Collecting Whisky – Part Four
If you have gotten this far, then congratulations for bearing with me. I hope that it all makes sense so far – there is certainly a lot to take onboard. And this article has a lot of detail, so sit up, look sharp and pay attention! For those of you who have just joined in or for regular readers who need a recap, links to the first three articles are here –
I’m going to take a break from thinking about what whiskies are good or bad to collect and their relative values, and concentrate on something that any serious collector whether an investor, hoarder or drinker has to consider – storage.
Whisky isn’t an ornament. It’s supposed to be drunk, a fact as a hoarder and investor I accept, but also as a drinker. There is little fun in collecting if you don’t get to taste a little, and it is often the case for the less expensive or rare bottles I own that I will often buy two. One for investment, one for tasting. However this doubles my headache, as I then have to consider two lots of storage.
Let’s deal with the drinkers storage first. We need to think what conditions the spirit likes to be in. Whisky, like any other alcohol is a volatile liquid, and since it can range up to around 65%, it needs to be taken care of.
First, keep those bottles upright! Do not treat it as a bottle of wine, which does need to be kept horizontal in order to keep the cork moist. Wine is generally no more than 15% abv. Whisky has to be a minimum of 40% abv. The spirit will dissolve the cork, so not only will you have a leaky seal, you’ll have corked your whisky.
Secondly, we need to keep it relatively cool. Being next to heat sources isn’t so much of a fire hazard, but will help that alcohol evaporate that little bit faster. Don’t assume that because it is unopened that it can’t evaporate – the seal of the bottle can fail. This can be caused by the liquid inside the bottle expanding, thus increasing the pressure of the air in the neck. This can accelerate seal / cork failure.
Thirdly, keep your bottles in the shade, and certainly out of direct sunlight. Sunlight can fade labels and cause the liquid in your whisky bottle to change colour. Furthermore, it’s a heat source so will also cause your spirits to evaporate faster.
I’ve seen a few people post pictures in the comments of my Facebook page with display cabinets, but while these may be great to look at, and I’m sure the owners have a rightly deserved sense of pride about them, I’d suggest you put the more expensive ones in a cool dark cupboard to keep your whisky better for longer. Just don’t forget to drink it or look at it from time to time.
You will also need to pay close attention to your house insurance. Many insurance companies limit the amount you can claim for one item, and may only cover a limited amount in the case of spirits. Some insurers may also be unwilling to pay out if there is a fire and they didn’t know about large amounts of spirits being kept at the property. Don’t forget, if you have a large collection, whisky will be seen as a fire risk, and your insurance company will do anything to get out of paying.
Take photos of your collection and keep receipts just in case you need to make a claim or prove provenance.
Whisky doesn’t go ‘off,’ right?
Well, right and wrong. Assuming your bottle is unopened, the seal is good and it is kept in the right conditions, your whisky should remain as good as the day it was bottled.
However, the moment you open that bottle, the clock is ticking. Whisky will not go bad as quick as a bottle of milk, but over a period of a couple of months, you may start to notice a difference in taste. This is because the air in your bottle is starting to have an effect. Also, spirit is starting to evaporate. This can make a difference, as it is the spirit that carries all that whisky flavours and helps develop the nose, mouth feel, the palate and the finish. Once this evaporates off, the change is going to be noticed.
There are ways to help prevent this from being a problem. The easiest way is to not leave it too long to drink the bottle. This way you’ll have drunk your whisky before any degradation is noticed. Of course, you maybe don’t want to drink the same dram until the bottle is finished, but don’t open any more bottles than you can finish in say a 2 month period to keep it fresh
If this is not something you can do, there are a couple more techniques that will help you, but these are more specialised. The first one is a technique called ‘gassing’ which means putting an inert gas into your bottle to displace the air, and prevent the whisky from oxidising. Argon is a common gas to use, and there are retailers that sell this as a way of preserving wine, which also suffers from oxidation.
The other (and more risky) method of preserving whisky is to remove the oxygen from a bottle by placing a lit barbecue lighter flame into the bottle. The burning butane will remove oxygen from the bottle, but there are two hazards. 1/ it’s a bit of a fire risk. Best not to do it with a bottle that is more than half empty, as there are more flammable vapours present. 2/- if the flame goes out before you switch off the gas, you will have contaminated your bottle with butane. Best avoided.
Storage for Collectors / Investment
This is where things get heavy. Failure to be careful here could have massive effects to the value of your investment or completely wipe it out altogether.
Don’t even think about keeping investment grade whisky anywhere near heat or sunlight. It needs to be as cool and consistent as possible. A cool room or cupboard is ideal for those with smaller collections. For those with larger collections, this may not be possible so we move onto the next tier of collection – a storage unit.
Storage units and insurance
This will need to have similar temperature and humidity as your home, or as close as possible. Try to obtain an internal storage unit, as these are often ventilated and will not be affected by the sun beating down on them, and are generally less susceptible to damp. But remember storage units cost money – one with storage about the size of a small van will be around the £70 level. Metal containers, especially steel shipping containers will get quite hot during summer (unless you are in Scotland, where summer only usually lasts one day, and people take their tops off once the temperature exceeds 8 centigrade.)
Plus you will need to factor in the cost of insurance. It is usually more expensive to take the storage company insurance; you are often better using one of the specialist storage insurance companies. As a guide, I pay £540 a year for £30k of Insurance.
Don’t think you can insure it for what it’s worth, but only what you paid for it. Even then, you may only be insured for the value of a new item. Double check as to what you are covered for.
Packaging for storage.
If like me you have chosen to use a storage facility, you will be leaving your collection for some time, so it needs to be stored correctly. This can be a major undertaking but managed correctly should be little hassle.
You need to have strong cardboard boxes, and plenty of packing materials. Bubble wrap, styrofoam nuggets, or what I use is inflatable pouches called ‘Air Sac’. These are inflatable pouches that come as single, dual or triple pouches, and use a hand pump or compressor to inflate, cocooning your bottle or tin. For those of you living in the UK, I use Macfarlane Packaging who can supply Air Sac as well as other packaging materials. You can buy kits that match the amount of boxes required with the type and quantity of pouches bought.
AirSac was a great solution for me, as I had over 200 bottles to photograph and pack. It certainly cut down on packing time.
A good idea is to use Silica gel packs inside the pouches and/or in the tins to keep corrosion at bay. This can be induced if packing in a humid atmosphere and the bottles are then kept in cool place. Silica Gel will help mitigate this, but bear in mind you still need to change it every now and again.
You need to photograph each bottle as a demonstration of proof how it was before storage, in case of ever needing to make an insurance claim. I use a point and shoot semi- automatic camera with a light tent to photograph. This ensures a decent record of each bottle.
When taking photographs, have a bit of paper in front of it, giving the details of the bottle. This is handy if you have multiples of a particular bottle.
And of course, keep a list of what is in each box. I have given each bottle a code, based on the distillery name, and that helps me keep track of individual bottles.
Here is a photograph of my photography packing and storage and set up
1/ Bubble wrap. 50cm wide
2/ AirSac Pouches
3/ AirSac Hand Pump
4/ Tape Dispensing gun (I have 2, one with clear tape not shown.)
5/ Silica Gel Packs
6/ Camera. I use Nikon Coolpix P7100 as it has pretty good auto function but I can also go manual if a label is proving difficult to capture. You can use a smart phone, but make sure your photos are backed up at least in one other place and perhaps also on a memory stick at another address.
7/ Styrofoam nuggets. Help fill out packing box voids
8/ Sellotape / Scissors / Pens / Post Its for labelling bottles.
9/ Photo tent.
Not shown – Laptop running Spreadsheet program to record Bottles, What box they are in, ABV, etc…. Also cardboard boxes and fragile labels.
A handy tip is to keep packaging that you receive if you buy bottles at online auctions or online stores. This helps pad out the boxes. Also consider putting ‘This Way Up’ labels on your boxes so your whisky doesn’t destroy your cork by being on its side or upside down.
I hope this hasn’t put you off. It is a big effort, but if you have chosen wisely, packed carefully and have patience, big effort can bring big rewards.
Next Article – it’s in storage, what now?
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Photo Credit from Creative Commons
Internal Storage – Hills Self Store CC BY-SA 4.0