Among the many reasons one might choose to cellar a bottle of wine or liquor — sentimentality, investment, or simply to set aside for a special occasion — stockpiling for a global pandemic surely didn’t figure in most folks’ minds prior to 2020.

And yet, forced to reckon with our very mortality and stuck in the repetitive daily cycle of sheltering in place, those collections — no matter how modest or invaluable — have taken on heightened importance. Rather than saving bottles for a special event, tapping into our wine and liquor collections has become the event in 2020.

In the midst of a worldwide plague, one quickly begins to question if and when that perfect occasion will ever arise. “With the virus this year and not knowing what could happen the next day, I’ve definitely been looking for any opportunity to open a special bottle,” says Andy Sung, a Houston-based IT project manager and whiskey enthusiast.

Sung shares his bottle shots and whiskey reviews with a 9,000-strong Instagram following via his Whiskyprism account. While some use the platform to post photos of envy-inducing collections of (sealed) unicorn whiskeys, Sung is among a group of proponents for opening bottles.

rare bottles 2020 covid
Credit: Whiskyprism / Instagram.com

Littering his feed are impressive lineups of #bottlekills — typically aged expressions of Scotch. Still, even he admits to being guilty of setting aside certain bottles in the past. But no more. “I’ve got all these nice bottles, but am I going to have enough special occasions to actually open them all? Perhaps not,” he says. “Why not just open them when the feeling hits?”

Sung credits the change of heart to the unique events of this year — and he’s not alone in foraging into previously untapped spirits reserves. But not everyone looks on the trend in such a philosophical manner. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of convenience.

Blake Riber, owner of the online retailer Seelbach’s and publisher of the Bourbonr blog and Youtube channel, says the changing of our daily and weekly routines likely caused many an unplanned foray into the cellar during the pandemic. “The very fact that you’re at home more, you drink more of your own bottles,” Riber says.

What happens when you delve deeper into your collection? You’ve got to move onto other bottles — usually better ones.

Riber used the early days of lockdown to start clearing his shelves of bottles with four or five ounces left in them. Once those were gone, he cast his gaze on bottles he otherwise would have kept shut and saved for some undecided future event. Besides “five or six” bottles he’s saving for particularly special events, like his kids’ weddings, nothing was off limits.

“I’m in my office looking at open bottles and there’s a [George T] Stagg, there’s a Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition from 2013, and I’ve got a few others,” he says during a phone call, continuing with a chuckle. “Seems like I’ve opened even more than I thought.”

Still, Riber is quick to acknowledge that factors other than convenience have influenced the bottles people have been opening. “I think we could all use a little bit of enjoyment and fun in our lives right now,” he says.

Jordan Rock, an L.A.-based entertainment attorney and wine enthusiast, has also found solace in opening special bottles this year. While he and his wife typically buy or open their best bottles to celebrate birthdays or a promotion or a new job, this year has been different.

“Like many people, we figured we’d open a nice wine and make a special event around that,” he says. “We did open many more nicer bottles than we normally would.”

Unable to meet with his wine club for in-person tastings, Rock opened special bottles from his collection, like a 1966 Peter Nicolay Beerenauslese Riesling, and split them into 4-ounce sample bottles. He’d then meet up (outdoors) with members of his tasting group to hand over the treasures, before enjoying them together over online Zoom tastings.

“I think it was a really special, important way for us to connect with some of our friends in an otherwise very unsocial year,” Rock says. “These were the highlights of the week or the month; they helped make a special occasion”

Dr. Jessica Spector, a Yale University professor of alcohol history, cocktails, and ethics, typically drinks cocktails and spirits — particularly Scotch. Setting aside bottles for special occasions is not a practice she usually subscribes to. “I’m not a saver, I’m a drinker — down the hatch,” she says.

rare bottles 2020 covid
Credit: Campari

Yet, occasionally some bottles come along that she wants to hold on to, like a bottle of Campari that has a special label commemorating the brand’s 150th anniversary. Campari is a regular feature in Spector’s household. “I’ve got a big family and people use it in various [cocktails] from sophisticated drinks to non-sophisticated drinks,” she says. But every time someone has suggested opening that particular bottle, Spector resisted.

On a recent Saturday night, with all of the family at home, including her eldest son who was back from college, the familiar scenario arose. Only this time, Spector decided life is too short and said, “Let’s just open it.”

While she doesn’t directly attribute that decision to living through a global pandemic, Spector says the events of 2020 likely played a part.

“When we’ve had a year like this, it makes us think about things we have in the back of our minds, and maybe come down on a different side than we have in the past,” Spector says. Such decisions could influence any aspect of life, without changing who a person fundamentally is, she says. On this occasion, it just happened to give her the nudge to open a pretty bottle of Campari, she says, “and I’m glad.” As this year comes to a close, we can surely all agree that life’s too short for unopened bottles.