The current bourbon craze, coupled with the ease of finding and spreading information about the drink has caused some once easy-to-find bottles to become unicorns. Social media, Facebook groups, and blogs on bourbon have made it easy to create a have-to-have-it desire for some bourbons and the expected price hikes. While almost all of those bourbons live up to their hype, there are others that can bring a lot of satisfaction for a lot less searching and at a much more reasonable price.
Many years ago (okay, maybe a couple of decades ago) I spent more time with single malt scotches as my relaxing drink of choice. This came after a father/brother bonding trip, which consisted of a sampling of several single malts from different distilling regions. This was prior to the internet as we know it today, with search engines that facilitate excellent research on products, producers and forums with opinions from the drinking public.
Each year I would decorate my mother-in-law’s yard with lights for Christmas on the Friday following Thanksgiving (before the general public even called it “Black Friday”) and I would “charge” her a good bottle of single malt for my efforts. Sometime after I turned 40 and got tired of climbing ladders and trying to top last year’s light display, I had to resort to purchasing my own single malts. This was around the same time that single malt prices had begun to skyrocket, which may have been one of the catalysts that moved me from scotch to bourbon.
I was no stranger to bourbon. I had a secret stash of Jack Daniel’s in high school (we can have the is/isn’t-Jack bourbon discussion another time) and my father sent me to college with a box of various liquors, one bottle of which was Evan Williams black label. I also credit Dad with teaching me the right way to enjoy good spirits. He once told me that I shouldn’t ruin it by adding coke or other mixers, but to either drink it straight or maybe with a little water or on the rocks — advice that I follow to this day (other than exploring a good craft cocktail every now and then).
My reasoning (other than rising scotch prices) went something like this. Scotch is good, but it’s a product of Scotland, shouldn’t I look into America’s native spirit? This was around the mid- to late 90s and bourbon was starting to emerge from its popularity slump, but still hadn’t created the demand that we see today. That, coupled with the fact that I could get what I thought was good bourbon at a reasonable price led me to shift my preferences to bourbon.
At first, I wasn’t as fanatical about bourbon as I am now. In fact, it’s probably only been the last 10 to 12 years that I’ve become a raving fan. Early in that stage my “research” was primarily geared to browsing store shelves and picking bottles that looked interesting — more hit or miss. Again, this was before the “craze” and there were fewer options on the shelf. It was also a time prior to allocations when you could find Weller 12 or Weller Antique for around $25 (and that was for the big bottle) and stores would still put Pappy and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection on the shelves (and often times it would gather dust on the bottle).
Over the last dozen or so years, I’ve purchased and consumed some very fine bottles of bourbon. I don’t recall ever paying more than $100 for a bottle (and to this day would still have some heartache in trying to justify doing so). Yet today (because of the craze) I’ve recently seen a single pour of Pappy 23 for $100 on a restaurant’s bar list.
I think it is because of this craze that I’ve become a little perturbed about those now hard-to-find bottles and the prices that they command. I’ve got to believe that the internet forums (and probably even blogs like this one) have contributed to the hype that has caused supplies to be in such demand and has led to flippers not only creating a secondary market, but driving up secondary prices. Back in the day, I’m not even sure there was a secondary market. And now I believe some retailers have taken that as a sign that it’s okay to price those hip bottles at prices higher than MSRP, or have started keeping those bottles in the back room either for the store owner or VIP customers or for a raffle or drawing to purchase them.
I find it difficult, especially having tasted the unicorns in the past (easily found and at retail prices nonetheless) to pull the trigger on any bottle more than $100. Maybe it’s even anything greater than $85. Hell, come to think of it, I pace back and forth on things that are $60 trying to decide if I should buy it. Do I want it because of the things I’ve read in a Facebook bourbon forum? Is this one just being hyped right now? I think this is one of the reasons that I now put a little more time and emphasis on purchasing and drinking great values that are easily found.
There are a lot of fine bourbons out there. Available bourbons. Reasonably priced bourbons. Drinkable bourbons. They may not have the cachet that those sought-after bottles have, but are you buying the bourbon to brag about it on the internet or are you getting it to enjoy life a little more? Let me tell you a little story.
Those who know me well know one of my other passions is fountain pens. I’ve spent almost as much time researching, learning, and even listening to podcasts about fountain pens as I have bourbon. Don’t ask me why. Like bourbon, the fountain pen and stationery world has a fairly large community and some celebrity personalities. I’ve followed one particular weekly podcast about pens for more than two years now, and I’m even going back and listening to original episodes that were created before I became interested in that hobby.
In one of the older episodes, the host related a story about wanting to learn more about vintage fountain pens. He had decided he wanted to pick up a particular make and model of a pen. He attended one of his first pen shows (yes, that is a thing) and started looking at the vintage dealers. As he was looking, he found the make and model he wanted and fell in love with the particular color because it had some nice looking amber streaks in the finish. The pen was reasonably priced, actually lower than some of the others of the same model in colors he didn’t like as much. He finally pulled the trigger and purchased the pen with the lovely amber streaks and took it home.
Later, as he did further research on the internet by talking to others in the pen community, he discovered that the amber streaks were really considered a “flaw” in the pen by the “real” collectors. Yet it was this “flaw” that he found most interesting and caused him to buy the pen.
I relate that story to say that we should be (and hopefully are) less influenced by what other people are saying than what we like. To relate that to bourbon, there are some good bourbons that may be sit a lower on the store shelves than those that are getting all the love in the bourbon forums.
Sure, a William Larue Weller is great for a really special occasion. But if you are a frequent consumer, you’re going to need a more affordable and findable alternative. Don’t be embarrassed to tell someone that your daily drinker is an Evan Williams bottled in bond or a Very Old Barton bottled in bond; those are solid and affordable (and findable) bourbons.
In another post, I’ll talk about ways to find those unsung heros. Until then, go enjoy some bourbon.