Over the past two decades, there’s been an absolute explosion in whiskey culture around the world, with more and more drinkers moving away from lighter spirits like vodka and back to the brown liquor they know and love. In the United States, for instance, this means that bourbon has commanded a cult-like following, whilst rye has experienced something of a second coming. In Ireland, too, we’ve seen quite the revival, as the industry has grown to be some 16 times what it was back in the 1990s. And one couldn’t talk whiskey these days without mentioning Japan, a country whose spirits have become so popular that it’s actually had to pull expressions from the market in order to age more stock. With all of this renewed interest, of course, has come a wave of passionate enthusiasts looking to build out their own collections.
But how does one actually start collecting whiskey, anyway, and is it any different than buying bottles as you normally would? There’s a degree of intention, maybe, and it’s important to curate some diversity too. However, what comprises your collection is ultimately up to you to decide. In other words, whether you’re a top-shelf Scotch drinker or a budget-minded bourbon guy makes no difference to us — you’ve figured out your druthers and we can appreciate all different types. But for those who are feeling intimidated by the thought of going to the store and diving head-first into the world of whiskey, we’ve created this guide to ease your worries. From advising you on research and storage to suggesting some top-notch spirits for your consideration, what follows is a crash course for anyone looking into how to start a whiskey collection for themselves.
So You Want To Start A Whiskey Collection?
Some Things To Consider
Having decided that you want to start a whiskey collection for yourself, it’s crucial that you prepare accordingly. Here we go over some helpful tips and tricks to ensure that you make the most of your purchases.
Do Your Research: While there’s a lot of value in researching your whiskey ahead of time — on forums, blogs, message boards, and the like — ultimately, you can really only get a feel for what you enjoy by going out and actually tasting it for yourself. Put another way: drink a lot (but responsibly). You have to develop your palate in order to determine what types of whiskey are fit for your collection, so you should aim to try as much as you can. Therefore, we’d recommend that you stick to smaller samples when judging a spirit for the first time, as you’ll make far less of a commitment to finishing a shot or a 750ml bottle than with, say, a 1.5L handle or larger. That said, you can always attend a tasting at a local distillery or sign up for a subscription service such as Flaviar. In each case, you’ll give yourself more exposure to samples than you would by shopping at the store.
Set A Budget: It goes without saying, but the process of whiskey collecting can get very expensive very quickly, so you should establish a limit to keep your spending in check. For instance, highly desirable bottles rarely go for their suggested retail. On the one hand, that can result in some pretty ludicrous markups (as it often does). However, it also means that price tends to be much more fluid, subject to the supply and demand of the market at any given time. If you set a budget rather than fixating on a particular bottle, you’ll keep yourself from overreaching and digging yourself into debt. Besides, if you can stay patient and hold out, you may even be able to score a deal.
Older Isn’t Necessarily Better: Older whiskeys are — naturally — more sought-after and thus more expensive spirits. After all, their maturation process requires that the distillery invest a significant amount of time and resources, so it’s understandable that they’d fetch higher prices in order to make a return. It’s worth noting, though, that age statements aren’t everything; in fact, there are plenty of collectible expressions aged 10 years and younger, too. Thus, we’d suggest that you seek out rare and limited batches when trying to add some distinction to your collection. Of course, if you have your eye set on some high-dollar hooch, by all means, spend what you will on the spirit. Just keep in mind that price isn’t always an indicator of quality.
Ready Your Space For Storage: Thankfully, whiskey is a pretty hardy spirit, which means that you don’t have to buy a bunch of pricey equipment upfront as you would with wine. Nevertheless, it’s critical to take care of your collection properly, so you should make sure to store your bottles upright and away from sunlight. Doing so will not only prevent the cork from breaking down prematurely but also ensure that the expression doesn’t develop funky flavors. Assuming that you haven’t opened the bottle, the spirit inside will be good almost indefinitely (sealed whiskey doesn’t spoil). Once you’ve cracked that cork, however, it effectively becomes a race against the clock. Sure, decanters can stave off the degradation, but they’re more for the visual effect than they are actual preservation.
Cover Your Bases
Expanding Your Horizons
Now that you have a handle on what’s required of building a collection, it’s time to start looking at what bottles to buy. Below, we’ve broken down the six major whiskey subtypes to get you on your way, providing an entry-level, high-end, and grail option within each one. Though it can be tempting to skip past the more affordable expressions in favor of the top-shelf stuff, it never hurts to keep a couple of cheaper bottles kicking around for when you might be hosting.
That's Without The 'E'
Scotch is by far the most pretentious type of whisky, as collectors typically focus most of their attention on expressions that are old enough to vote. What’s more, it’s also an extremely diverse offering, comprised of five distinct regional varieties — Campbelltown, Highlands, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside — with each one offering its own unique flavor profile. Though a spirit must be aged for at least three years and bottled at 40% ABV in order to be considered a Scotch, the end result can take many forms. Between single malts, blends, and grains, a distillery can exercise its creativity in any number of different ways. For the purposes of this guide, though, we’d elected to off you three of the former.
If you’re looking to dive head-first into the smoky flavors of Islay Scotch, you can’t go wrong with this 16-Year from Lagavulin. A personal favorite of Nick Offerman, it features a thick mouthfeel with a super-sweet sherry palate and a lingering, fruit-forward finish. The heavy peating might be off-putting for some, but it’s an essential expression to have in your collection.
Between the substantial feel of the bottle and the impactful spirit within, Glenmorangie’s Signet is easily one of the best, premium Highland Scotch whiskies you can buy. Soft and floral on the nose, it features a subtle palate that’s packed with dark chocolate, tobacco, and even a bit of orange zest. It’s the finish that really completes the experience, though, as it offers a nice warming burn that’ll have you reaching for more.
The Macallan 25-Year
Widely regarded as the cream of the crop in Scotch whisky, this luxurious 25-Year Speyside by The Macallan received a perfect score from the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago back in 1999. And it’s for good reason; from the slightly sherried nose to the lingering, figgy finish, this is a spirit that’s been produced to impress. It’s quite spendy at $2,000 a bottle, but that’s the price you pay for this kind of execution.
From The Far East
Japan learned its whisky-making from Scotland, hence its decision to run with the same spelling convention. And the similarities are more than semantic; many Japanese whiskies are technically blends, incorporating additives consisting of everything from single malt Scotches to American bourbons. With that being said, the island nation is highly regarded for its unique production processes — it’s more than a mere imitator. In fact, international drinkers have taken such a liking to Japanese whisky that they’ve caused a short-term shortage while the distilleries attempt to replenish their stocks. As such, you’ll often find that the spirit comes at an exorbitant markup, with many bottles fetching two, three, or even four times their suggested retail price.
Suntory Whisky Toki
For those who want an accessible introduction to the world of Japanese whisky, Suntory’s Toki is one expression that’s sure to please. Widely available and pretty cheap to boot, it combines single malts from Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita to create a deliciously complex blend. Though it’s great neat or on the rocks, we like it best when served in a highball.
While Suntory makes a number of wonderful Yamazaki expressions (like the 18- and 25-years, for instance), this 12-year is one that you can actually find without going bankrupt. Light and spicy yet also elegant and balanced, it starts off zesty and finishes with fruit. Above all else, though, we like it because of the hints of citrus and slightly rum-like palate.
Nikka Taketsuru 21 Year Old Pure Malt
Named the best Blended Malt by Whisky Magazine for 2009, 2010, and 2011, this is considered amongst many whisky drinkers to be one of the preeminent expressions within the last two decades. A vatted malt named after the father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, it’s caramel in color with a rich, full-bodied spice. In fact, the more you drink this one, the more you’ll come to appreciate its complexity, as it features lots of fruited and dessert-like flavors, too.
The Great White North
As the dark horse of the whiskey world, Canadian Rye often sits second fiddle to the likes of bourbon, Scotch, and Japanese malts. But that’s not to say that it’s unworthy of your consideration. On the contrary, as it comes with a distinctive spiciness that’s perfect for fans of rye. Typically a mix of different multi-grain spirits, Canadian whisky is characterized by its high corn content, light body, and smooth flavors. So, if you’re looking for something to balance out the smoke and peat of your other expressions, one of these ryes could very well be what you need.
Lot 40 Canadian Rye Whisky
Lot 40 was originally produced back in the 1990s by Canadian distributor Corby. However, the fall-out following its discontinuation proved so great that Pernod-Ricard had to reintroduce the expression in 2012. And it’s a good thing, too, because the whisky market’s all the better for it. Pouring a bright copper in color, Lot 40 begins with notes of cinnamon spice, follows things up with brown sugar sweetness, and finishes off with savory clove.
Lock Stock & Barrel 18-Year Rye
This exceptional 18-year rye from Lock Stock & Barrel is ideal for those who want to wet their lips with some quintessential Canadian flavor. Made from a 100% rye mashbill, it’s first triple-distilled before being aged in charred American oak barrels for 18 years. As far as taste goes, this is one that’s jam-packed with apricot sweetness, deliciously complex on the nose, through the palate, and even in the finish. You wouldn’t expect it at 109 proof, but this is one whisky with which you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Canadian Club Chronicles 42 Year Old No.2
The second installment in the Chronicles series, this 42-Year-Old whisky was distilled as an homage to Canada’s prohibition-era dockworkers. And oh boy, is it something. In addition to being an excellent aged value proposition at just $310 a bottle, it also delivers some truly powerful flavors. Light, crisp, and bursting with lemon zest, it drinks like a spirit well below its 45% ABV. So, while it may finish off with some heavy grain, overall, it’s an expression that’s incredibly approachable for its maturity.
The Original, The Allfather
Amongst the earliest drinks to be distilled in Europe and once the most popular liquor in the world, Irish whiskey is a spirit that experienced a significant industry decline from the late 1880s up until the 1990s (at one point, there were just two distilleries in operation). In recent years, though, it’s become steadily more available, with more and more players looking to cash in on the renewed interest and experience the resulting renaissance. Smoother in finish compared to the smokiness of Scotch, Irish whiskies are often characterized by their unique triple-distillation and primarily barley-based mashbill.
Knappogue Castle 12-Year Single Malt
Despite having spent some 12 years in American bourbon casks, this single malt from Knappogue Castle is an explosion of fruity flavor. In fact, as soon as you take a sip, you’ll be met with heavy notes of green apple and honeysuckle, after which your tastebuds will be treated to a mix of berries, grapes, and tropical fruit. Of course, there’s a little bit of spice here and there; however, this is a dram that’s best-enjoyed by drinkers with lighter palates.
Jameson Bow Street 18-Year-Old Batch 2
Even if you’re not a devout drinker of Irish whiskey, more likely than not, you’ll have heard of Jameson and its superb spirits. This 18-year Bow Street expression is a case in point, made from a mix of single pot still and single grain Irish whiskeys and delivered at full strength without any filtration. Though it’s not quite as full-bodied as some other spirits of this age statement, it’s nevertheless a very solid dram on account of its elegant honey aroma and deep, spicy flavor profile.
Glendalough 25-Year Old Single Malt
Rounding out our Irish whiskey selection is this grail-worthy Glendalough expression: a 25-year-old single malt that was first aged for 15 years in ex-bourbon barrels before being transferred for a further 10 in Spanish ex-Oloroso casks. Not only that, but it’s also the first Irish single malt to be finished in virgin Irish oak, so it’s no wonder that only 752 bottles were brought to the US market. If you can manage to get your hands on one, know that it’s well worth the effort, as it features everything from vanilla to clove in its silky-smooth palate.
America's Native Spirit
Bourbon is booming right now, more popular than ever before on account of its approachable price point and easy-going culture (not to mention the damn great taste). As true a gateway whiskey as there ever was, it features a charred, smoky flavor with toffee and tobacco-like sweetness. In order for a spirit to be a bourbon, it must be aged in new charred oak containers, made from at least 51% corn, and distilled to no more than 125 proof before being bottled at 80 proof. Within bourbon, there are several different subtypes, including straight, bottled-in-bond, cask-strength, as well as small-batch and high-rye.
Angel’s Envy Bourbon
The product of the late great Lincoln Henderson, Angel’s Envy is an operation that’s seen unprecedented growth, first in its acquisition by Bacardi and subsequently in its efforts to open its own distillery. With this expression, you’re getting a hearty 86.6 proof that’s been finished in French ruby port wine barrels for three to six months. As such, it’s a bit subtler than other offerings (with only a slight berry-like taste), though it’s still very much a bottle that deserves a spot in your collection.
Four Roses Small Batch Limited-Edition 2020
Four Roses bourbon is unique in that it begins with one of two mashbills and five different yeast strains, allowing for 10 possible permutations that can be mixed and matched in order to produce any given blend. For last year’s limited-edition Small Batch, the distillery combined four separate distillations, with each one being aged somewhere between 12-19 years. In practice, this means that it’s a stellar performer whether neat or in a cocktail, bold on its own yet perfect as a base for more complicated drinks.
Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year Bourbon
Buffalo Trace’s Pappy Van Winkle line is a name that needs no introduction; every bourbon drinker is dying to have a bottle in their collection. Thankfully, this is a spirit that lives up to the hype, as its high wheat content and 15-year age statement mean that it’s wonderfully balanced with tons of intensity. Depending on how you choose to enjoy this one — be it straight or with water — know that the flavors can vary from tart and bitter to herbaceous and mossy.
Spicy And Smooth
Last but certainly not least, we have rye, bourbon’s northeastern cousin that was almost killed off by Prohibition. In recent years, the spirit’s seen a growing revival, as more distilleries look to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive American whiskey market. Rye’s production requirements are considerably more relaxed than those of bourbon, as you only need to use a mashbill consisting of at least 51% rye, usually alongside corn or malted barley. As a general rule, this type of whiskey is smooth, spicy, and slightly fruity. It can differ depending on the exact rye content or particular cask finish, but it’s almost always drier and less full-bodied than bourbon.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye
As the first-ever barrel-proof rye from the Wild Turkey distillery, Rare Breed is an already distinguished expression in its own right. And here’s the thing: the execution more than lives up to the expectation, as the resulting spirit is bright and complex without overwhelming you with its strength. Diverse in flavor and elevated in presentation, it starts off slightly tea-like and finishes with a dry spice to balance out the sweetness.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey
If you know Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor line for its incredible branded bourbon expressions, then you’ll be pleased to hear that its rye counterparts are equally deserving of your consideration. Though it’s almost impossible to find (and typically pretty expensive as a result), the price you pay is worth every penny. Distilled using Buffalo Trace’s high-rye mashbill and aged for anywhere from nine to 10 years, it’s herby yet smoky with a powerful fresh finish.
Whistlepig The Boss Hog VII Magellan’s Atlantic
Each year, Whistlepig distills a unique experimental expression as part of its Boss Hog lineup. For the latest iteration, the Vermont-based distillery took some inspiration from Magellan’s journey, first aging the whiskey in American Oak barrels for 17 years before transferring it to Spanish staves and finally some South American teakwood. What results is a rye that offers an abundance of spice, with rich notes of cinnamon, caraway and caramel from nose to finish.
The Complete Guide To Whiskey Styles
Having armed you with the knowledge of how to start a whiskey collection, it’s time to turn our attention to the spirit’s various subtypes in more detail. Head on over to our complete guide to whiskey styles, where you’ll get an in-depth breakdown of how the world’s hooch differs by country.