Your Bourbon Craze Questions Answered
How much money should you be spending on a bottle of bourbon? Why is Blanton's so hard to find these days? Why are inexpensive bourbons so damn expensive now? And what the hell is going on with bourbon anyway?!
Short answer to the first question? You don't need to spend over $50 on a solid bourbon. Even today. Yes, even in this economy. If you've continued to read this post, you probably already know the American whiskey market is in uncharted territory. The collector's mindset has really turned the bourbon world upside down, and not entirely in a good way. While the search for prized bottles has renewed enthusiasm and even engendered a new craft movement centered around American whiskey, bourbon in particular, it has also peed in our proverbial pool. There have been many gripes in the world of retail at the sight of prices, once more than reasonable, skyrocketing. Bottles with age statements for $30, several years ago. Now, a once $50 bourbon can be found for $1,000 on the shelf. What in the Sam Hill? You may ask. Well let me break it down for you. And I will start by saying, don't be mad at your local whiskey shop; save your anger for your pal Chad who has been flipping bottles on the gray market, and keep a little ire reserved for membership stores like Costco and Bevmo, large chains who buy in bulk.
Let me tell you a story. You see, sometime last year, Chad just went into XYZ Liquors and bought every bottle of Weller they had at MSRP, let's say $40. They he went on Thee Book of Faces to his whiskey group (I will let you take a wild stab at the demographic of the membership to said group) and sold them for $150 a pop. Now XYZ Liquors is out of stock of their most popular whiskey they sell, which was already hard to get in stock, and they still have to pay rent to pay. Insult to injury, they just found Chad's post. Dammit Chadrick. So the owner of XYZ marks the Weller up to $50 and limits one per customer, hoping to keep things fair. The customers complain that it's just one per customer. Chad still comes in every day and buys one bottle every day, and he even sends in his work best-bro, lets call him Other Chad, to buy one for him too. (The staff knows this because they've seen them skulking around the shop together, always asking if any Yamazaki 12 came in today. "No, are you sure brah?") Finally the staff start to hide it behind the counter. There seems to be no way to win this one, so eventually the shop marks up the bottle to $150. If people are willing to pay it, might as well make the money for the shop, amiright? Wow, can you imagine the look on Chad's face when he sees that. A page from the old whiskey bro playbook. I agree it's unfortunate and wish it hadn't come to this, but I would argue that the owner isn't wrong to charge more; they're paying their taxes, business license, liquor license and staff. Oh and rent. And then of course, there's supply and demand. It sucks for everyone, sure, but until we overthrow capitalism or change how trends work, its gonna be like that.
How did we get to this shortage? Surely there aren't that many Chads. Well, a few things seemed to have led up to this to create a perfect storm. Whiskey in general has surged in global popularity, a surprise to distillers from Kentucky to Japan. While we're talking about bourbon for this article, it's almost impossible to see the full scope of how the market was turned upside down without mentioning Japanese whiskey. Both of these categories have grown almost exponentially over the last five years. Social media showboating, lots of media hype, and stores like Costco disrupting the supply chain, all of these have contributed to the shortage. And of course people really want what they can't get.
Other factors that have sped up the shortages are the large club stores and chains that buy in bulk. These businesses buy pallets at a time, with an average of 50 cases on a pallet. For context, I might by three cases of a popular item at a time, or 10 cases of a very popular item or around the holidays. These stores buy in such bulk that they can negotiate much better pricing, and sometimes their price on the shelf is what we pay at cost. And of course it pulls massive amounts of inventory away from other accounts until the next shipment arrives, and I mean shipment from across the country on a tractor trailer. Or from across the globe if we're talking Japanese whiskey. This all gives you, the consumer, the idea that smaller shops aren't giving you a good value, when in fact we're just taking a standard mark up.
Working retail, I've lost count of how many people have exclaimed to me "I remember when X whiskey used to be Y dollars, this is crazy," all while giving me a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, accusatory glance. Like I'm in on all this nonsense. Let me tell you, none of us are enjoying this song and dance. I also remember and relish the good ol' days when you didn't have to order three cases of Cat Litter Flavored vodka to get one bottle of An Award Winning Whisky, but here we are. And we must adapt, while we wait for the collectors and bottle flippers and I-want-to-impress-my-friends types to move on to a new shiny object. Let's be real, as with the pandemic, this situation may take years for things to get back to normal. So as consumers, what do we do?
at the Buffalo Trace bottling line
First of all, if you want to actually drink your bourbon, you're still solid. I mean, to be fair, some of your affordable favorites are no longer affordable, or even available. That's sad, but it's time to pack up your tiny violin and tell your therapist you're ready for the next step. Plenty of other discoveries await you. And since we're talking about bang for your buck, let's start with this advice: don't worry about how pretty the label is. You're going to drink the whiskey and recycle the bottle, not critique the artwork. Most of the best bourbons have atrocious looking labels. Honestly, that Pappy Van Tinkle label is ugly as f*ck, but it ain't stopping the Bourbon Bros now is it?
If you want an every night, cocktail friendly bourbon, you can safely spend $25 and under. I know, wild. You might want to invest in a nice little decanter for those unsightly bottles, yes, a good excuse to get (another) decanter.
If you want a sipping bourbon, $30-40 can still easily get you there.
Perhaps you want a gift for someone and do care about the packaging or you want a bottle from a smaller distillery, you can be safe with... let's say $40-75. If you want to spend a Benji I won't stop you, but you don't need to spend that much.
I have tasted a lot, and I mean, a LOT of whiskey over the years. I have been seriously underwhelmed and even put off by 20+ year old bourbons, and I've been thoroughly impressed by 6-8 year old bourbons. I have rolled my eyes at many a marketing ploy. Tried the slow aged, fast aged, and not aged at all. I've tasted whiskey in small barrels and large barrels and wine barrels, oh my. Tried "craft" whiskey from distillers sourcing their grains from the most precious farms, produced in bespoke copper stills, that have been appallingly bad. And then I've had whiskey from the "big guys," churned out of a continuous still that never stops chugging. Those same bottles that occasionally sit on the bottom shelf of your liquor store, sporting a label that hasn't had a update since the cold war, that are tried and true. These are the gems that most often get snubbed, especially by those new to the bourbon category.
Five Solid Bourbons That Forbes Hasn't Written an Article About...Yet
1. Evan Williams Single Barrel
This is at the top of my list for sleeper bourbons. Absolutely sippable, but priced to mix as well. I used to recommend Henry McKenna to folks before, you know, it won an award (keep in mind that it was a single barrel and all single barrels are different, but I digress) and the bourbon brigade swooped in. Now this is my top choice for the underdog. Yes, also a single barrel, but consistent and reliable just like your old friend Henry.
2. Old Forester 100 Proof
A nice little house bourbon that shines in cocktails, a touch overproof yet completely balanced. Any time I batch a cocktail for a large group, I reach for this. Always good to have on hand for cocktails and baking and topping up your infinity bottle.
3. Elijah Craig Small Batch
It's got age and spice and structure. A tiny bit of grit, a hard worker -- I mostly mix with it but there's no reason it can't fly solo. Love this for my Night Night Juice.
4. 1792 Small Batch
I used to drink this when I was just a pup, back when it was called Ridgemont Reserve. They put out a number of special releases each year that are also reasonably priced, like the Sweet Wheat, so keep your eyes peeled. Because these special releases aren't of any interest to collectors, those of us you prefer our whiskey in a glass and not a museum will be in luck. I would definitely sip this if you like a drier more structured whiskey (think tannic) and mix it if you prefer sweeter whiskeys.
5. Jim Beam Black "Extra-Aged"
Oh, what an uninspiring label. You know what that means? More for us in-the-know folks. Manhattans for days! Money left in the bank for a nice vermouth. True, it used to carry an 8 year age statement for the same price, but sadly those days are gone and the age statement has been removed. It's aged longer than its white label sibling that's four years old. My best guess is 5-6 years for the "extra". Still a damn good choice for the price.