I do not fancy myself a bourbon expert, but I realize I have accumulated a fair amount of experience buying, drinking, selling and trading them. I once heard that “intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing that you don’t put it in a fruit salad.” I have made plenty of mistakes on my bourbon journey (and will make plenty more), but those have taught me more about the field than anything else. It’s called Bourbon & Banter for a reason, and I rarely skip an opportunity to learn from someone more knowledgeable than myself, or to be a sounding board for someone looking for advice. Some of my terrific recent conversations led to my writing this blog post, which I thought might be a helpful roadmap for those newer to the whiskey world. As I mentioned, reading something is not the same as living it, but I do believe these to be tried-and-true lessons I wish I had learned sooner.
Consider this a preamble lesson: Because taste is extremely subjective and I tend to speak in hyperbole, the following short glossary will pre-emptively protect myself from any potential complaints regarding my opinions on certain whiskeys. My personal feelings are shared only to illustrate that no whiskey- no matter how many Double Gold medals, Whiskey-of-the-Year honors, or bottles sold at astronomical pricing levels- can be loved (or even liked) by everyone. These are my opinions alone, but the experiences themselves are shared by all.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
- overrated – It seems to have given many people super powers, but I spent way too much time and/or money acquiring this bottle
- epic – It hit my palate in all the right places and hearing its name conjures up similar memories to my first kiss
- sucks – Did not suit my palate nearly as well as others I’ve enjoyed.
1. TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
It may have been your whiskey geek friend or a magazine article, but somewhere you heard about a bottle and how great it was. For me, it was George T. Stagg (GTS). Hailed as the best barrel proof bourbon on the planet by seemingly everyone, regularly marked up 500%, and released in small quantities once a year, it was a home run when I eventually got one. That elation lasted until I opened it. I would drink the E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof or the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof every time over the GTS if you opened both in front of me (and I have). For me, the GTS is overrated, and I can guarantee there are bottles like this out there for you.
2. REVIEWS ARE GUIDELINES
Last year Jim Murray (author of The Whiskey Bible) called the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the Whiskey of the Year. This from a guy who had previously bestowed this honor upon the epic Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (THH) Figuring Jim and I both went gaga over the THH, I had to love the Crown Royal as well. Well, guess what? The Northern Harvest sucks. We post reviews on Bourbon & Banter to share our own experiences and spark interest in those individuals who might gravitate toward similar tasting notes. But even if the most respected bourbon expert in the world gushes over something, it is not a guarantee that you’re going to like it.
3. BUT IT’S A LIMITED RELEASE
We are in the era of allocation and, as such, even former everyday drinkers like Old Weller Antique (OWA) and Elmer T. Lee don’t sit on store shelves anymore. Then you have the real “Limited Releases” that come out quarterly, twice a year or sometimes just once a year. This only means that there aren’t enough bottles produced to satisfy all the buyers out there. You would be wise to ignore most of them. You know what else is limited? Plenty of Michter’s whiskeys. Trust me on this: you don’t want to spend $130 or more on a 10-year rye or bourbon from Michter’s. Eagle Rare is 10-years old and kicks its ass. So does every other bottle of Smooth Ambler Old Scout. Every. Single. One. Unless you already know that you love something, don’t chase the hot bottle. See #5 below for the only time you should ignore this advice.
4. THE SECONDARY MARKET IS YOUR FRIEND
I’ve said plenty about the Gray Market before, but in short: you need to be a part of it. Instead of being a curmudgeon and blaming flippers for everything from higher prices to not finding the bottle it was your birthright to own, learn about it and use it to your advantage. See what bottles are in demand and what nobody really wants.
Unfortunately for most Gray Market haters, they will miss out on what has been the best thing to happen to bourbon fans since the invention of the barrel: The Cost Plus Shipping (C+S) revolution. Yes, the bourbon community is littered with douchebags, but it is otherwise bound tightly together by special people with a shared love and desire to spread the bourbon gospel. I have met some tremendous people and, with a mutual trust and a commitment to work together, we fill gaps in the supply chain. You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve recently seen bottles of Four Roses Limited, THH and even a couple of Booker’s Rye bottles sold at cost. If you want to be a part of this, start with being generous to others in the community and it will find you. Trust me on this: bourbon Karma is real.
5. DON’T BUY SOMETHING YOU CAN’T DRINK
If I told you I kept a spreadsheet of my whiskey portfolio, prices and all, you might quickly deride me as just another foolish investor. But I’m actually the opposite of that. I track my collection to ensure that whatever I have in my cabinet is at a low enough average cost so I can drink it anytime I want, no matter what the market price eventually does. If I can’t be comfortable opening a Booker’s Rye, then I don’t buy it. Often that means selling one at a higher price to lower my cost. In some cases that means not buying the bottle at all. Envision a future scenario in which every bottle you own is sitting on a store shelf at retail and you will protect yourself from some truly horrible decisions.
If you’re serious about your bourbon, you will have your finger on the pulse of what bottle is a great find and what isn’t. If you do, you might then pull the trigger on a limited bottle you have no intention of drinking because you can trade it for the one you can’t find. Just because you may not score a William Larue Weller at retail this year doesn’t mean you won’t get a Four Roses Limited or an Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon. Both of those can be sold or traded for healthy premiums and get you closer to the one you want.
A spreadsheet is also a fantastic tool to have at your fingertips so you can make buying, trading and sell decisions on the fly. Google Sheets is the easiest to use, but fellow B&B Contributor Mike Reese introduced me to the app Airtable, which takes it to a whole new level. Both Airtable and Dropbox allow you to store bottle pics in the cloud so you’ll never have to run home to share a picture with a potential trade partner. Plus, they give your pocket Bourbon library a more realistic touch. I highly recommend using them.
6. THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF BUNKERS
When bourbon started disappearing from shelves, I began buying at least two of everything I found. If I had a backup, I didn’t have to fear loving something but not being able to find it again. It wasn’t long before I had a bunch of mediocre open bottles lying around and extras I couldn’t get rid of. I was much happier after trimming the herd and cutting back to the things I enjoyed. I focused on getting multiples of those instead. That is the kind of bunker I would recommend working toward.
The other kind of bunker is a stockpile of bottles people hold onto in the hopes they’ll be worth a lot more one day. Bourbon collecting can be fun (and even addicting), but it can also be very expensive. Pappy Van Winkle 23 will probably be a nice trophy to show off for many years, but a decade from now, how much pleasure will you take in all those expensive bottles of Yellowstone or Knob Creek 2001 that stores can’t even sell now? Keep your powder dry for the bottles you will crack open when good friends come over. Those memories are worth far more in the long run.
7. BE A RELATIONSHIP BUILDER
I never set out to build fake relationships in the hopes of getting access to good whiskey. My company is all about sales and taking care of customers, and I can spot a fake sales pitch before a person begins talking. So many people continue to think they can fool others into making them a priority for limited bottles. I have built real friendships with these decision-makers based primarily on a shared passion for the stuff. I’m never going to be a store’s best customer dollar-wise, but I am going to have some fun conversations, share information with them and even bring them samples of whiskey they may never get to taste otherwise. I’ve even given bottles to them as gifts just because I know they will love them. And more than once, I’ve paid for a bottle and then cracked it open to share it with them.
These people are around whiskey all day. They aren’t stupid, and they know there are vultures out there that only want to flip that bottle for a profit. If you truly love bourbon, share that passion with them, talk with them, and build a genuine relationship. I’ve heard people in forums admit to protecting the name and location of their “honey hole” (a ‘secret’ store that they think is all their own). Hell, I wrote a blog post promoting one of my favorite stores because I know that helps his business out. I don’t live in that city, and I only get out there a few times a year, but I consider him a friend. The relationship and tasting suggestions he offers me are worth far more than the hope of some prized bottle I may or may not get.
8. BUILD YOUR OWN NETWORK
The Internet has turned the world into your neighborhood. There are many people out there sharing the same affliction, and you should take the opportunity to meet them. Work together, help each other out and be willing to exchange information. Be generous and don’t brag about your big scores unless you plan on sending them some samples so they can share them with you. It’s easy to turn whiskey hunting into a competition, and nothing sucks the fun out of it faster.
9. DON’T BE A DOUCHE
I probably know more about bourbon than most of my friends. I also talk regularly with guys who have forgotten more about bourbon than I’ll ever know. None of that matters as long as you are genuine and respectful. I know a liquor store manager so condescending and obnoxious that most people (myself included) want nothing to do with him. On the other hand, there’s a nice young guy here in town, just getting into bourbon, who would periodically ask me questions on Twitter. I always made myself available to him. He was then kind enough to buy me a couple of OWA store picks while he was traveling. I met him to pick them up, and we wound up talking for nearly an hour in the parking lot. Like I said, it can be a terrific and welcoming community, no matter who you are.
10. NEVER STOP LEARNING
There have never been more excellent bourbon books available than there are right now. Despite a number of bloggers unplugging their keyboards in disgust at the current state of bourbon, there are plenty of terrific folks offering essential information and insights every single day. Read them, talk with them and share what you learn with others. Go to a Whiskyfest, Whisky In the Winter or some other event. Where else can you taste hundreds of the whiskeys you’ve only heard about and meet the people behind the brands? In one night, I got to talk with Julian and Preston Van Winkle, David Perkins (High West), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey) and Denny Potter (Heaven Hill) all while they were pouring me drinks! What is an experience like that worth to you?