I’m sure many of my readers would identify with this experience: You pull a much-loved, no-longer-available bottle out of your whisky cabinet and gaze, with regret and longing, at the final three-quarters of a pour sloshing around the bottom. Bittersweet, that final pour – a last indulgence and a farewell in one. You tip the last sip down and know you’ll never again taste its like. Or this one: The satisfying pop of the cork, like the handshake of a long-time friend, belies the strange uncertainty of the first sip – is this the same friend? A little more bitter, perhaps, or a little less sweet? Why is this long-time favorite not as comforting and familiar as it was on previous reunions?
As much as consistency is the watchword of the whisky industry these days, anecdotal (and actual) evidence convinces us that whisky brands do change over time, both for the better and for the worse. Barrel sources dry up or change coopers, barley farms conglomerate and institute cost-saving policies, distilleries install new equipment, change management, or cut costs. Old stocks of matured whisky from previous owners are used up and must be replaced with new, younger spirit. Across the industry, brands are tightening belts and re-negotiating contracts to keep pace with the rising global demand for whisky of all types. So what happens when you crack that new bottle of Black Bottle, or Ardbeg Uigeadail and are met with a slightly unfamiliar, slightly inferior experience. Is it just you? Your expectations? What you ate for dinner that night? Maybe a bad batch, a bad bottle? How do you find out?
Take also the first scenario – the risk when buying one-off, limited edition, or discontinued releases and bottles from closed distilleries is that you may find that you love the bottle dearly but are unable to replace it when it’s empty. One of my favorite single malts of all time was entirely sold out by the time I poured my first dram, and I will never again find another bottle. Some people solve this by buying two (or three, or four, or a case) of each bottle. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford that. Also, you run the far greater risk of getting stuck with many (many!) bottles of whisky that, while enjoyable, you don’t want again. I would say that only 30% of the bottles I’ve purchased have ever been worth buying again. Of those, only about a quarter were discontinued or otherwise unavailable. I simply can’t justify the purchase of double bottles when I really only need multiples of 7.5% of my purchases!
Enter the Whisky Library. Unlike a collection, the purpose of which is to aggregate full bottles for the purpose of future reselling, enjoyment when the products are rare and unavailable, or as a hedge against price increases, the Whisky Library is a history of your whisky journey – an array of mementos for the purpose of comparing against future brand changes or as a way to revisit lost loves without breaking the bank or building an addition on your house to shelter your hoard of bottles.
To build a whisky library, you simply amass a bunch of empty sample bottles (the size is up to you – 50ml, 100ml, 200ml, 250ml, whatever you think you can spare from each full bottle), and a way to label them (I prefer sheets of blank return address labels). Each time you open a new purchase, fill up and label one of these samples, cap it well, and stash it away. I suggest doing this with every bottle when you open it, to avoid the risk of forgetting to do it later. Also, you’re getting fresh, un-oxidized whisky that hasn’t sat in a half-full bottle for 6 months. This also prevents a night of debauchery with guests from draining the bottle before you can take your trophy. Personally, I use 100ml bottles because they store a satisfying two pours but don’t deprive me of a third of every bottle I open.
There are, of course, variations and the choices are yours. You could take two samples from each bottle – one to keep an enjoy in the future, another to collect or use for future comparison, or an additional sample to give as a gift or share with a like-minded guest someday. You could (although it’s risky) only take samples once you’ve tasted and approved of a whisky. If you’re interested in do-it-yourself blending, you might take a few samples to use with blending experiments, giving you blending fodder to choose from long after the full bottle is gone. You might also put away a few samples to share with a future child when he or she comes of age, or with a friend or loved one on a future special occasion. You may, if you’re like me, want the thrill and applied organization skills that accompany the hobby of collecting but without the expense (and space) of doing so with full bottles.
Store the library somewhere out of sight but accessible, so adding new samples doesn’t become a chore. Try to choose somewhere expandable, so that as your library grows you continue to have space for it. Or, fill one box at a time and store full boxes away (such as in a crawlspace, conditioned attic, storage unit, or closet.) I don’t recommend an unconditioned attic or other unprotected outdoor space, because you can’t predict what effect decades of hot and cold cycles might have on the whisky. If your purpose is to preserve the taste and experience of a whisky, or to allow future comparisons against brand changes, such types of storage may compromise those goals.
If you do decide to start a personal whisky library, here are a few recommendations from my experience with mine:
- Order sample bottles in bulk from Specialty Bottle – the more you buy, the cheaper they are. MAKE SURE to get Polyseal caps for your bottles! They seal far better than the plain twist caps. Polyseal caps are not listed on the website so to order them for $0.15 each, place your bottle order with Visa, MC, or AmEx card on the website (not Paypal). Then, reply immediately to your Order Confirmation Email with ‘CHANGE ORDER’ in the body of the message. Specify that you would like Polyseal Caps (and how many), and they will subtract the cost of the standard caps, add the Polyseals, and adjust the total.
- Be thorough and consistent with your labeling. Include the date of purchase and any dates or batch numbers printed on the bottle. I also include the ABV, the bottler (or “OB” for official bottling), the age statement or bottling years, and any important notes that may not be available online when you revisit the sample: “PX Sherry cask” or “Gift from Dad” or “From before distillery changed owners”. You might also consider including the price paid for the full bottle, for comparison’s sake. If you’re fancy, you could do this with a printer template and a sheet of mailing labels.
- Use clear glass bottles (for examining the color) if you intend to store the library in the dark. Use brown glass bottles otherwise.
- Use the same size bottles. They are much easier to store than a jumble of varied sizes. Optionally, keep two separate libraries – one of basic 50ml samples, and one of special 200ml samples that you know you’ll want to revisit multiple times.
- If you open a sample someday and only remove some of the liquid, either move the remainder into a smaller bottle or attempt to seal in a spurt of Private Preserve.
- Store your sample bottles upright to avoid reactions between the rubber/plastic cap components and the alcohol. Consider using a round sticker or label on the top of each cap with a quick reminder of the contents – this will make it easier to hunt through hundreds of bottles for a single sample.
- Consider including an index with each box, with a list of the contents. Tape it to the outside to facilitate future searches.
If you have a whisky library, are inspired to start one, or have suggestions that I’ve left out, please feel free to share in the comments below. Cheers!