the Bourbon Issue

Bourbon Collecting 101

Starting Your Bourbon Collection

It can happen to anyone, and it can strike at any time. One day, you’re unassumingly ordering a Manhattan or Boulevardier, espousing the merits of bourbon cocktails, and the next you’re talking about mash build and tasting notes to everyone you meet. I get it — a raging case of “bourbon fever” has the ability to simply settle in overnight.

A passion for bourbon can quickly become all-consuming, and soon you’re not just interested in sipping the latest release from Four Roses and chatting about it with other dedicated bourbon-heads; you want to start building a serious bourbon collection of your very own. Where to begin, though, in what seems like a daunting process? Below is a 10-step system to help ensure your wallet and sanity are protected as you dip a toe into the bourbon-collector waters.

1. Determine if you really like bourbon that much. If you’re going to start a bourbon collection, you need to be really passionate about it — like, your-friends-are-sick-of-you-talking-about-it passionate. If you find yourself drawn to bourbon, but also feel equally fond of rum or gin, collecting is probably not for you. Trust me, there’s no need to drop thousands of dollars if bourbon, exclusively, doesn’t get your blood pumping.

2. Find your bourbon community and become a regular. Now that you’ve double-checked you’re a certified bourbon obsessive, it’s time to find the perfect watering hole. Bars with expansive bourbon collections are everywhere today, filled with bottles for sampling in the perfect try-before-you-buy scenario. (For the record, my preferred bourbon-heavy bar is Barrel Proof in New Orleans.) Want to have a finger of Booker’s to see what the whole “cask strength” thing is all about before searching for your own bottle? (Don’t worry, “finger” is a measurement in the bourbon world, not an actual finger.) Sip it at your go-to bar. You’ll have a built-in community of others to wax poetic about bourbon all night long with you. This community will prove invaluable down the line when you’re looking for insider tips and intel about which local stores are getting which bottles. In collecting, it’s all about connections.

3. Understand your personal palate. If you’re going to collect bourbon, you’re going to want to enjoy your bourbon. This means learning via trial and error (see Step 2 above) the flavor profiles that really make your personal taste buds sing. If you’re into the zip and bite of a bourbon with a high-rye ratio, you’re going to want to err on the side of bottles like Basil Hayden’s 10 Year and Bulleit Barrel Strength. It’s all about being true to what you prefer, even if it means a collection of bottles that go against the grain of what others might consider “the best.”

4. Carve out space in your home. Bourbon bottles take up a lot of space — particularly when a collection seems to never stop growing. And while an entire bourbon room or wing of your home might not be realistic, setting aside a designated shelf or bar cart to display your collection ensures that you don’t end up haphazardly placing your bottles all over the house. You could also divide your collection between “everyday bottles” and “special occasion” bottles, placing the more frequently enjoyed ones closer to the kitchen or dining room. Bourbon collections tend to collect a lot of dust fairly quickly, so don’t forget to brush off your bottles on a weekly basis. No one wants to sip from a bottle that’s less than pristine.

5. Start small. It may seem tempting to “go big or go home” when it comes to launching your bourbon collection, and chase after the rarest-of-the-rare from the get-go, but starting with solid, less-expensive bottles with flavor profiles you like (see Step 3) ensures a solid foundation for your collection. For any and all “stock the bar” parties when people move into a new home, I always gift a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100 proof Bottled in Bond — something that’s unique enough that people wouldn’t necessarily purchase it themselves, but cheap enough to ensure it’ll actually be enjoyed sooner rather than later.

6. Learn the stories. The culture surrounding bourbon is all about stories: who made what bottle, how long it aged, the family legacy behind its cultivation and what makes it different from every other bourbon on the block. This also means remembering your own stories about the bottles you collect: how you learned about them, what you were doing the first time you cracked them open, the feeling of absolute glee you experienced when — in the dark recesses of a liquor store shelf — you spotted a yearned-for bottle accidentally hidden among some gin. Bourbon collectors are also top-notch storytellers, so be prepared to spin a few yarns of your own if you’re getting into the game.

7. Don’t treat your bottles like trophies. Collecting is, of course, about rarities, amassing the most eclectic array of bottles you can and, for many, completing sub-collections within your collection from the different bourbon families. One of the most notable sub-collections is Blanton’s, with collectors aiming to find all eight, uniquely shaped, metal horse-and-rider bottle stoppers, which are also stamped with a single letter so that, when the collection is complete, the stoppers spell out “Blanton’s” and show a horse race from start to finish. As tempting as it is to treat these über-special bottles like Fabergé eggs, don’t do it. Enjoying your bourbon collection is half the joy of having it.

8. Watch the release clock. Bourbons are released on their own specific timelines. This means that if you’re serious about the hunt for the latest bottles, you must be aware of the release clocks for the bourbon of your dreams. If the latest from Elmer T. Lee was released in August and you’re beginning a search for it in March, that’s a real newbie move.

9. Check out estate sales (seriously). One of the greatest joys of bourbon collecting is finding older, diamond-in-the-rough bottles that people have perhaps overlooked for decades. Once you know the timelines for new releases (see Step 8), it’s wildly enjoyable to head in the other direction as well, and dive deep into one-off bottles found in the least likely places. This means attending auctions and estate sales where you might find an über-rare bottle of vintage bourbon a family didn’t even know they had. Or it can mean visiting an out-of-the-way liquor store in a smaller town that might not be as hip to the whole bourbon boom. If you decide to expand your collection in this way, it’s also helpful to be able to decipher what the bottle itself is trying to tell you, including learning how to interpret the bar code, the label and the stamp on the bottom of the bottle. If you’re going to be a serious collector, there’s a little detective work involved, too.

10. Chase the unicorns — when you’re ready.
When you’ve completed all other nine steps on the list, now it’s time to hunt after those elusive “Holy Grail” bottles that, perhaps, got you into bourbon from the start. Like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, you’re now ready to pour energy into trying to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, or whatever other “unicorn” of the bourbon world makes your heart skip a beat. Just don’t forget to keep building as the search for the big guns gets underway — your collection needs to continue to grow with a little something new, a little something old and a few special bottles along the way to properly pay homage to your bourbon collecting personality.