I arrive at Ken Honig’s house in Newport Beach, California, entering through the garage, past the Maserati, and I meet Ken who is decked out in a running shirt, shorts, and socks with flip-flops. When you think of one of the top, private owners of Cognac and Single Malt Scotch, this is not the visual you imagine. But then, Ken is not what you think. “I stopped working when I was 35,” he tells Old Liquors Magazine. “I didn’t quit because I had enough money, I quit because I didn’t want to end up killing myself.”
Before age 35, he grew up near poor and in numerous houses near Disneyland, started work at age nine, and continued with stints at Arby’s, MacDonald’s, Denny’s, etc. He paid his way through USC working two jobs and selling his blood for food money weekly in downtown L.A. When the savings and loan debacle hit the United States in 1987, Ken capitalized on the real estate opportunities quickly and, as he says, “made my money and got out.”
Honig trained with the Paris Search and Rescue and is the only man in the world to be allowed to scale the outside of the Eiffel tower (15 times), rappel down the tallest building in France Tour Montparnasse (3 times), and search for the lost or deceased in the miles of off limit catacombs underneath Paris. He has ascended the highest peaks in Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Asia, as well as scuba dives, fishes, and surfs, and has homes in Fiji, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Furthermore, he is a Team Leader/Diplomat for the US Olympic Wrestling Team and travels the world with them.
He gave away “seven figures” in 2016, and feels it a moral obligation to be involved in philanthropic work with “direct impact.”
We step inside a small pantry in his kitchen, surrounded by spices and flour, which, unbeknownst to me, is an elevator taking us downstairs to a low-flung slate room with 250 Single Malt Scotch’s presented on three walls. The bottles are perfectly aligned as if waiting for transportation to a museum. It’s an impressive line-up, but then Ken reveals the pièce de résistance. A hidden door opens in the stone wall, and eight feet below sea level, we step down into a room most men can only dream of; brown pressed-tin ceiling, four-foot wall sconces, brown leather club chairs, a small bathroom, large screen TV, and more historic Cognac and Single Malt Scotch than you can imagine. It is the ultimate man-cave, a clubroom, a hideaway, a Cognathèque, a treasure trove. He doesn’t allow food here, though he has bought sushi for me as we sit down to talk.
OLM: What are some of your prizes here?
KH: “I have numerous one of a kind Cognacs from the annual cognac auction in Cognac, France; a Jeroboam of Godet, Louis XIII, I have a 1904 Cognac from Hardy, put in demijohns in 1974. There’s nothing like that anymore. There’s Remy, Hennessey, and Frapin. I have a few of the Macallan Golden Age of Travel, old royal marriage, new royal marriage. There’s the Bowmore 50─bottle number two; Highland Park 50 the first bottle (currently selling for US$20,000); and Glenfiddich 50 the last sale of that at auction was $30,000. I have several offerings from Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie, Macallan Rare Cask Black; The entire Macallan in Lalique Collection. There is also my complete set of Fine and Rare Macallan, I believe about 70 bottles. There are three complete collections in the world two are at hotels, one is here.” (A set of just 19 Macallan Fine & Rare bottles sold in 2016 for US$361,000.)”
OLM: What was the impetus to own Cognac and Single Malt Scotch?
KH: “I was interested in collecting my birth year, 1961, and it simply took off from there. What grew upon me was the history, knowledge, politics of the different times and places. It’s really very interesting. Amazingly, the collecting aspect was an entrée into a world I never knew existed. We (Ken and his wife Laura) have had the pleasure to be overnight guests at Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Macallan, Dalmore, Glenmorangie, etc. In Cognac, we’ve had the incredible luck to be guests of Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Hennessy, Frapin, Hardy. We have made some wonderful friends in both Scotland and France and have experienced food and drink you dream about simply by our involvement in collecting. But, here’s the thing everything in this room is a memory every bottle, magnum, or jeroboam. I mean, there are very cool memories related to people with all these bottles. In the end, it’s not about the bottle or the liquid in the bottle; it’s always about the people you’ve spent time with.”
OLM: Do You Consider Yourself a Collector?
KH: (He pauses) “No one’s ever asked me that, it’s just merely assumed. To me, these bottles are art, history, special periods of time. Primarily they represent memories of people and places, experiences, knowledge, and special moments. As the prices have gone through the roof, I still look for things, but only very special bottles because I have limited space.”
OLM: What advice, if any, do you have for collectors?
KH: “I get a lot of guys asking me that, and frankly, it’s too expensive now. But, if you’re buying to drink, fine, then drink it. If you’re buying to invest, it’s a little late as everyone’s doing it now. I continue to purchase from various Scotch auctions online, but strictly for scotch, cognac, or Armagnac I intend to drink.”
OLM: Do you have any desire to create your own Cognac or Whisky?
KH: “No, honestly I have far too many passions in life and not nearly enough time I will stick to drinking and a little collecting.”
OLM: Do you feel you’ve got a great palette?
KH: (He pauses, narrows his eyes) “Do you feel you’re a good driver?” (He laughs) “It’s completely subjective. I do have an open palate, but I’m not into frou-frou, and, I won’t torture myself with all of the newest, latest, greatest, etc. I have too much time and experience invested in this, so I know what I like and what I don’t like.”
OLM: Do you enjoy the rituals associated with drinking Cognac or a fine Scotch?
KH: “That depends on what you mean by rituals. My rituals include no phones, no distractions, eye to contact, open conversation. If you are referring to “generally accepted norms” regarding scotch, cognac, and Armagnac ─the so-called rules─ it can be a very unpleasant experience of unintelligent snobbery. It can be condescending. You certainly do not need to be an expert, just enjoy what you like and how you like it. Ask questions. I know many people are intimidated by the “proper” way to drink a scotch or cognac, yet there is no proper way other than to drink it, and enjoy it.”
OLM: Are there other spirits or wines you’re interested in?
KH: “Not really. I used to collect 1961 Bordeaux (his birth year), but I didn’t drink them. I mean, they’re valuable and expensive, so I sold them in Hong Kong. I will only drink wine in certain situations; when I’m in Paris, I’ll drink rosé; in the Andes, I’ll drink Malbec. I do own a 1987 Nikka Yoichi Single Cask, but I’ve never tried it. I know what I want and don’t want, so it’s not a big question for me. Yes, I’m ignorant about many things, including Irish and Japanese whiskey, for example, but I only have so much time and a million things I want to do. I admit I’m being narrow-minded in that regard.”
OLM: Tell me about this room.
KH: It becomes a sacred space for those that allow that to happen. There are no cell phones or food allowed, no kids or pets. My friends call this the therapy room, where you realize that we all share similar issues─positive and negative in life. No matter how wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, we’re more or less the same. So, you come down the elevator, open the door, have a drink of what you like, loosen your tie, confess your sins, brag a little bit, and hopefully, leave the room feeling a lot lighter.”