Tod Bradbury, head of rare and collectable whiskies at Justerini & Brooks, discusses the considerations for starting a whisky collection and shares his insights on this steadily growing market.
Starting a whisky collection
One of the key considerations before starting a whisky collection is provenance: ensuring that you know exactly where your whisky has come from and that you are buying from a merchant that has a proven reputation. Then, I always suggest working out the style of whisky you like. Think about different regions and flavour profiles; smoky, sweet, peaty; malt or grain whiskies. And, start tasting!
You may find that the style of whisky varies enormously depending on whether it’s from Highland, Lowlands or Island distilleries, so this can be a great way to discover the style of whisky you most enjoy. Is it smoky and peaty from Islay, or crisp and fresh from Speyside? Many distilleries have a trademark style; you’ll often hear whisky-lovers referring to Talisker as having a chilli-pepper heat, for example.
Whiskies such as Coal-Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen all hail from Islay, a remote and beautiful location. In fact, this is one of my favourite islands to visit. Visiting a distillery is a great way to understand the process of making Scotch whisky. The added benefit is the ability to taste whiskies in order, to get an in-depth appreciation of their style. Once you know what you like and what you want, you can start building your collection. It’s always worth remembering that you should be happy to drink and enjoy anything you buy.
One of the most exciting parts of my position is finding someone who doesn’t like whisky and taking them on a journey of discovery. The access we have to some of the best liquids in the world is totally unique and gives us an opportunity to build collections for our customers knowing that we have the credentials and the provenance to match.
Trends in the whisky industry
There is a distinct rise in global demand for ghost or silent distilleries. These are distilleries that are no longer in production, so the amount we have is finite. This makes it scarce and highly collectable. Brora and Port Ellen are two of the most desirable and my customers can’t get enough of them. Knowing that you have a whisky that no one else in the world can taste is quite something.
Customers are also looking for a personal connection to their purchases – they want to understand the craft, the people and the time that goes into making these exceptional whiskies. There is, of course, huge interest and demand in casks of aged whisky. Owning a cask of whisky is the ultimate purchase, and it isn’t something you rush into. My customers want to taste, they want to visit the distilleries and understand the little piece of liquid history they are hoping to own.
Outlook for the market
It’s a hugely exciting time for the market, as we are moving into a more vibrant, high-tempo scene. Perception of the ways in which whisky is consumed has changed. Demand for single cask releases, rare bottles and our annual limited-edition bottlings, such as the 2020 Special Releases, are at an all-time high.
Whiskies from our closed distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora or Glenury Royal also have a cult following. Provenance, quality and rarity will continue to be critical. We are noticing a major rise in clients’ desire to discover the distilleries. By visiting, collectors can enjoy a personal connection to their purchases, the origins of distilleries and those craftsmen and women who work there. Some consider it just as important as the liquid itself. We want to inspire our clients, get them away from their desks, iPads and phone signals, and instead focus on understanding the craft, people and creation, as well as experiencing the liquid.
How the industry is adapting to Covid-19 challenges
Justerini & Brooks has always been a business that has focussed on relationships and personal service. I’ve been fortunate that much of that interaction has been able to continue, albeit virtually rather than in-person. I have hosted numerous tastings and masterclasses online, from small one-to-ones where I guide customers through a series of whiskies that they may be interested in purchasing – this could be cask samples or rare bottlings – to larger masterclasses that we have hosted with the distillery managers from Talisker and Caol Ila. Nothing beats visiting a distillery, but having the distillery managers in a masterclass with me, guiding customers through their whiskies, encouraging discussion and feedback has been an upside of this digital movement.
Having an e-commerce platform is also a huge asset. We have been able to enhance our bespoke offering to customers by including the latest limited releases from exciting distilleries. It was fantastic to see so many passionate collectors seeking out whisky online in 2020. We also have a storage facility, so customers aren’t worried about shipping or where to keep their bottles. They can safely store with us.