My experience is most whiskey enthusiasts are fun and friendly. Like passionate beer and wine drinkers, they came to the hobby for flavor, and when they made relationships with likeminded drinkers, things became fun.
But as happened with beer and wine cultures, whiskey fandom now has its outliers, people like self-dubbed “whiskey hunters” who are out for bottles, good or bad, as long as those purchases boost their egos. They fetishize over particular brands and spend inordinate hours running hither and yon to find “this bottle with that mashbill because it’s really rare.” Their collections are often large, and the people who assemble them are usually tedious.
They can’t seem to read a crowd that’s tired of their “I’ve been everywhere, man” stories of stalking Blanton’s bottles for a single letter or grabbing six bottles of Smoke Wagon because their pals swear it’s better than any other MGP whiskey. Studying, buying, drinking and sharing whiskey is a great hobby, but few things ruin the experience like someone chest thumping over a bottle haul.
And it’s not really hunting
Calling a search for a bottle of whiskey a “hunt” is a stretch. Hunting is work that includes sitting out in the cold for hours while hoping a hapless beast steps within rifle range. Killing it is the easiest part. Field dressing and dragging it to a truck—that’s never near where the animal died—is work. Bird hunting lacks such heavy lifting, but it requires long waits in chilly wetlands hoping the dogs will rouse some pheasants. (For what it’s worth, I’m not a hunter for these very reasons. But if someone kills it, I’ll cook it.)
So, “hunters,” just call it what it is: bourbon shopping—a peril-free purchase of bottles on shelves in a government licensed, climate-controlled store. Getting there happens in cars with heat, A.C. and cellphone chargers. Unlike hunters who dare not blink when prey creeps near, bourbon shoppers who crank up the stereo will never scare away bottles.
Enough with the pictures
Photos of hunters and their prey have never done much for me. I’m neither offended nor grossed out, but I’m also not moved by those images. Classic photos of a besotted Hemingway beside his giant dead prizes always struck me as brutish and evidence of a mostly unfair fight. But if a visual record proves a specific hunter featured in the shot made the kill, then have at it. They get awards for such things, so it’s fitting.
All that makes whiskey shopping pics look silly. Plopping a bottle of booze into your lap and snapping a pic with the ever-scenic background of your car’s steering wheel implies, well, way more than we should dive into here. Just stow it safely in the empty wine box in your trunk like the rest of us. I don’t care what you paid for it, it’s not the holy grail.
Numbers of bottles don’t really matter either
I’ve got a lot of bottles of spirits in my home, but I’m not a collector. I’m a consumer who buys, drinks and repeats the cycle, and I’m a spirits writer who gets free samples. I sip whiskey with my family, friends, at parties, at tastings (professionally) and also when the delivery driver brings a new sample. Yes, if it’s interesting, that vessel’s getting cracked right then and there.
The more bottles I’ve got opened, the more bottles are cleared to share, and that makes guests comfortable to do so without permission at my home. I’ve never been to a whiskey friend’s home where there weren’t several options available for free pouring. It’s just part of the culture now.
The self-proclaimed hunters will find you
When a guy came up to me after a public whiskey tasting I led last fall and said furtively, “Want to see my whiskey collection?” I really didn’t. When he sidled up, phone at the ready and said, “Here, let me show you,” he scrolled through an immense booze liquor stash stuffed with premium picks. Some photos showed the bottles backlit with LED strips and mirrors and massed in bowling pin V formations. It was strange.
He said, “You probably can’t believe this, but I’ve only been hunting for about 10 months; I just got into it,” and he was right, I didn’t believe it. Yet he kept talking. “I don’t want to brag, (always a clear warning that someone really does want to brag) “but I make a lot of money, and when I get into something, I go all in. Money’s no object.”
Since my personal time was no object to him either, his one-way conversation continued. “I really don’t drink much of it either; I almost feel kinda bad about that because, well, so many people really like what I’ve got, those Wellers, especially,” he said, pointing to what looked like a 10-bottle wedge of 12 year bourbon. On he went, showing me his quarry and telling me about how he acquired it rapidly and in big lots.
I didn’t expect this strange stranger to invite me to his house for drinks or say, “You like that bottle? I’ve got 14 of them. I’ll send you one. You seem like a nice guy.” But generally, those who have cool stuff don’t show it to people for whom they won’t pour it. They show it as a preview to sharing it. I doubt he had any sense that this show-and-share protocol is part of modern whiskey culture.
Eventually, I wedged an, “Oh, look at the time!” remark into his stream of consciousness spiel so I could finish my work for the day. Thankfully, he relented and moved on. But still, the meaning of what he said remains fresh in my mind 10 months later:
I have the time and money to buy and hoard all the whiskey I like, regardless of the price, even if I’m not going to enjoy it myself.
Clearly, not a fun guy.
One of the most prolific collectors I know follows a simple rule of thumb for whiskey shopping: If possible, buy three of what you like: one to drink, one to trade and one to save. Saving some is good: to revisit, to toast friends or donate to a charity auction. Going to his house was always a terrific sipping experience.
Thank God more drinkers out there are like my friend rather than Mr. “I don’t really drink much of it.” We could use a lot less of that type—but the bottles in such whiskey collections, I’d like some of those.
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....