Thursday, 8 December 2016

Whisky, poo, and you: Insights into the psychology of whisky collecting (the "Collecting trilogy" pt1)


If you were asked to write down twenty items in response to the question "Who am I?" what might you write? This is often a fun way to begin an exploration of the psychology of the self. When encountering this question for the first time most people will populate their answers with the various roles and relationships that fill their lives (e.g. mother, brother, accountant, nurse, writer etc). For many, the somewhat concerning next stage of this process is to discount those roles and relationships in order to reveal the core elements of who you are (e.g. I am a caring person, I am a loyal person etc). For many, the resultant list can be very small but worry not; the process is used to illustrate how we habitually see ourselves in relation to elements that don't necessarily offer accurate clues to who we are. However, in answering the initial question I wonder how many of you included the phrase "collector of whisky"?

The aim of this piece is to offer a few observations in relation to our relationship with and understanding of "whisky collecting". It is by no means an exhaustive exploration, indeed, whole chapters, even books, could be written on the topic. Hopefully, what we have here is appetising food for thought. In the context of this article the word "collection" refers to the act or process of collecting, an accumulation or an assemblage.

What's in a number? 

Do three bottles count as a collection? Are we talking about more than that; if so, how many? At what point do a certain number of bottles become a collection? It doesn't take long to recognise that there is no simple answer to these questions. One perspective would suggest that it is the process or act of collecting that is important, in that, if you set out with the intent to build a collection, and purchase your first two or three bottles, then that would constitute a collection (albeit somewhat minimal). So whilst for some, the number of bottles in a collection is fundamental, for others, numbers aren't necessarily important. How you view your collection (and indeed, how others view your collection) will be influenced by a range of factors e.g. the rarity of the vintages, the stories behind the bottles, the value and potential appreciation of the liquid and so on.

Insights into collecting behaviours.

The cognitive-behavioural perspective asks us to consider what we think and how we behave in relation to, in this instance, collecting whisky. The approach suggests that for any behaviour to persist there must be an association with some reward or the avoidance of some perceived negative consequence. If you are a collector, consider your motives for pursuing your collection (we’ll consider possible reasons later in this piece).

The Freudian approach on the other hand, has a particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of collecting. For Freud, our motives often lay hidden in the realms of the unconscious (we often aren't aware of why we do what we do). 

Our actions often have a readily accessible explanation that satisfies both ourselves and others that we are rational beings….but delve a little deeper and we might uncover the “real truth”, the drivers in our distant past that shape and direct what we do. The "show me the child and I'll show you the man" position is a clear indication that the origins of what we do in adult life can be found in our experiences as children; With regard to collecting, a Freudian might suggest that the origins of adult “collecting” behaviour might lie in our experiences of toilet training (yes, you read that correctly). A "fixation" at this time (either due to overzealous, rigid parenting or laissez-faire parenting) could result in what Freud called an "anally retentive" or “anally expulsive" personality. Many of you will be familiar with the term “anal” (in the personality context!). The anally retentive personality (or "anal" personality as it is more commonly known) is typified by a sense of order, collecting and retaining things (metaphorically holding your "poo" in during potty training) . Well there you go! It's all clear now isn't it?

There are many other possible understandings of “collecting” that I could explore but this is a blog post, not a book chapter so I’ll stop there.

Delving deeper.

So what possible rewards and other motives impact upon our collecting of whiskies? Let's pluck a few examples from what is a vast menu of possibilities (feel free to add your own). I've attached a tentative explanation to each of the examples.

· The thrill of the chase - that sense of satisfaction (reward) that one gets from tracking something down and "owning" it. There are possible Jungian "hunting" archetypal links here (the drive to survive embedded in our collective unconscious). How many of you have sat by the phone on the release day of a limited edition whisky? (Yes, it’s you I’m talking to!). Heart pounding, sweaty palms, furrowed brow…..”come on…..answer the phone…..don’t give me the engaged tone…..again…..and again…..and…..yes, I’d like to order….” ….and relax, wipe the moisture from your body and have a cup of tea. How many of you have risen early to hunt the “head of the queue” spot? You need to get your whisky prize “fix” don’t you? How many “auction snipers are reading this piece? There you sit, fingering your mouse (not a euphemism), waiting, watching, counting, “how fine can I cut this?” 10, 9, 8, 7……and NOOOOO! Some bastard has clipped you at the death! Ooooooh the adrenalin rush, and remember, revenge is a dram served neat!

· The completion of a set - the intrinsic satisfaction linked to the achievement of order. The joy of completing a significant piece in your whisky jigsaw. You are a completer/finisher, a lover of order, but it’s unlikely that, having completed the set you simply stop. The sense of satisfaction that you gained from both putting together the set and achieving your goal is infectious. The emotional high is often followed by the emotional vacuum that acts as a driver for the formulations of new goals, new collecting opportunities, new “sets” to own.

· The possession of a rare "thing" (the “my precious” approach) - owning something that by virtue of its rarity, others cannot own. It’s yours, not hers or his, you can touch it, stroke it, and dwell on it. It can be a secret that you hold, it can be a status symbol that you can use to enhance your position within the whisky community, it can be both a conversation starter and stopper, it can used as “credibility currency”……”oh my God, you’ve actually got a bottle of…..” Whichever way you consider it, this rare thing is a thing of power.

· Connecting to a piece of history

the intrinsically valued feeling of being connected to something of meaning. This requires a perspective on whisky that enables you to locate the dram within an historical context. For this reason it is confined to age-statement whiskies. A bit of self-disclosure here….I have a bottle of Glen Grant that was distilled as my mum was in labour with me! How poetic is that?

· The perception of "winning" - if you are aware that there are others in competition for the bottle that you seek, your successful acquisition confirms a sense of dominance over them. This has a close connection to the thrill of the chase.

· The avoidance of "losing" – the fact that, for the most part, no one likes to lose (see the thrill of the chase).

· Strengthening one's status in the whisky community - The perceived reward in receiving approval, affirmation and respect from one's peers. This could be an unconscious establishing (or maintaining) your position in a pecking order of sorts. A "boosting of one's ego" in a Freudian sense.

· A financial reward - a recognition of one's acumen and judgement. There's a possible relationship to "collector as provider" here in that, by investing wisely, you are establishing a more secure future for your loved ones.

· A strengthening of one's sense of identity. - If I see myself as a "collector" then each addition to my collection is an affirmation of my identity - "My collection says something about how I see myself".

· It fills a gap in my life - In this sense, collecting is a mechanism that provides both a sense of meaning and purpose

· I just like it! Of course you do! If you didn't like it you probably wouldn't do it. You might want to consider any combination of the above to gain some insights as to why you might like it.

In scratching the surface of this fascinating area I hope you may recognise that understanding ones underlying motives for collecting can be useful in relation to gaining a realistic perspective on the journey that you are on (or that you might be contemplating). I know that there are individuals within the whisky community that frown/wince when talk of collecting is aired. I’ve seen, heard and read many spurious, defensive and incoherent arguments against collecting and, whilst listening and learning, nothing has shifted me from my position that collecting is not a moral issue, it’s neither right nor wrong, it is what it is. Perhaps the most positive position that one can take on the collecting process is that, ideally, it is something that you enjoy and feel passionate about, and that you create time to share that passion with others.

  • This is an extended piece that was featured in Issue 6 of Whisky Quarterly magazine.
  • Freud image is taken from the site