Expert Advice: How to Collect Rare Whiskey on a Budget

We talked to insiders from Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Ardbeg and other distillers to figure out how to stock up

September 18, 2019 12:03 pm
How to collect rare whiskey, Japanese whisky and Scotch on a budget
Old, expensive whiskey (Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)
PA Images via Getty Images

Once upon a very magical time, you could find a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle with staggering ease, The Macallan 18 was merely a modest splurge and only the deeply initiated had even heard of Yamazaki. It was simpler then, easy to build a nice whiskey collection for your drinking enjoyment or sit on it for the future. No, my friends, this isn’t a fairytale, it was the era of vodka and most drinkers were too busy slaying Martinis to notice the bewitching brown spirits on the other side of the bar. Today, however, we are en media res of the gilded age of whiskey, where even a mediocre bottling might set you back a tidy sum. 

For those of us without unlimited resources, creating a deep and mature whiskey library or investment cache can be a tad tricky. There are more bottlings and expressions than one person can sample without being sent for a long stay at at 12-step program, while the truly special ones are few and far between. What’s a middle-income whiskey fan to do? To answer this question, we went to five of the biggest names in whiskey, from creators and master distillers to brand executives.

Here is their advice on how to build a collection without breaking the bank. 

Where to Start

When deciding what to go after, the first question that you have to ask yourself is “am I going to drink my collection?” It is a real dilemma. On one hand, you’ve spent a lot of time and money to assemble a collection, so why consume it? On the other, is it worth that same time and effort just to have a cool decoration and bragging rights? The phrase “bourbon, bourbon everywhere, and not a drop to drink” comes to mind. Personally, I value experiences over possessions, so I would suggest drinking, sharing, and enjoying the bottles that you find. Since bragging rights will be low on your priority list, annual offerings may not be the best use of your dollar – Plus they are harder to find. Instead focus on single barrels, unique expressions, and just good drinking products that you can enjoy! – Caleb Kilburn, Master Distiller for Kentucky Peerless

If you’re looking to invest and make money (on Scotch) start with the big names, the ones that feature heavily on the auction websites. Getting an early is one of the keys. If a distillery is releasing a brand new whiskey, a special edition or a single cask that would be the place to start with a small amount of money. Also another place to look are new distilleries. There’s was a new place on Islay that just opened. So check back in say four to five years time and see what they’re doing. For a personal collection to drink and share with your friends, you want to start with sweet spot ages, 10s and 12s, 18s after that get some big sherry casks, some bourbon casks, get some Speysides, get some Highlands, get some Islands and finish with Islays. Also forget about blends at your peril, there are some phenomenal blends out there. – Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

I would buy private barrel picks at different stores. These bottles all taste different and are rare but at reasonable prices. I would buy local small distillery products. Not all will last, but the ones that do may be valuable in the future. Also, pick one special release a year instead of buying several different ones.Eddie Russell , Master Distiller for Wild Turkey

Try Before You Buy 

It’s a big commitment buying a full bottle and a great way to find out what you really like and what you don’t is go to a whisky bar and buy small measures of different whiskies. That can help you on your journey. Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Try before you buy when possible. The selections and flights offered at many bourbon bars can help you decide the profiles that suit your palate. Distillery tours that offer tastings of their products is also a great way to survey different products and profiles. – Brent Elliot, Master Distiller for Four Roses

Some of the annual releases can be amazing. I try to visit bars when I can try special releases to see if I think they are worth the price of bottle. – Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey Master Distiller

Know What You Like

The most important thing to know before you collect is what you like. Unless you have the resources to buy everything first and sort through them later, you need to focus on tasting notes and reviews that appeal to your tastes. Brent Elliot, Master Distiller for Four Roses

I would collect the ones I liked because I would be drinking them. Most people do collect a variety of different brands. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey

If you’re out there to make as much dough as you possibly can, you’re in it for a different reason that I am, but focus on the things that are going to make money. If I’m building my whisky library, I’m going to make sure the majority of it is stuff I like but I’m still going to buy things that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea. I’m a big fan of heavily, heavily smoked whiskies, but if I have friends over, they aren’t going to be over the moon that I have smoke, smoke and smoke for them to try. You need a balance. You know what you like, you know where the safe path is for you palate but every now and then its good to jump off left or right.  – Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

If there are brands with bottles that you like that are hard to find but they’re released every year and they don’t change very much, then those are the ones I would be most interested in because they must’ve hit something good here if people talk continuously about it, they do it over and over again, but still had to find. Campbell Brown, President of Old Forester

Search High and Low

Most of the mom and pop stores don’t get a lot of the special releases because the collectible bottles tend to be highly limited and allocated. The bigger stores will have more stock, so start there. Or, if you have the opportunity, check out the Visitor Centers at your favorite distilleries. Lastly, the stores that are buying private single barrels will have some great whiskies. – Eddie Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey

Most of your large chains are going to be tapped long before you get there or they will be using the bottles in a lottery. I would suggest checking independent bottle shops and developing a relationship with them. Caleb Kilburn – Master Distiller for Kentucky Peerless

Enthusiasts have been hunting for “Dusties” for years now, so most of those out-of-the way retailers have been picked over of those old, overlooked treasures. I’m sure there are still some opportunities for those rare finds, but it will take some hard work and luck. Fortunately, there are more offerings on the shelves today than any time in recent history, so there is opportunity to collect a wide range of Bourbons from many good distilleries. – Brent Elliot, Master Distiller for Four Roses

There is a value in shopping at both big store and little. If you’re going to have the best collection in town, you have to do the hard work. A lot of things will show up at mop and pops and sometimes you can just buy these kind of diamonds in the rough. But the big shops are fantastic too. They have such a fantastic range. They have really competitive prices and super intelligent staff, as do the mom and pops. So you need to, you need to play the field if you’re startling a whiskey collection. – Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Develop a Relationship With Your Retailer

It is very important to form a relationship with your local stores. You will then know when special products are arriving. Retailers want to move product and if they know a collector is hot for a new bottling, then that person is going to be their first call. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey

Many Distilleries offer yearly releases that revolve around the same label and concept. If you find one of these you really like, find the release date and talk to your retailer and see if you can get a bottle. You probably won’t be the only one asking, so it’s important to know your retailer. Brent Elliot, Master Distiller for Four Roses

If they know you and something new or unusual comes in, they will hold stuff for you and you will get the chance try it. Otherwise you just have to get lucky and walk in on the day they are putting out a one-off that’s going to sell out.– Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Travel if You Can

You want to know somebody in Kentucky. Because Kentucky, if you’re a bourbon collector, gets way more than their fair share when you look at the population, and other people are figuring that out. So they’re coming in and they’re collecting half the stuff in town. Campbell Brown, President of Old Forester 

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a lot of fun and a great way to learn more about different distilleries and their on-site offerings . You get to sample through a wide variety of expressions at all the distilleries so you can find the ones you like and make more informed buying choices. Plus, a lot of distilleries will offer their latest LTOs at their gift shops making it a great place to find those collectible bottles. And, you’ll often see Master Distillers on these tours so you can ask for a signed bottle. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey

Whiskey tourism is a big thing now, it’s just crazy. The tours are fantastic and there’s lots of whiskies you can only buy at the distilleries. That’s not piss off the world, it’s to reward people for making that journey and give them something they can take back. Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg

Age Statements Are Important But Not Everything

You can’t be romanced by age statements alone. If you find a style you like, whether it’s a high grain or wheated or what have you, stick with that and find the ones you want. Campbell Brown, President of Old Forester

I believe they are for the older bourbons. If you are paying a premium for a whiskey, you want to see that age statement. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller for Wild Turkey 

It’s important to know the approximate age of what you are considering. It’s an important clue to the flavor profile, especially if you know what age best suits your palate. Bourbon improves with age, but extra priced and extra aged bourbons aren’t necessarily the best. For anyone’s palate, there is a breaking point for every barrel where the desired qualities begin to diminish with continued ageing. Brent Elliot, Master Distiller for Four Roses 

I would suggest not reading to much into age statements. Age doesn’t always indicate quality. (Ask anyone who has had the equivalent of an oaky ashtray.) Instead focus on acclaim from industry respected reviewers like Fred Minnick, Peggy Noe Stevens, Maggie Kimbrel, Mike Veech, and the list goes on. Also, don’t be afraid to ask a bartender, a shop owner, or a friend. – Caleb Kilburn, Master Distiller for Kentucky Peerless

Before 1930 no whisky had an age statement on it and those bottles are worth way more than a 25 year old whisky that’s out right now. Of course, things today are more likely to become worth more money if it has an age statement on it. But there are some non-age statement whiskies that are outrageously collectable. For the drinker of their collection, it doesn’t matter. If it has an age statement on it, it gives an idea of what it’s going to taste like, just like if it has a description of the cask types, just as it has the strength, just as it has the name of the distillery. It’s a combination of all of these things. Great whisky versus not great whisky is what’s going to determine what I’m going to buy.  – Brendan McCarron, Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg


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