Scottish Single Malts

Those who collect and those who have collections thrust upon them: A journey into Scottish single malts.

I'm a beer drinker. I've been drinking it for 25 years. So…how did I end up with an incredible collection of 2000 plus bottles of rare single malt whisky? The year was 2008 and I had been managing a great spot in the heart of Toronto called the Rebel House but I was becoming restless and decided it was time for a change. The thing was, I had no idea what I should do or even what I could do. After all, I had spent the last 20 years working in the service industry and playing in rock bands. I didn’t have much experience in anything else. Then I received a phone call.

“I’m having lunch at a place you might know,” she said. “Where?” “The Feathers.” “Really?” “Yup.” My wife, Sarah, had also been in the service industry for many years but with the birth of our daughter had made a career change. She was now marketing real estate in service based businesses such as restaurants and bars. The Feathers is a popular pub on Kingston Rd in the Beaches area of Toronto. It opened its doors in 1981 and was still being run by the original owner, Ian Innes. In addition to being a great neighbourhood pub, it is respected worldwide for its single malt whisky menu. I had passed by it every day on my way to high school. My sister Lori had been employed there as a bartender in the ‘80s. My uncle Neil and aunt Monica were regulars there for years and the first time my sister met our cousin, Alexandra she was being handed to her across the bar at two months old. Yeah, I might know it. “Is it for sale?” “Yup.” There had been some interested parties but no one had come forth with a serious offer. It was a unique opportunity - a successful business that came with a property and one of the largest collections of single malt whisky in North America. However, it was because of the whisky inventory that many prospective buyers balked. And what did I know about single malts? Not much, other than it came from Scotland, tasted good, was sometimes expensive and could give you a headache if mistreated. Why would I spend a rather large sum of money on a collection of something that I knew rather little about? Why not! I began meeting with potential partners over the next year, the recurring question being “What about the scotch?” There was a great deal of trepidation surrounding the massive inventory. What is it really worth? How does it age? Will it go bad? How do you maintain it? How do we sell it? After a couple of failed attempts at forming partnerships, Sarah introduced me to a client David Illaitovich-Owen, who was interested in owning a pub. We met and began working together but realized that we needed a third investor. Paul Chetcuti, an old room mate with whom I had shared the occasional scotch back in the day, came in to the Rebel House one evening. He asked if I was thinking of doing something on my own and, if so, he was interested. The three of us had a few meetings and after having the collection assessed by an outside party we were able to pool our resources to purchase the pub, the building and the single malt collection. I was to be the managing partner in charge of the day to day running of the business and the inventory.

So began my education.

The previous owner held “Whisky Challenge” nights when customers would come to taste some rare single malts and try to match the correct whisky with accompanying tasting notes. The notes would describing the colour, nose and flavours of the various whiskies in great detail. I figured I could continue to host them but as I started to hold my own “Challenges” I was faced with challenges of my own. I soon realized that there are some serious whisky connoisseurs that are very passionate and that I had better get to know my stuff if I was going to be the one writing the notes.

Our partnership group had attended a couple of whisky tastings at the LCBO and at The Feathers prior to taking it over in order to educate ourselves a bit but they were nothing compared to what I learned in my first six months at the pub. Although I had notes left by the previous owner I felt it was important for me to put my own stamp on things. I would bring samples home and taste with my wife and friends. I spent hours reading books and surfing the ‘Net. Although there are any number of books and websites on the subject of whisky, it is difficult to find information about extremely rare malts. Some distilleries such as Port Ellen and Brora have long since closed and some distillations may be limited to 100 bottles or so.

As I began my research I learned that Scottish single malt whisky was defined under the Scotch Whisky Regulations as one that has been distilled in one or more batches— (a) at a single distillery; (b) from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals and (c) in pot stills. There are six distilling regions: Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Campbelltown, Islands and Islay. Each region will impart its own character due to such factors as water, soil, climate, temperature and air. Different distilleries will have their own stills and methods that may be unique to them and would give their particular whisky a certain flavour. Other factors that will affect the whisky is storage length and type. The length of time that the whisky is in the barrel would affect the taste as well as the alcohol strength. Whisky is stored in oak barrels but the barrels may have been used previously to store bourbon, port or sherry, for example.

As I became more knowledgeable I began attending whisky shows and hosting corporate, public and private tastings at the pub and elsewhere. I have added new “Whisky Tour” menus to introduce people to the differences in the distilling regions as well as various “Feathers Flight” menus of some of our rarer malts. Maintaining the collection is difficult and I regularly search the LCBO website to track discontinued brands and rare bottles. Ordering from private distributors is possible but not cost affective. My appreciation of our collection has grown. I have found that there is a great reverence for it. Its depth is rarely rivaled. I met a gentleman at the pub one evening who travels 500 miles each year on his wedding anniversary to sample whiskies here. The storage room or “Malt Vault” has taken on legendary status.

I’m still a beer drinker but I’ve discovered I like single malts, too. In fact, I like them a lot. I wouldn’t have put a collection like this together. Not many would have, could have or did. I respect it and, although I may not have built it, I am its custodian. I enjoy putting together the tasting menus and holding events and bringing in brand ambassadors and master distillers to host tastings. I especially enjoy seeing others discover whiskies that they can’t find elsewhere or thought they would never see or taste , again. I believe that part of a collector’s passion is in the act of the search, finding something unexpected or discovering something you may not have known existed. If single malts are your passion then I just may have something for you. Feel free to bring along an old Gibson or Gretsch guitar when you come, then we can really talk antiques and collectibles!

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