It’s rare for a whisky collector to agree to an interview as their collection goes under the hammer—rarer still when that collector has assembled the largest-ever private whisky collection to go to auction. The 9,000-bottle collection, valued at $5 million, is being sold at Whisky Auctioneer across multiple auctions between September 2020 and June 2021. For Whisky Advocate, I spoke to the owner, a European collector who prefers to be known only as Pat, by Zoom without a live video feed to preserve his anonymity. We discussed his buying strategies, the whiskies he missed out on (there aren’t many), and the extreme measures he’s taken to acquire hard-to-find bottlings.
Despite the clandestine conditions under which we met, Pat spoke at length about whisky collecting, sharing his insight and opinions into what has driven him over the past 15 years. He was amiable, engaging, candid, and great company, frequently digressing as he recounted entertaining tales about his search for scarce bottles. Pat has travelled the world in his pursuit of good whiskies to drink, but it’s clear that, at the heart of it all, his motivation was never to be a whisky investor or speculator. To me he had the voice of a completist, a man who caught the collecting bug and never stopped in his pursuit of the series, displaying his passion for fine spirits though his joy of opening and sharing bottles with good friends.
Whisky Advocate: How did you start collecting whisky?
It’s quite embarrassing. Up until 2005, the only whiskey I’d ever tried was Jack Daniel’s in nightclubs, and it was drowned in Coke with a lot of ice cubes in it. I’d tried whisky; I hadn’t enjoyed it, I didn’t understand it, and I just figured it wasn’t for me. One night, over late-night drinks with a colleague, I watched as he ordered quite an expensive whisky. He was completely gobsmacked that I didn’t appreciate whisky, so before we left, he wrote out a list of 10 scotch whiskies to buy that he wanted me to drink in a specific order. He told me what to look for in each one and it was the first time I started drinking whisky with a mission. Every whisky was so different; it started with a Tomintoul and ended with an Ardbeg. How was it possible that these were the same spirit?
I began to buy more whiskies and learn more about them, but I never purchased a whisky that I didn’t intend to drink. My intentions were more grandiose than the capacity of my liver, but I viewed whisky as a journey. I would invite friends round and we would open 10 bottles. It was always about a region like Islay, discovering an age, or trying the 80s or 90s. I loved to buy whisky in bulk, buying 10 or 12 bottles, which drove me towards the independent bottlers. When they specifically decide to release these amazing casks as a series, it made me want to buy them all and go on that journey.
WA: What was your buying strategy?
I started buying at retail and from distilleries in 2005. It was a time when you could walk into Heathrow airport and pick up an amazing exclusive like a cask-strength Laphroaig 21 year old. You could find a little shop in Amsterdam or in Cape Town and you wouldn’t believe what they had there. That’s impossible now. Once that dried up, every shop you walked into held exactly the same whiskies. That’s when I started going to auctions. When I was looking for a specific bottle that seemed impossible to find, I would just wait and wait until it came up at auction and then pounce on it.
Building a whisky collection was never the goal. It was curiosity on my part to try them, and to make the effort to be complete. Like with the Rare Malts [a line of limited-edition scotches that launched a few years before Diageo’s Special Releases], I wanted to have every single release because I wanted to sit down and drink every single release. Early on, I favored the independents because I didn’t know enough about each specific distillery. Once I had learnt more, for example with Bruichladdich, I wanted to explore their Valinch series and all the different casks they released when they reopened.
WA: What type of whisky didn’t you buy?
I have single malts, I have mystery malts, I have vatted malts: I have everything. My collection contains about 2,000 blends and about 1,000 grain whiskies. I think grains are completely underappreciated. I’ve always fought against whisky snobbery because every time I adopt any snobbery myself, I’ve always been proven wrong. In the beginning, I could see why people liked single malts more than blends, but then I tried the Whyte & Mackay 30 year old in the black bottle. My God, it blew me out of my seat! It’s wrong—you shouldn’t have any preconceived ideas. With whisky, you open it, you taste it, and you can love a $5 bottle as much as a $5,000 bottle.
WA: What led you to collect American whiskey?
My original whiskey was Jack Daniel’s, but I hadn’t given it the merit it deserved, so I started drinking it properly and understanding its history. When I was shopping for Japanese whisky in a store in Japan, I saw this bizarre little bottle in the corner: It was a cognac bottle, not a whisky bottle, with a beautiful hand-written label on it. The shop assistant told me this was 19 year old bourbon. I didn’t even know that bourbons came in that age! I was really intrigued. The bottle was Very Olde St. Nick 19 year old, and it just blew my mind. It was just one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever drunk. At the time, American distilleries considered aged whiskeys to be undesirable and unreliable, so they would just export everything to Japan. I had a lot of business connections in Japan, and all of a sudden, I was doing a lot more business in Japan. Now I have forty bottles of St. Nicks, but I’ve probably drunk just as many of them. I was lucky enough to load up early when they cost nothing and I enjoyed every one of them. I started researching American whiskey, following the Stitzel-Weller story and old Van Winkles, moving on to Buffalo Trace, which opened up the Antique Collection for me. Then I got into Michter’s, Garrison Brothers in Texas, and Seven Stills in San Francisco and started exploring the fringes of American whiskey. Although I love scotch whisky, American whiskey holds a very special place in my heart.
WA: What lengths have you gone to in order to get the whisky you want?
It’s not just that rare bottles are hard to get, but it’s the fun of hunting them down. For example, I think Big Peat is a great whisky, and they release them all over the world. When one was released in Argentina, the whole community (because there’s a Big Peat community) was talking about it, saying it was impossible to get. This was my approach: I wrote on a backpackers’ blog asking any backpacker who enjoys whisky to get in touch as I had a proposition. I got a reply from a Colombian backpacker traveling in Argentina, and I explained the situation to him. He said it would take him two days to hitchhike to the shop from where he was currently situated. I really needed this bottle, so I offered him a deal: If you can get two bottles and ship them to me, I will give you the money to buy two for yourself so you can enjoy them with your friends. He readily agreed and I wired him the money. I knew I was taking a risk as the guy could have taken the money and disappeared, but three days later he was at the shop checking with me that these were the correct bottles, and two weeks later, the bottles arrived at my house. One I kept for my collection, the other I traded for another impossible-to-find Big Peat Japanese release.
WA: What is the most you have ever spent on a bottle of whisky?
I still regret it; I don’t know why I did it. I guess it was the first time I was buying a whisky when I didn’t really understand why I was buying it. I had a taste of it, and it was amazing. This was Highland Park 50 year old, and I paid £13,000. In the beginning, I purchased my whiskies for anywhere from £20 to £200–£300, and later on, I stretched to bordering on £1,000, but I never went much beyond that. My biggest regret, however, was at La Maison du Whisky in Paris. They were selling the Bowmore Trilogy for €3,000 and I remember arguing for a discount and they refused. A year later, they started going for £5,000 each and then they just climbed from there. I’ve still never tasted them.
I have bottles that have become very valuable over time, but I don’t have any vanity bottles. I should be clear: Every bottle, I bought to drink. I don’t like criticizing other people, but I don’t have a bottle for decoration that’s going to sit in a glass case for everyone to see. When people would come over to my house and look at a bottle they liked, I’d say, “Great, let’s pop it open!”
WA: So why have you chosen to sell your collection?
I made the decision to sell it two years ago when I realized that I was fooling myself into thinking I would ever get through all this by myself. I thought one day I might open a bar, but decided it wasn’t feasible. Shops recommended single buyers for the whole collection, and I remember the look on the face of the first buyer who came in—his shock and desire to own it—but I realized I didn’t want it to go to a single owner to keep in their cellar. I want it to go out into the world, I want people to open it, drink it, collect it, whatever they want to do, but I want it to continue.
I started approaching auction houses in December last year, but initially, I couldn’t find anyone who “got” the collection and understood it. They said, “It’s too broad” and “You don’t have vanity bottles”; they want that one bottle for a million and I don’t have any of those. I have some very valuable bottles and collections; I have almost the entire Moon Imports collection [a legendary series of independent single malt scotch whisky bottlings], I’ve only three missing from my [Buffalo Trace] Antique Collection from 2000 to today, I’ve got the entire Rare Malts, and all of the Glenfarclas Family Casks first releases. But there isn’t that one bottle that they could hold up and say, “Look, this is a million dollars.” If you’re asking for that, you don’t understand my collection, and you don’t understand what I’ve done. Whisky Auctioneer were the first people who completely understood it. Once I felt it was with the right people, I decided to go ahead.
WA: What is your advice to people just starting a whisky collection?
It’s never too late: You can start any day. My first recommendation is don’t be obsessed with going for old whiskies: Try to discover the whiskies of tomorrow, the whiskies we’re going to be talking about in 20 years from now. Next, don’t ever underestimate the space you’ll need. Every time I allocated a space, thinking it would be enough for another few years, I would need more space within six months. Once you start, it can grow very quickly. I rented a temperature-controlled cellar, made sure all my bottles were standing up, and kept them out of sunlight. My third tip is to use Parafilm. This has saved my whisky! All my bottles have held their levels and I’ve had some of them for 15 years. I take a picture of every bottle when I put it on the shelf for comparison, and the Parafilm really makes a difference. When you remove the Parafilm, you can even smell a bit of alcohol, so there can still be some leakage. Parafilm is the one thing I live by; I’ve bought kilometers of the stuff, and I use it on all my bottles.
WA: Have you ever bought fake whisky at auction?
I was buying to drink, so if something was a fake, I figured it out very quickly. Because I was buying in numbers, I always had something to compare it to; so if two liquids weren’t exactly the same or there was a difference in the labels, I would see it. Ultimately, you have to be cognizant of your source, which is increasingly difficult if you buy at auction. For me, opening a bottle and drinking it was the only way of figuring it out: I’ve done that with a lot of my bottles. I have purchased fakes and only realized once they were in my hands, but I would open and discard everything I thought was a fake.
Whisky Auctioneer is doing their job and verifying the whiskies I have, but I would never put a fake back on to the market: It’s immoral and unethical. Anyone who truly loves whisky would never do that.
WA: How will you mark the end of the final auction?
My plan is to celebrate this journey; I want to keep several bottles and invite everyone who has been part of the sale process around the table and have an enjoyable evening of drinking whisky (post-COVID). I haven’t decided what to do with the proceeds. I’ve never sold a whisky bottle in my life, not a single one. For me, it’s never been about the money: Selling it was a personal decision rather than a financial one.
I will continue collecting. I’m keeping 500-700 bottles, and putting 9,000 on the market. I’ll continue buying and I’ll continue consuming, but it will be at a more moderate level. My friend had the idea of creating stickers and putting them on the back of each bottle with a unique number for my collection, so that hopefully, someone one day will grab a bottle without knowing it’s from my collection and we’ll get to taste it again.