To Bunker Or Not To Bunker?

The character Hamlet has a very famous line. Well, Hamlet has many famous lines. Even if one has never seen nor read Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, one likely knows a few of its title character’s lines. But the famous line I’m thinking of at the moment is, “To be or not to be? That is the question.”

It is arguably the single most famous line ever written for a play. As such, it now virtually has no meaning. The actor opens their mouth and has barely uttered “To be,” and upon hearing those two syllables the audience has already stopped listening on a certain level. Upon recognition, they hear only The Famous Line. Or perhaps they hear The Famous Line Said By The Famous Film Actor Cast to Sell Tickets. Familiarity can be a killer.

But if one does listen to the line, and the lines that immediately follow it, one soon realizes this is not just a famous poetic speech to be orated in round tones. Rather, it’s an acute existential dilemma uttered by a person on the edge of despair. “To be or not to be? Should I exist or not? Should I live, or not?”

Late in the play, Hamlet finds an answer. After spending most of his scenes putting his boundless energy toward forcing friends and family to conform to his beliefs about what has gone down between them, Hamlet comes to a profoundly peaceful and mature realization. The answer to the question “To be or not to be?” is, he realizes, to “Let be.” To not try to change other people by force. To not try to control everything. Death, for example, will come when it comes. Now or later. So let that worry go, and get on with living. Likewise, other people will change when they do. You can’t change them. They must ultimately choose to change themselves. Just like Hamlet’s own change came about only when he himself finally chose to view things from a new perspective.

What has this to do with bunkering whiskey?

This past year I’ve realized that my habit of bunkering bottles is connected to two interrelated things—fear of missing out, and a desire to control my future.

FOMO, that hysterical brute force we so often talk about in the whiskey community, is a powerful psychological phenomenon by which I leap out of real time and into an imagined future dystopia where I tragically lack what is surely the most amazing whiskey ever bottled.

This is absurd. I make jokes about the money I’ve spent due to FOMO. The jokes help ease the nausea, so in that regard they are useful—like 7-Up and saltines, only up to a point. Rather than laugh off the symptoms, why not eliminate the problem?

Easier said than done. Hamlet is a fictional character, so he can get from the tortured “To be or not to be?” to the enlightened “Let be” in a couple of hours. For me, a thing of flesh and blood, rewiring my behavioral patterns takes more time.

But why exactly do I want to break the FOMO pattern? Why not just enjoy it? Isn’t there pleasure to be had in the frenzy of the hunt?

Yes. But FOMO is only one aspect of whiskey hunting. And if I’m honest, FOMO feels bad.

In the heat of FOMO, my pulse races and my chest tightens. I grow agitated. My perceptions narrow. All I can see is that prized bottle. It looms larger and shinier with each passing moment. I cast aside weightier responsibilities in favor of getting my hands on it. The price becomes an abstraction. If the internet is not working in my favor I rile like a driver with road rage—minus the actual stakes of a crash that might cause real harm. If I’m gunning for the bottle in person and others beat me to it, I resound with an impotent inner emptiness. Sometimes I buy something else I don’t even care about—just to have scratched an itch that was never actually corporeal, merely imagined.

Bunkering is a FOMO induced habit. It is an act of fear—hoarding bottles to never be caught without. Or, worse, bunkering is an act of pride—for the status of quantity! Unopened whiskey bottles as empty trophies, denied their true purpose—which any distiller will tell you is to be emptied! A good bottle of whiskey is an empty bottle, its contents having been shared and enjoyed among family and friends.

All that said, if you know you like a certain whiskey, and if you can afford it, why not bunker a clutch of bottles? Is that really such a bad thing?

For some people, not at all. Fine for them. For me, no, it doesn’t feel good.

Well. It has occasionally felt good, I’ll admit. I am glad to have another Old Rip Van Winkle on hand, for example, because I thoroughly enjoyed my first bottle, and—importantly—I got both for a price very near msrp. That’s key. Had I paid the more usual $300+ I’d certainly not feel so good.

Recently, I began to look at the corners of my bunker populated by several of one thing, and my stomach would get heavy. There’s the money spent. Then also the full, inanimate bottles themselves. Lined up like dominoes that never fall. Stagnant. Meaningless. Always a brand I’ve tried before and enjoyed—that’s why I bunkered more! But the space they take up, and the money I no longer have, could have gone to whiskeys I’d not already experienced—new sensations, new ideas, new paths on the journey.

Another bothersome thing in my bunker is the common bottles—those quite easily and readily found. That bottle of Blade & Bow I’ve had for three years, for example. Three years! Why haven’t I opened it? Because I already know I like it fine, so I’ve been opening other things instead. I might as well not have it. It will always be in stores should I one day actually want a bottle to drink. In the meantime, that money and space could go to other things.

And, whether it’s several bottles of something hard to get that I love or a single bottle of something common that I like, I can’t take it with me when I go—which could be any time! Better to enjoy it while I’m here, which is now.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. But 2020 was such an immensely challenging, deeply disturbing year, for so many reasons. So when 2021 kicked in, I did consider some things I’d like to do differently going forward. One overarching thought was to rewire my behavioral patterns such that I devote my time, energy and attention only to things that have a positive impact on my life.

What those things might include varies widely. Like spending time only with people I genuinely enjoy and who genuinely enjoy me. Doing more things for other people without expecting anything in return. Committing to open-ended self-educating around systemic injustice. Spending more time with nature, not just for exercise and fresh air but to learn from its example. Living in the question and letting go of a need for answers. Operating as best I can outside of capitalist pressures to multi-task 24/7, to achieve, to speed, to possess, to value objects over people and experiences.

And, spending less money on whiskey by spending more time considering what it means to me.

So I’m actively rewiring my FOMO-induced bunkering patterns. They subtract from something I wish only to be a positive in my life—my whiskey journey. It’s a journey of perpetual discovery, not a journey with any single destination. It’s about being in the moment in real time, getting to know people better, meeting new people, learning, understanding history and cultures and the complex relationship between tradition and innovation…

A whiskey journey is many things in addition to the pure sensorial pleasures of the whiskey—which themselves conjure memories, making whiskey a river from the past through the present and on to possible futures. I love, for example, when what I taste differs from what someone else tastes, and there’s an opportunity to get to know another person better—their memories, their perspective, their values and hopes.

So those six bottles of Henry McKenna I bought in 2019, the day after it won that dang award that compelled shops to bump its price up to $100 nearly overnight? Two years have since passed and I’ve emptied just two of them. That leaves four to go. At my current rate, I’ll likely be out of Henry McKenna in 2024. Maybe then I’ll buy another bottle. Or maybe that last bunkered bottle will indeed be my last. I paid $35 each for them and that’s what they’re worth to me. By 2024 Henry McKenna may very well cost $350!

Those six Weller Antique 107 store picks I have bunkered? Honestly, considering everything else I have to open, I’ll likely get through one Weller Antique 107 a year. Maybe two. So that’s three to six years before I’m out of Weller Antique 107. Do I really think in those years I’ll not come across another? And, if I do find others but the price continues to climb, will I even want to buy more?

My six bottles of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof? One of them, batch B520, is open. The other five are from as far back as 2016. I’m sure upcoming batches will be great! I heard B520 was great so I bought it, and indeed it is great. But do I need more Elijah Craig Barrel Proof on hand? No. I’ll sip away at what I’ve got.

I could go on.

I have one bottle of a 40-year-old North British scotch bunkered. I’ve never tried it before. I’m keeping my ear out for when some Millennial friend turns forty. I will share it with them.

I have one bottle of the 2015 Lagavulin 12 Year cask strength bunkered. My partner has a special fondness for Scotland. When we drink scotch together, especially a smoky peated scotch, it brings back meaningful memories. I’ll open that Lagavulin on a special occasion with my partner.

I have one bottle of 31n50 Batch #5 on hand. It’s open and I’m halfway through it. Batch #6 is bunkered. Batch #5 is among the most striking bourbons I’ve ever tasted. I feel a particularly personal connection to it given where it comes from, which is also where I come from. And I connect to the motivations of its maker, Cris Steller, who made it for love of the craft and not for profit. So that final pour is going to be special. When that time comes, I’ll uncork Batch #6 and compare it side by side with Batch #5. I’ll be sure to share that comparison with someone who I know will appreciate it. Maybe someone also from my hometown. Or maybe someone brand new to bourbon, for whom 31n50 would be a fiery revelation!

I could go on.

Whiskey, like theater, is a real thing in one sense and a metaphor in another. What’s real in theater is the actor and the audience, not the characters in the play. Likewise, the real event of theater is not the show itself but the conversations people have afterwards, the new and inspiring ideas and insights that stay with them long after the play is done.

What’s real in whiskey are the ingredients in the bottle, and yet like a play they are not the main event. The story behind the bottle, how or where it was made, even the tasting experience might provide a jumping off point for conversation. But the real event of a whiskey is the people who have gathered around it, the stories they are inspired to share and the new memories they make together.

I could go on.

And I will. But differently than I have done before. Less bunkering. Less clicking “ADD TO CART” in the heat of FOMO. Less fretting over the utterly false notion that there is anything remotely like a shortage of good whiskey in the world. Less energy spent on what I don’t have, and more attention given to what I do have.

There. I said it publicly. Now I must do it. No doubt I’ll fall off the wagon from time to time, blurting out “Take my money!” on my way down. So I’ll need to practice self-forgiveness as well as persistence. It’s only whiskey.

Wish me luck.

Cheers! Or rather, let be!

FIVE YEAR AGO…

As of this posting, it was exactly five years ago that I was in preview performances as director of the production of Hamlet featured in the photos up above. As if Hamlet is not a challenging enough endeavor, we opted to up the ante by asking all seven actors to learn all the roles. Each night the audience would draw out of Yorick’s skull which actor would play which roles. Hamlet roulette! The actors then had five minutes to get in costume and start the show. It was a revelatory and exhausting experience. I even edited a book about it. As you might guess, I was always looking forward to that post show drink! Later that Summer I would make my fateful trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, where my whiskey journey truly began.

Here’s the trailer for that production. It drove me to drink. But I loved it. Cheers!

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