How to Start a Rare Spirits Collection

This article is part of a series of luxury spirits articles sponsored by Diageo.

When looking to build a rare whisky collection, Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s global master of whisky, thinks there are a few key ways to go about it. He feels, firstly, that you should pursue a broad spectrum of flavors, styles, and age points. He likewise thinks it’s good to go after bottles that are a little unusual or showcase twists on a defining single malt. Releases from ghost distilleries, in other words, producers that have been shuttered over the years, always command attention as well. Most importantly, though, Gunn thinks collectors should simply go for whiskies that speak to their own personality.

“Any good whisky collection should have that conversational element,” says Gunn. “Where each bottle will have some kind of story you want to tell about it.”

Of course, too often it can seem that everyone is pursuing the exact same bottles, and Gunn doesn’t believe that makes for a very interesting world. Nevertheless, whether you are buying whiskies to enjoy or lay down in your cellar as an investment, some similar bottles will continually pop up on every wish list.

Read on for a list of releases Gunn feels are worth obtaining for anyone starting a rare spirits collection.

Port Ellen 40 Year Old

Port Ellen rare spirit

This legendary Islay distillery, known for its innovation and which historically predominantly produced malts for blends, closed in 1983 and was later almost entirely demolished. Over the years, the remaining (and often still maturing) stock from this so-called “ghost” distillery were released as single malts and became much coveted amongst collectors. In 2019, a one-off bottle of Port Ellen 40-Year-Old even hit an auction record high in Asia, selling for HKD 170,000 (about $22,000). Gunn points, however, to a more recent release of Port Ellen 40-Year Old created out of nine “rogue” (out of spec flavor-wise, but nevertheless spectacular) casks and initially priced at a slightly more affordable £6,500 (about $9,029). “Port Ellen is so loved amongst single malt fans and has many dedicated collectors,” says Gunn of the unusual release. “And this is one that tells a very interesting story.”

Brora Triptych

Brora Triptych

Another iconic ghost distillery often sought out by major collectors, the celebrated Brora distillery, was likewise closed in 1983 as there was already a surplus of blending whisky on the market. Located in the remote Highlands in Sutherland, on the Northeast coast of Scotland, Brora became renowned for its exceptional mature stocks which would eventually be released — notably Brora 1972 Limited Edition 40-Year-Old sold as part of Sotheby’s Ultimate Whisky Auction in 2019 for a distillery record of £54,450 (about $75,634). In 2021, restoration was completed on Brora and after lying dormant for 38 years, the ghost distillery was reawakened. Gunn thinks this can only mean good things for the brand’s collectibility. “It’s going to raise awareness of this distillery which will in turn raise awareness of the history behind it,” says Gunn. In honor of the reopening, the brand released Brora Triptych, a £30,000 (about $41,672) three-bottle collection representing each distinct style of whisky in the distillery’s proud heritage.

Mortlach 26 Year Old

Mortlach 26 Year Old

“Any time I hear someone order Mortlach in a bar, my ears prick up,” claims Gunn of the cult distillery, sometimes labeled the “Beast of Dufftown,” which is extremely popular amongst the cognoscenti. This quirky release was part of the 2019 Special Releases Collection which showcases the breadth and depth of Diageo’s exceptional whisky stocks which no other producer can replicate. A natural cask strength offering, it was matured in first-fill Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso seasoned casks. With only 3,883 numbered bottles, packaged in a stunning collectible box, this was the most limited of the 2019 Special Release.

Talisker 25 Year Old

Talisker Rare Spirit

A limited release since 2001 — when it was originally cask strength — since 2011 it has clocked in at 45.8 percent ABV. With sweet smoke to start, the palate moves more dry and toasty with maritime notes and hints of white pepper and chilies. This is one of the more accessible, and slightly more affordable, ways to start collecting rare spirits. “Any collection should have some classics in it as well,” says Gunn, who similarly taps Lagavulin 16 Year as a must-have. “It shouldn’t all be one-off releases that no one else can find.”

Blade & Bow 22 Year Old

Blade & Bow 22 Year Old

It’s not only single malt Scotch that fits the bill for rare spirits collectors these days. Bourbon collectors especially gravitate to anything connected to Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the distillery once helmed by Pappy Van Winkle himself. However, while this release wasn’t distilled by Stitzel-Weller Distillery, it was aged in the facility. This straight bourbon whisky is, not surprisingly, oaky for such a mature age, though it is balanced with notes of torched sugar, sweet vanilla bean, and a spicy dry rye finish. Released in limited quantities in select locations — like the Stitzel-Weller Distillery gift shop — every year since 2015; the inaugural batch was named Best Kentucky Straight Bourbon at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

This article is sponsored by Diageo.