This little summary draws on my own experience as passionate whisky drinker, hunter, and collector.
Tip 1: Start by buying what you like to drink!
It may sound obvious, but with marketing agencies doing their spiel and fellow whisky-lovers in your ear about ‘their must-have-malts’, one can easily get tempted to start buying whatever is out there. The primary reason you should buy a dram is the fact that you like its taste! There is lots of whisky out there (luckily) and when you are the beginning of your journey into the ‘land of whisky’, you better trust your own taste-buds on what to go for. No matter if you prefer a delicate Speysider, a well-rounded Japanese, some full-hearted Tasmania tipple, or a smoky Islay beast. The global whisky market is multi-facetted and there are literally hundreds of different distilleries/bottlers offering their ‘water of life’ which comes in a broad range of different flavours. It is important that you develop your palate and your own taste to help guide you for your future purchases, no matter if you see whisky as investment or you are into whisky because you simply enjoy it. In order to get to know different types of whisky, you need to do your homework and that leads us to the next point…
Tip 2: Take time - Do your research
There is a lot to learn and know about whisky. In order to make the right choices you better know your stuff! That doesn’t mean that you need to become a whisky expert, but it doesn’t hurt to become knowledgeable about what’s out there, what you like, how much you are likely to pay for certain drams, and where to source them. A good starting point is the abovementioned awareness of what you like to drink. Beyond that, it doesn’t hurt to get a feel of how others rate whisky and about the stories they tell about it. The ideal approach is to know and even have tasted the exact tipple you buy. Clearly that’s not always possible; luckily there are dozens of decent Whisky review(er)s out there to check out online. It doesn’t hurt to do a quick scan of reviews of a particular dram and find out which review you trust (and/or which have most overlap with your opinion). There are many online portals such as Serge’s Whiskyfun, Scotchwhisky (Dave Broom spearheading a list of reviewers), the US based Whiskeywash (with various contributors), Ruben’s Whiskynotes, Distiller (covering a broad range of recent releases), or the Australian Whisknick (plus many many more). Even the experts have different tastes, so it’s best to compare notes with your own.
In some instances, it is possible to get in touch with the distillers and your local bottle-shop owner ask questions and build up a relationship of trust with them where they know your tastes and can recommend drams that work for you.
Tip 3: Be social
As much as one can find out about whisky online, nothing beats face to face encounters. Whisky is best enjoyed in company and apart from the benefit of great conversations and personal interaction, social settings can also help amplify one’s whisky knowledge. Being it tastings in a whisky bar, attending whisky fairs and festivals, or simply enjoying an after work or tipple at your local. Listen to your mate or simply the barman who introduces you to something new, get to meet people who either produce the whisky you drink, or who resell it in your local setting. Personally, I’ve learned most about whisky from my friends and fellow passionate collectors who point out the good stuff. Often it’s my local bar-owner who (himself a collector) has a great grip on rare imports and out-of-the-ordinary releases. Whisky-fairs and related events are a must for those who live close-by. Whisky-Live runs a yearly event across several cities (Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney) in Australia, and there are other shows often co-organised by local bottle shops and retailers. In Melbourne the Starward Distillery hosts ‘Whisky and Dreams’ (formerly known as ‘Independence Day’ early March) and in Sydney the Oak Barrel runs their annual Whisky Fair (August). Western Australian’s flock together during ‘Whisky Freedom’ in Perth in late June, and those in Tasmania (as if there weren’t already enough opportunities there, gather during Tasmanian Whisky Week in early August.
For those with a budget, you can always jump on a plan and visit Japan/Taiwan for their annual events, or go to Europe and check out the local events in Limburg / Paris / London / Milan / Edinburgh /San Francisco etc… Don’t be shy and take the time to talk to people about what you like and always remain curious about what others are drinking.
Tip 4: Try new things
Following up from the previous point, curiosity is a great asset when it comes to finding great whisky. Sure, everyone has their ‘usual suspects’ and go-to drams that won’t ever fail them (Lagavulin 16 anyone?), but being curious and trying out new things will likely open your mind to more great options that are out there. Of course, not every new introduction will be to your liking; still it pays off to be alert about different releases and some unusual drams. A good whisky collection will keep evolving with your own taste. Like your Glendronach? Why not also try some Sherry goodness from Aberlour, a Glenfarclas, or Kavalan? Then again, there is no need to stray away too far from our shores. With the explosion of new distilleries and bottles in Australia one doesn’t have to look far to try something new. Ever had a Tiger Snake from WA or a delicious Oat variety from Tassie? Why not try a Wattle Seed malt from Adelaide? … Australian distilleries are not bound by tradition like the Scots (I stole that from Heartwood’s Tim Duckett). That means that there is a lot of experimenting going on right now on the Australian Whisky scene. Starting with different malt barley varieties, trying out different types of local peat (which is quite distinct from Scottish/European one), and going for different types barrel finishes provided by our local (fortified) wine industry.These are truly exciting times and trying something new and different has never been easier.
Tip 5: Shop around (home and overseas!)
This is a no-brainer really! Whisky trading doesn’t follow fixed pricing. There will always be a market where the same product will have different price-tags depending where you source it. If you think you get the best deals on Scottish Whisky from UK traders? Think again! You may actually find better deals in Japan! Some of the best Bourbon and Rye Whiskies can be found cheaper in Australia than in their land of origin. Dramfan has put together a list of online Australian Whisky retailers and the Whiskyfind is a great comparative search engine for local drams.
Going Internationally, Whiskyexchange, Master of Malt, and La Maison du Whisky were the obvious choices given their range, price and proven reputation. The longer I’ve been collecting, the more I find viable options to those large re-sellers. I typically start my world-wide search on Wine-searcher as that portal (it has a lot of whisky on there despite its name) will offer access to retailers from around the world. It’s interesting to see how changing some setting there can lead to different results (try ‘exclude auctions’ or searchers in specific countries instead of ‘worldwide’). Another great source can be found at the Whiskybase, in particular once you set up an account for their ‘online market’. This will allow you to expand your search and include private sales from other collectors around the world. For those desperately after Japanese tipples (despite the crazy prices) look no further than Yahoo Japan. There is no Ebay in the land of Sushi and Yahoo is online ‘auction capital’ there.The only problem: You need to understand Japanese, register a local account and mostly ship to Japanese postal addresses. Obviously, that’s no good for anyone outside Japan!
Jauce to the rescue! This web-portals allow foreigners to access Yahoo Japan articles (via a basic English translation) and they take over the bidding, payment, repackaging and shipping overseas for you. They add about 8% fee on top of the sale price for that service, plus additional packing/shipping costs. The system can get a bit annoying, but it’s sometimes the only viable option to get rare Japanese drams at a reasonable price (often beating prices Dekanta by 30-40%). Alternatives to the above approach include global Rakuten.
Tip 6: (Hidden) Fees and other issues when using auction sites.
The Japanese example above highlights that one can find amazing treasures on auction sites such as eBay, Catawiki, Whiskyauctioneer etc. Ebay is probably the most common (which also means you will find stiffest competition – which drives up prices). In my experience eBay works principally well. All Australian resellers require a liquor license to sell there, which is not necessarily the case when you buy from overseas. The major problem you may come across when using EBay is that not all sales have ‘buyer protection’ and you may lose your money if you don’t pay via PayPal. Other sites often have a complicated system of ‘buyer premiums’ that may hit you as a surprise. Best to always check the smallprint about any fees to be expected that get added to the auction price.
Tip 7: Don’t go overboard! (obsession warning) Work with a budget
Maintaining a level of discipline when buying whisky is an essential virtue. There is just so much great stuff out there and the more you get into whisky, the more likely you’ll find out about it and – naturally – want to have this fabulous recent release. So far, so good! Problems emerge when your passion takes over and becomes an obsession. ‘Whisky Envy’ is a common problem among collectors, but there is only so many bottles you really ‘must have’! Buying/collecting whisky isn’t necessarily a cheap pastime and having a ‘monthly budget’ to stick to may not be such a bad idea. From own experience, I can say that it’s not always easy to maintain discipline and stick to a budget. You need to be aware of the consequences! The money you spent on whisky could be spent for other things. It gets difficult when you reach the point where you have to start hiding the box(es) of this week’s delivery from your partner (sounds familiar to anyone). Best make sure he/she loves whisky as well!
Tip 8: Be aware of (and account for) customs and duties!
Australia is a wonderful country, our economy is doing well, our cities are growing and people generally prosper when they put some effort in. Compared to others, we are a high-price country and goods that make its way down under from overseas are typically subject to high taxes and duties. Whisky is no exception. It is therefore important to be aware of the approximate additional costs you can expect when ordering online overseas and delivering to Australia. Sometimes the price you paid overseas can increase by 50-60% by the time it lands in your hands and the ‘great’ buy might suddenly feel like a stupid idea. Dramfan has put together a detailed breakdown of how much to expect