk; they don’t know exactly what is happening inside a cask until they actually taste it. Whisky makers start sampling the liquid annually after it’s matured for about seven to ten years, and at some point they have to make a batch of whisky. The whisky maker’s job is to decide which (and how many) casks to marry. Since these casks often vary in age, the age on the label indicates the youngest liquid in that bottle.
Buyers also take a risk in that they are buying bottles not to open them and drink them but to collect them, so usually they never actually taste the whisky inside. Christie explains that while clients may not know what’s inside, the whisky maker who created it does, and the brand’s reputation is what clients have to trust. When it comes to really rare bottles, the distillery will usually open a bottle for buyers to be able to taste what they are buying.
Scotland and beyond
Scotland is widely recognized as the whisky capital of the world, with an industry worth close to £4 billion a year [$5.24 billion]. Millions of casks are currently sitting in Scottish warehouses maturing, while almost 1.2 billion bottles are exported annually. The Scotch Whisky Association divides the country into five official whisky-producing regions, each of which is characterized by unique flavors.
By law, in order to be called Scotch Whisky the spirit must be made and bottled in Scotland the traditional way. If you do anything differently it will just be called whisky, and this makes any kind of innovation difficult in Scotland. “All our records were kept so we still make whisky the exact same way today as we did in the past, and we have the same character in the spirits,” Driver says of The Dalmore. But the distillery is maneuvering around the rules, changed the cask maturation process by letting liquid mature in stages, spending various amounts of time in different casks, which gives the whisky a wider array of aromas. “Although it’s still the traditional method, the casks are used in a new way to put in more levels of complexity and flavor,” explains Driver.
But Scotch isn’t necessarily the only good kind of whisky. “Scotch single malts have a high place in the world of whisky, there’s no doubt. But there are more and more whiskies that are coming out every year from countries you wouldn’t traditionally think about – Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, India, Ireland and Taiwan are some of them,” says Christie. Many of the high end varieties from these countries are available in Lebanon.
Collectors and drinkers
In fact Lebanon is a surprisingly influential market, and not just as the regional trendsetter it’s always said to be, says Driver, pointing out the Lebanese don’t just drink whisky, they drink a wide variety of whiskies: “Lebanon is a good market globally, which is surprising because it’s small. It has something very unusual – it’s an environment where you can sell a wide range of whiskies. The attractiveness here is about value, there’s a lot of whisky business here and lot of people are drinking better and better whiskies.”
Indeed there are whisky collectors in Lebanon, as well as curious types looking to dabble in new experiences. “The Malt Gallery has rare, collectables, special and limited editions bottles available, as well as products from new or small distilleries that clients can discover. It’s not about the price sold, it’s about the experience you get from any of the whisky,” says Joe Atik, business manager at Ets Antoine Massoud (EAM), who owns the boutique, adding that there are no actual sales tracks for top collectible bottles since they are only sold occasionally or pre-ordered by specific clients. But he mentions that The Dalmore is one of the most in-demand whiskies even though the brand is relatively little-known here. “There are a lot of consumers who say the brand is really good, but there aren’t a lot of people who actually know about the brand,” says Atik, adding, “The Dalmore King Alexander III is a star item, not necessarily in terms of volume but in terms of demand. Clients come in specifically asking for it.”
Boutiques like EAM’s The Malt Gallery, as well as Alco-Hall, The Merchant of Venice, Fidel, Valuzio, Vintage and of course, Beirut Duty Free, cator to these individuals. Perhaps surprisingly, two of Lebanon’s most expensive whiskies , each priced over $35,000, can only be found at Beirut Duty Free. While such a bottle may not be purchased on a whim, airports in general are very popular for spirits. Sales staff must be really quick and persuasive, with only a few minutes to sway hurrying customers. The downside is that airports may not have the range that specialty shops have.
If you really are interested in whisky, it’s always advisable to build a good relationship with a local retailer. But buyers should be warned that local shops operated by importers would be more likely to push their own brands to customers, as opposed to those they purchase from other importers, because their first priority and biggest profit comes from the brands they import themselves.
Am I about to invest in my own whisky collection? Not just yet, but I do have a newfound respect for the industry. If you’re not yet convinced either, one final whisky drinking tip will come in handy: Driver recommends always sipping whisky neat (undiluted) first to really get its flavor. He says it’s fine to dilute with water, but advises against ice since, “it’s very hard to control. It gives you a perfect amount of dilution for a second but then melts.” Driver even sanctions whisky cocktails, as long as the drink enhances the flavors of the whisky instead of masking them. “There is a time, a place and a taste for everything,” he says.
This is a three part article on whisky.
Part two: The top 12 rare whiskies Lebanon can buy
Part three: How to select a rare whisky