Thinking of collecting whisky? Alex Dahlenburg on how to start a whisky collection, where to find rare bottles (and not fakes) and more.
Humans love to collect stuff, with whisky being no exception (and it makes much more sense to us than collecting stamps).
The reasons for collecting whisky are many and varied: it can be a way of learning more about whisky; maybe you’re a passionate whisky lover who needs a lot of bottles on hand for when the mood takes you; maybe you just like to collecting things.
Or then again, perhaps you’re collecting whisky as a financial investment, and working the secondary whisky market.
What is the secondary whisky market? The term refers to the auctions and forums where rare and collectible whisky is sold by collectors — and where whisky seems only to appreciate in value over time.
According to the website Whiskystats, their whisky index — which tracks the prices of the 500 most traded whiskies — increased five percent in January 2021 alone.
But financial value isn’t the only means of measuring a whisky’s worth, as Alex Dahlenburg from Mjølner talks about in the interview below.
Dahlenburg is the NSW operations manager for the Speakeasy Group, with venues Mjølner, Nick & Nora’s, Boilermaker House, and Eau de Vie under its umbrella. The group has long had a focus on whisky, in which Dahlenburg has some expertise: she has hosted masterclasses for Gourmet Traveller WINE, won the title of Whisky Bartender of the Year at the 2020 Icons of Whisky awards, and is the co-host of Whisky Roundtable (you can get the podcast here and watch the videos on Facebook here).
Below, Dahlenburg shares advice on how to start a whisky collection, where to find rare bottles, what to do about counterfeit bottles, and much more.
Where do you stand on the buy-whisky-to-drink versus buy-whisky-to-invest divide?
This is a hot topic in the depths of the whisky world. I like to buy whisky to drink with friends, especially to share with those who are big fans of whisky but don’t have the wonderful access I am privileged (and so very grateful) to have.
However, I have accumulated some collectors’ bottles, some I will keep for moments I deem special; some have been amazing gifts with my name on them and one or two bottles that could be sold for a considerable amount.
I don’t buy to keep and resell, I don’t really believe in it. It’s seen as a little uncouth by industry peeps to buy and then resell, driving value up on the secondary market compared to what the distillery or supplier will get for their product. I like the money going to the guys who make it and whisky is meant to be drunk. But like most things, if there’s a limited supply, there will be a demand for a secondary market. We can’t help it if people will pay the crazy dollars for a bottle, it’s all relevant to their individual income, their want and their desire.
That said, I have paid ridiculous prices to try a whisky in a bar I have sought after or fangirled over. You should have seen me at The Swan Song in Singapore.
What do you need to think about when you start out collecting whisky, if you want your whisky collection to grow in value?
I like to grow my collection from memories and for the love of whisky rather than it growing in value — I recommend doing whisky for you, rather than gains. Go for the emotional value rather than a resale value.
But if you are [going for a resale value], it’s about the limited releases and sets. Every year we see a whisky that wins an award skyrocket in value on the secondary market. Yamazaki Sherry Cask for example, we bought it in one of my venues for around $400 on allocation. I saw a bottle of it for sale for $12,000 last year (this is also a bottle I have at home signed by Mike Miyamoto).
It’s the yearly or limited releases that can grow in value and these are generally what the distilleries put forward for the awards, so that’s when they can skyrocket.
Another way is sets, consistently buying limited release creating sets. The Highwayman Batch 1 release from Dan Woolley sold out, and as batch two was being released it hit the secondary market for double the price it was from Highwayman direct. I also know there’s a few lucky people who have the whole sets of all his releases just sitting there.
We at Speakeasy had purchased multiple sets of the Valhalla Release from Highland Park, long before Mjølner was opened — they are now proudly showcased here for everyone to try. These were individually released and took a while to accumulate.
Another recommendation to grow your personal collection is doing something that I saw Starward do — they sold two bottles in a set with different boxing [labelled] ‘One to drink, one to keep’. I loved that! I bought them and did just that.
Most distilleries will do limited releases and will offer two bottles per person allocation (especially Australian distilleries) and if you can get it, buy two. Then, if it’s not your cup of tea, you have whisky gifts for friends sorted — you’re welcome.
Where are good places to find collectible whisky?
Visiting distilleries and getting their limited ‘Distillery Only’ releases is good way of getting collectable whisky, it’s not liquid you can buy from retailers — bonus points, that money is also going straight to the distillery (especially Australian distilleries). Sign up to their database so you get the collections and releases first.
There’s all the whisky auction sites out there — take a look at whiskyauctioneer.com and Lawson’s. We’ve bought some collections I’m super proud of from auction sites for Speakeasy Group, this is usually super special whisky we want to have available for customers, so everyone can try it.
Go to retailers like The Oak Barrel who work closely with distilleries to bring in limited releases and go to events with brands. Another thing is, go to whisky bars and try the whisky before you drop that hard earned dough on something to make sure you want to collect it.
How do you avoid buying fake whisky?
Buy from reputable sites, direct from distilleries and retailers — not old mate on Facebook market place. I have above mentioned a few of our collections at Mjølner, and have been asked to smash these bottles when we’ve sold them to help stop the production of replicas of this whisky.
When it comes to collecting whisky, are there any particular whiskies you think are overrated?
No whisky is overrated if you like it or want it. It’s all about your personal need, want and taste, again not buying for a value of a collection. I like Japanese whisky, however I am not on the crazy bandwagon that has driven prices (especially secondary) through the roof making it hard for everyone to get. It used to be guns at 10 paces with CCA every time the Suntory allocations would come out because of the hype with the whisky consumer world.
What makes a great whisky for you?
This is not a automated response, it’s actually my true feelings — whisky for me is about the experience, the people and the moment. I’m emo like that.
I’m the Jack Daniels–swigging, Australian whisky-championing, Highland Park-slinging, heavily peated-sipping, Samaroli-chasing kinda girl. It’s all great, it’s all about your experience while drinking it and your own ‘emotional value’.