I’ve seen this question asked in a few places over the past few months and never really gave it any thought until a couple of things happened to me recently. Over a series of four posts I'm going to dive deeper into this question and share with you my personal views on the issue. You may or may not agree with my logic but I hope it opens up further discussion on what can be done to improve the current state of the bourbon industry.
Let me start by saying that this isn’t an indictment of anyone – not collectors, flippers, hobbyists, taters, distillers, NDPs, distributors, or even liquor stores. These are just some recent observations, experiences, and feelings. I’m not right or wrong. I’m just wondering if people feel the same way, and if so, is there a solution?
I’ve been into bourbon for about 25 years now. It started with drinking Woodford Reserve on the rocks. Now I pretty much only drink it neat. The only real exception to this is if it’s a hot day and I’m relaxing by a pool, then I probably have a Kentucky Mule. I’ve been able to put together a fairly extensive collection of bourbons on my home bar. Over 90% of the bottles I own are open. I buy bottles to drink them, almost always with friends who enjoy the experience. I’m not a hoarder or a flipper. I don’t buy cases at a time or every bottle of Blanton’s I see on the shelf when I come across it. Except for one time in Memphis, TN, in 2011, I bought 9 bottles of Elmer T. Lee off the shelf to bring home and share with my local friends. I’ve never bought a bottle at retail intending to sell it and make a profit. I’m not active on the secondary market and pretty much refuse to pay over retail for bourbon. I’m a member of one or two Facebook groups. Still, I don’t have the time or emotional currency to devote to following and reading every post and argument online.
"I prefer Instagram because it seems to be a bit more sheltered from the try-hards."
I prefer Instagram because it seems to be a bit more sheltered from the try-hards. See a pretty picture of bourbon, like it, and move on. I’ve been around long enough to remember buying a squat bottle of ORVW 10 yr at a retail store for MSRP that was sitting on the bottom shelf in an aisle and not behind a counter. I remember buying Weller 12 off the shelf at $26/bottle. I’d buy Ancient Ancient Age 10 years in plastic 1.75L bottles when I was in Kentucky hitting the Bourbon Trail. I also completely understand the concept of supply and demand. But things have gotten out of hand.
THE CONSUMER PROBLEM
Last week I walked into my local Total Wine store and happened to find Eagle Rare on the shelf. There were actually two bottles sitting on the shelf. There was also a sign that said “1 per customer per day.” The price was $28.99. I like Eagle Rare. In fact, much of the Buffalo Trace portfolio lands right in my wheelhouse of what I prefer to drink as far as flavor profiles go. Add in the fact that it is priced reasonably at MSRP and is 10 years old makes it an even greater value, in my opinion. I grabbed a bottle and continued to browse the bourbon section.
I noticed another guy down the aisle had a bottle as well. Then I heard two guys behind me get very excited that they had Eagle Rare. Like they saw Bigfoot excited. There were two of them but only one bottle. A store employee was near, and these two guys asked him if they had any more in the back. The employee went to check and came back with a box. He handed another to the second guy and was immediately surrounded by three of four other guys who were all asking for bottles as well. The box was quickly emptied, and everyone in the area got a bottle for regular retail price. Everyone was happy. But after I checked out and got into my car, I felt like I had been fortunate to find this bottle on the shelf at retail, and that started to bother me just a little.
Some local liquor store chains here don't even put Eagle Rare on the shelf. They keep it in the back or behind the counter like it's highly allocated. I think that sucks. I'm all for capitalism and the free market. Stores are free to distribute their product however they see fit. But what really got me thinking is how I felt like I got lucky and found something special. This is what has become of the bourbon game, and I'm not a fan. It's unfortunate that I now feel the same about finding a bottle of Eagle Rare as I used to about finding something highly actually allocated or scarce.
You see, three or four years ago, you could discover Eagle Rare on the shelf in most local liquor stores. Blanton's was also on the shelves reasonably often, except for holiday time, when everyone seemed to want one for a gift. Blanton's was also a much better product five years ago, but that's another article and discussion altogether. This was also the time before people were chasing specific dump dates that corresponded with their birthdays, anniversaries, kid's birthdays, dog's birthdays, and whatever other dates people think make the bottle special. If you do that, you're part of the problem. Now I'm not saying you shouldn't do what makes you happy or how to spend your hard-earned money, I'm just saying that if you're doing this, or you are the guy that is taking crotch shots in the parking lot and immediately asking "How much is this worth?" in your Facebook group, you can't complain that what you want is now near impossible to find on your local shelves. You're the reason.
"Blanton's was also a much better product five years ago, but that's another article and discussion altogether."
I am in no way saying that I'm not going to stop into stores and see what they have, but I don't hunt as I used. Mainly because there are now too many people who have way more time than I do to devote to the hunt. Many stores also do extremely shady things with their special bottles. The problem is that as a whole, we (the bourbon community) keep lining up in the middle of the night or early in the morning for releases that may or may not be all that special.
The question is, "How do we stop this cycle?" How can we "fix bourbon" if it's broken? Social media has had a tremendous impact on our society, and it has both helped and hurt the bourbon game. There is an endless amount of information out there, and it can be very useful. There are also endless opinions online, and sometimes that's not so helpful. I'm fully aware of the irony as I sit here and type this to be posted on bourbonbanter.com and shared on Twitter and Facebook. People now have the tools to notify hundreds if not thousands of local bourbon fans on the hunt for the current hottest release within seconds. If you aren't a part of that group or don't have your notifications turned on, there is no way you'll have a chance to score that bottle you've been dreaming about. Even if you stop by your local shop every day, you will miss out. Then what?