Hunting

Enough with the “chase” bottle, just drink the whiskey

My experience is that most whiskey lovers are fun and friendly. As avid beer and wine drinkers, they came to the hobby for the flavor, and when they formed relationships with like-minded drinkers, things got fun.

But as has happened with the beer and wine cultures, the whiskey fandom now has its outliers, people like self-proclaimed “whiskey hunters” who are on the hunt for bottles, good or bad, both that these purchases reinforce their ego. They fetishize on particular brands and spend inordinate hours running here and there to find “this bottle with this mashbill because it’s really rare. Their collections are often large and the people who assemble them are usually fastidious.

They can’t read a crowd that’s sick of their “I’ve been everywhere, man” stories of hunting down bottles of Blanton for a single letter or grabbing six bottles of Smoke Wagon because their buddies swear that it’s better than any other MGP whisky. Studying, buying, drinking and sharing whiskey is a great hobby, but few things spoil the experience like someone banging their chest on a bottle.

Bottles like these are meant to be opened (image via Buffalo Trace)

And it’s not really hunting

To call a search for a bottle of whiskey a “hunt” is overkill. Hunting is a job of sitting in the cold for hours while hoping that some unfortunate beast is within gunshot. Killing him is the easy part. Dressing it in the field and dragging it to a truck, which is never near where the animal died, is work. Bird hunting isn’t as heavy, but it does require long waits in cold wetlands hoping the dogs will wake up pheasants. (For what it’s worth, I’m not a hunter for those same reasons. But if someone kills them, I’ll cook them.)

So, “hunters,” just call it by its name: buy bourbon, a risk-free purchase of bottles off the shelves of a government-licensed, air-conditioned store. Getting there is done in cars with heat, AC and cell phone chargers. Unlike hunters who dare not blink when prey approaches, bourbon buyers who turn on the stereo will never scare the bottles away.

Enough with the pictures

Photos of hunters and their prey have never brought me much. I am neither offended nor disgusted, but neither am I moved by these images. The classic photos of a dopey Hemmingway next to his giant dead prizes have always struck me as brutal and proof of a mostly unfair fight. But if visual recording proves that a specific fighter featured in the shot killed, then go for it. They get rewards for such things, so it’s appropriate.

All of this makes whiskey purchase photos look ridiculous. Putting a bottle of booze in your lap and snapping a photo against the ever-picturesque backdrop of your car’s steering wheel involves a lot more than we should dive into here. Just store it safely in the empty wine box of your trunk, like the rest of us. I don’t care what you paid for it, it’s not the holy grail.

The number of bottles doesn’t really matter either

I have a lot of bottles of spirits at home, but I’m not a collector. I’m a consumer who buys, drinks and repeats the cycle, and I’m a spirits editor who receives free samples. I sip whiskey with my family, friends, at parties, at (professional) tastings and also when the delivery man brings in a new sample. Yeah, if it’s interesting, this ship is cracking right now.

The more bottles I opened, the more bottles are allowed to share, and it allows guests to do so without permission at my place. I’ve never been to a friend’s whiskey where there weren’t multiple options available to pour for free. It’s part of the culture now.

Self-proclaimed hunters will find you

When a guy came up to me after a public whiskey tasting I conducted last fall and said furtively, “Do you want to see my whiskey collection? I really didn’t. When he slipped in, phone ready and said, “Here, let me show you,” he scrolled through a huge stash of booze stuffed with premium choices. Some photos showed the bottles backlit with LED strips and mirrors and massed in V-pin formations. It was weird.

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 couldn’t believe it. Yet he continued to speak. “I don’t want to brag, (always a clear warning that someone really wants to brag) “but I make a lot of money, and when I get into something, I do everything. Money is not a problem.”

Since my personal time didn’t matter to him either, his one-sided conversation continued. “I don’t drink much either; I almost feel a little bad about it because, well, so many people really like what I have, these Wellers, in particular, ”he said, pointing to what looked like a piece of 10 12 year old bourbon bottles. He continued, showing me his career and telling me how he had acquired it quickly and in large batches.

I didn’t expect this strange stranger to invite me to his house for a drink or to say, “Do you like this bottle? I have 14. I’ll send you one. You seem like a nice guy. But usually people who have cool stuff don’t show it to people they won’t pour it out for. They show it in preview to share it. I doubt he felt that this protocol of presenting and sharing was part of modern whiskey culture.

Eventually, I choked out an “Oh, look at the clock!” remark in his stream of conscience talk so I can finish my day’s work. Fortunately, he gave in and moved on. But still, the meaning of what he said remains fresh in my mind 10 months later:

I have the time and the money to buy and hoard all the whiskey I like, no matter the price, even if I’m not going to enjoy it myself.

Obviously not a fun guy.

One of the most prolific collectors I know follows a simple rule for buying whiskey: if possible, buy three of what you like: one to drink, one to trade, and one to save. Saving some is good: to revisit, toast friends or donate to a charity auction. Going to his house was always a great experience.

Thank goodness more drinkers are like my friend than Mr. “I don’t really drink that much.” We could use a lot less of this type, but the bottles from these whiskey collections, I would like a few.