Collectors Say Taste, Not Age or Rarity, Makes Bottles Valuable - The Whiskey Wash

Collectors Say Taste, Not Age or Rarity, Makes Bottles Valuable

By Steve Coomes / September 18, 2017

Ever wondered if some of those unopened bottles in your whiskey cabinet could be sold for more than you paid?

Collectors say it’s not hard to figure out what you’ve got if know how to value it. According to a pair of experts we interviewed, if you manage your whiskey purchases, sales, and trades like business transactions—meaning you know their taste, history and hype—chances are you’ll find yourself with some good ones for drinking or trading or gifting.

But if you get swept up the hype (and pay too much), don’t bother with the history (and ignore the valuable backstory) or haven’t tasted the whiskey at some point (and have no ability to discuss it personally), you could wind up shelving an overrated dud, or (gasp!) looking like a booze dork.

To learn what makes a bottle collectible, The Whiskey Wash spoke with a pair of veteran collectors whose advice was so varied, interesting and abundant, that we’ve decided to sort their remarks into categories. Read on and soak up the collecting experience of Jared Hyman (a whiskey curator at Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Bourbon Source in Washington, D.C.) and Justin Sloan (owner of BottleBlueBook.com).

Lots of whiskey

There’s a lot of whiskey for us to drink these days (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

What makes a whiskey collectible?

Justin Sloan: I start by asking myself some questions: Have I had the juice before and is it good? Sounds obvious, I know, but since I rarely buy bottles just to flip them, I buy a bottle thinking I’ll drink it at some point. Booker’s Rye is a good example. I tried it, loved it and knew the release was only going to be 6,000 bottles. So, I made sure to get it a lot of it. Most I’ll keep, some I might trade or sell.

Jared Hyman: Buying on age is definitely not a good place to start. That’s a fallacy. I want to know one thing: Does it taste good? Then I want to know if, when this whiskey came out, did people like the taste? If no one liked it, where’s the interest in it?

When it comes to taste, how valuable are others’ opinions?

JH: You give me a whiskey that three to four influential palates really like, I’ll show you a bottle whose demand will continue to go up. That bottle’s price might not start as high as expensive annual releases, but over time it will certainly make up for lost ground.

How do you gauge rarity and how important is it?

JS: Any Pappy 10 or 12-year … there’s a lot of them out there, but they’re still considered “rare” because they’re hard to get. Market demand is what declares a new release a rarity. But the “new bottle” thing is more about demand than supply.

When you start getting into vintage stuff, you have rarity based on quantities made. In the case of something made 30 years ago, no one really knows how many were made or how many bottles are still around.

Collector’s editions are a little different. When Maker’s Mark started doing special releases (e.g. University of Kentucky basketball coach decanters) for charity, there was high demand since there were only 15,000 bottles in each release. Now they’re doing 40,000 bottles. The demand was there for the 15,000, but the supply wasn’t. So now that the supplies are there, the demand is down.

JH: I’ll be asking (the seller) how rare is it to them? Things have different elements of scarcity. A lot of it has to do with understanding what’s available, what’s been consumed and even where it was distributed. Sometimes you find what particular brands were distributed in certain areas and get a good idea of its value to collectors in that area. I like those old bottles of David Nicholson Bourbon, and since it was made in St. Louis, that’s where they pop up since there wasn’t an even distribution of it around the country. People assume most whiskeys are distributed evenly, but that’s not the case.

What about less tangible things, such as the whiskey’s story, its looks and its labeling? Do collectors care?

JS: Oh, people definitely think the story’s cool. There are stories for every kind of whiskey, but at the end of the day, there are brands that have integrity behind the story and brands that don’t. Sometimes labels make a difference to buyers, but usually not to collectors.

JH: Sentimentality has huge value! To someone who has a bottle you might want, everything is about the story—which is what makes it attractive to collectors. There’s value in a bottle with a good story, one that, when you’re doing a tasting or chewing the fat, telling that story in that setting really makes it an interesting experience. There’s also a big difference in a bottle that’s a great part of American history and something that’s significant to me and my friends. Of course, that affects its value.

Once you step beyond intangibles, how do you assess real value for a buyer or seller?

JH: Sometimes that’s easy, like with any Pappy release. People know they’re great whiskeys, and what they’re selling for is information that’s widely available. The rest you get from relationships in the industry, people in the business who know such things.

JS: Of course, I say BottleBlueBook.com, because you’ll see transactional information and know what it’s moving for in the market. After you’ve this for a long time, it becomes a database in your head. But at the end of the day, real value is what somebody wants to pay for it.

When you’re searching for facts, how do you know who to believe?

JH: The internet isn’t very forgiving when it comes to American whiskey history. If one blog says something’s true, the next will say it’s true, and the next and so on—even if it’s wrong. We all get stuff wrong because there isn’t an encyclopedia for bourbon knowledge or everything about one brand. So, when things are repeated over and over again, even when they’re wrong, there’s no fixing that proliferation.

JS: There’s good and bad information out there, so you have to learn who to trust. Word of mouth still is the best way, and there are certain voices in the industry you listen to. Sometimes brands get bartenders and fans to talk something up by treating them well, and that’s fine. But eventually, over time, you learn who to trust.

When you find something you believe you’ll sell, how do you gauge its value going forward?

JS: I want something that’s already got a proven historical trend. The Booker’s Rye I mentioned is proven, though the price dropped some below its peaked. If I don’t ever sell it, I’ll still enjoy drinking it. So at least buy things you like.

JH: Great reviews from respected palates help. If it’s deemed the greatest bourbon at a respected competition, all of a sudden it gains value because people want to try something they’ve heard is the best. You’re always going to see the most interest in bottles that taste the best. That’s never going to change.

Is collecting a set of annual releases a good idea?

JH: It can be, but I’d certainly not call that the rule. People collect whiskeys mostly because they enjoy the aspect of collecting. So if you got a full set of something just by writing a check … I’d be thinking that wasn’t very fun. For most collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt that’s fun.

When is it time to sell?

JS: If you hear somebody wants it, consider it. There’s all sorts of good reasons to sell, especially with the new vintage whiskey laws coming. (In 2018, people will be able to sell vintage whiskey to bars and retailers in Kentucky.) Sometimes things just happen: emergencies, kids going to college, whatever, and you might have to get rid of whiskey to pay for it. So, if you’re tying money up into it, you should get something you’d be able to sell if you need to.