When we talk about whisky collecting, we talk about bottles – the number, the rarity, the price. We talk about how the collection is displayed, how much money and time and obsession it took to amass. We talk about collections that open a window into aspects of the industry, transform our understanding of a particular distillery, provide a glimpse of lost eras, traits of production, how the past always seems to taste better than the present. What we talk about less often, is the people behind the collection – their journey, their stories, their passions.
Steve Oates doesn’t describe himself as a whisky collector. But the Melbourne-based postal worker, has amassed a collection of over 500 whiskies, more than most Australian bars, but not quite enough to put him among the ranks of the famed European and Asian collectors, where thousands of bottles are de rigueur.
But what sets Steve Oates apart from those who dabble in collecting and whisky fanaticism, is his sheer and considered love of the subject, the relationships he’s forged in exploring it, and the lengths he’s gone to learn more.
Like most, he had a moment of revelation – the whisky epiphany.
‘Everyone probably has a moment when they go – hang on a second,’ says Oates, running his fingers through the thick beard that ends almost a foot under his chin. ‘That was probably 2011. Prior to that I’d been drinking whisky for a while but only as a cause and effect type arrangement, as opposed to investigating and dissecting.’
The band Oates was playing in at the time had a Scottish guitarist who’d recently returned from Islay with bottles of Bruichladdich single malt. One night, Oates was sitting in the Scot’s backyard when he was offered a glass of unpeated Bruichladdich.
‘It was just fruity and creamy and rich and I was going, wow, I’ve never noticed these subtleties before, these elements that were so enticing and exciting. I just thought, this is incredible.’
He began scanning Australian retailers and bars for more Bruichladdich and Islay whisky. After a year of searching, tasting and accumulating bottles, it was time to visit the source. He wanted to learn more.
Steve Oates and Anna at Bowmore Distillery
‘My wife, Anna, is from the UK, so we decided to go to Islay. I think that’s pretty much where it all started: Fèis Ìle 2012. Islay was my first experience of going to a Scottish distillery – the mecca of distilling.’
Fèis Ìle, the Islay Festival of Music and Malt, is an annual celebration of Islay culture and its whiskies, and one of the ultimate pilgrimages for whisky fans. Oates says the festival, the whisky and the people he befriended on Islay got he and his wife Anna hooked.
‘I think it was an adventure for both of us. Meeting people and exploring the flavour of the whiskies from each distillery. But when you go to these places, there’s other things to see as well. Some are in remote, beautiful locations, and there’s ancient buildings and artefacts you can look at and wonder about what the hell had happened before you got there. There’s all these places, in Scotland specifically, that we would never have gone to if there wasn’t a distillery nearby. Whisky can lead to you beautiful places, I think.’
Before Oates and his wife Anna left Islay, they’d already started planning a return trip. But back in Australia, before they embarked on their return journey, they decided to visit another island that was just starting to make a name for itself in whisky-making: Tasmania.
The difference between the fledgling Tasmanian industry and what Oates had encountered in Scotland was instantly apparent.
‘The contrast in volume was immediately noticeable. And it was a weird time, because there wasn’t really a tourist industry around Australian whisky back in 2013. We visited Lark, Nant, Sullivans Cove and Redlands, just because I rang them up and said I want to come and have a look.’
The now mothballed Redlands Distillery, Tasmania
At one of the foundational Tasmanian distilleries, Oates even ran into some trouble. Trouble that yielded rewarding results.
‘Anna and I were standing near the production area at a very well-known Tassie distillery, sitting on these cask strength behemoth whiskies that were being freely poured for us fresh out of the barrel. I’m standing there, and I feel this little brush on the top of my head, and my sunnies fell on the ground in front of me and then blood started trickling down the side of my face. And Anna goes, ‘Is that blood!?’ And what had happened was, a distiller on the other side of the room was lifting a large vat and the winch handle had snapped, flown across the room and sconed me in the head. So blood was pissing out of my head, but I’d been drinking all this massive cask strength whisky, so I was saying, nah, it’s okay, we’ll keep going. And they said, nah, we better take you to the hospital.
‘We went to the hospital – I got seven stiches. Then, we went back to the distillery and kept going! (Responsibly of, course). I was very appreciative of their hospitality. I’ve met some great people and made some great friends through whisky in Tasmania and Australia. They’re lifelong friends now.’
One of the people Oates befriended was Tim Duckett. Duckett’s Heartwood whiskies are now some of the most sought-after by Australian collectors. But for Oates, it was a passion for what Duckett was doing that drew him to accumulate a large collection of Heartwoods.
‘The fascination of, this isn’t being done anywhere else in Australia – an independent bottler, bottling his own casks. And having met Tim, he’s a great guy, and he was making whiskies that I enjoyed, so why not support him. But it was a different playing field then, as far as collecting, because you could buy Heartwood at a bottle shop, you didn’t have to go on a waiting list or join a club to get them. It’s a different story now.’
After this early Tasmanian whisky experience, Oates took long service leave and spent the next seven months in the UK. He visited Islay twice, began buying up bottles of anything that took his fancy, and started to realise that whisky was turning into a serious obsession.
‘2014 was probably when it hit alarm bells, obsession-point. I think it was at that point that it started to turn into a collection mentality as well.’
Since then, Oates has returned to Scotland most years to catch up with friends and family, find and taste rare gems, and continue to learn more about the industry. Visiting Scottish distilleries, particularly lesser-known producers, has turned into another one of his obsessions – he’s now visited over 50.
‘A lot of lesser-known distilleries have signs saying no tours, probably to scare off the Bavarians or the Dutch. But often, I’d visit just to take photos, and the stillman would come out and go, ‘Ah well, come in and have a look at the stills.’ Maybe he was at the arse-end of an 18-hour shift and he just wanted someone to talk to. I think they could tell pretty quickly that I had no other motivation beyond that I was fascinated by it. Probably because of the way I look and because I never came across as too corporate or nerdy, I’d find myself having experiences that not every punter gets.’
Today, Oates’ collection of whisky and experiences has matured. He’s not buying as many bottles as he once did, and like most collectors, his interests have become more focused.
‘What I’m most passionate about and interested in today, that kind of changes. But refill casks, that’s what I’m passionate about at the moment. Removing all the cloaking mechanisms in whisky, with heavy sherry, peat, all of those overpowering elements. I think I’m passionate about spirit. And subtle wood influence, as opposed to aggressive wood influence.’
Steve Oates with some of his collection
Followers of Oates on social media can get a first-hand look at his developing passions and thoughts. He comes across as a man of whisky letters. His reviews and summations are terse, evocative vignettes on whiskies that have blown his hair back. A 1979 St Magdalene single malt is ‘omnipotent, all-encompassing and intense, so much so it’s confusing but beautiful at the same time,’ while a 31-year-old Glen Grant renders him ‘Speechless. I am without speech.’
His tastes have continued to evolve, too.
‘At the moment, I’ve got twelve bottles of Scottish whisky open. I’ve got eight bottles of Bourbon and rye whiskey open. And interestingly enough, I’ve got 19 bottles of rum open. So, I guess you can see where my focus is at the moment, if open bottles are an indicator.’
And his advice to others thinking about starting on their own collecting journey?
‘Wherever the crowd’s going, go in the opposite direction.’
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