We discuss the bourbon secondary a good bit on Bourbonr. We talk about prices, predictions and the drama that ensues. What I’ve never talked about is how the bourbon secondary got started. Of course, collectors have always bought and sold bottles. But, I’m talking about the bourbon evolution that happened on Facebook a few years ago. Bourbon Facebook groups have shaped the bourbon world we have today. Buying, selling, and trading bottles are now common on many forums. Almost all the Facebook groups stemmed from a single group. Behind that group is one man, John Scott Bull.
I spoke with John to get the full story. It all started with John’s bachelor trip to the Bourbon Trail. He had been drinking bourbon for 4-5 years. After experiencing distilleries first hand and learning about bourbon history he was hooked. After returning, John realized the great bourbons available in Kentucky were scarce back home. In fact, most of the sought after bottles weren’t even distributed to Arkansas. EBay had recently banned alcohol sales and that’s when the idea for Bourbon Exchange hit him.
Bourbon Exchange was set up for people in different states to exchange bottles. He added his friends and some new friends he made along the bourbon trail. Then, John emailed several bourbon bloggers with his idea and a link to the Facebook group. Chuck Cowdery was the only writer to respond and wrote about Bourbon Exchange. This is where I first heard about the group. After Chuck’s post, John flooded with hundreds of new member requests waiting for approval. This was only two weeks before his wedding. According to John “things were busy”.
Things were different in the first Facebook group for buying, selling and trading bourbon. Have you ever “sipped” or “tasted” a bottle of George T Stagg? Bourbon Exchange used its own lingo as a sort of smoke and mirrors. Sip = sell, taste = trade, there were no prices listed and all transactions went down in Facebook messenger. This formula worked and Bourbon Exchange grew to 3,000+ members. That was until one fateful day. John was in San Francisco for a work conference and began receiving texts from bourbon friends asking why the group was down. At first, he thought it was user error but after checking for himself he realized it was true. How could this happen?! John found an apple store in San Francisco and created a new group. BX was born on a floor display MacBook. Facebook never explained why they shut down Bourbon Exchange and John never asked. A prominent person in the bourbon industry joined Bourbon Exchange the day before it was shut down. Did he have Facebook shut down the group because he didn’t like his bottles being resold for a profit? John doesn’t know for sure but the timeline is suspicious.
Aside from the code words Bourbon Exchange operated like most of the groups today. Except the prices in 2013 seem ridiculous compared to today. The first listing on Bourbon Exchange was from John. He listed a bottle of Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 (that he didn’t really want to sell) for $250. To his surprise it actually sold. But, there was a backlash from members who felt that John ripped the guy off. John felt bad and ended up refunding the guy $125. Yes, the first transaction on Bourbon Exchange was a JPS 18 for $125 (currently sells for around $600 according to BBB). Here are some other listings from around the same time:
Four Rose 2009 Marriage – $200
George T Stagg 2009 – $150, 160
Jefferson Presidential 17-4, $250
ORVW 15/107 Lawrenceburg – $650
EH Taylor Tornado – $160, 150, 150, 165
EH Taylor Sour Mash 1st Release – $110, 160
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye – $300, 300, 300, 300, 325, 325
After running Bourbon Exchange as BX with stricter rules and more secrecy John’s patience began to wane. Things were busy. He added a few friends to help him moderate the BX Empire (there were now three groups. BX, Bourbon Porn and Bourbon University) but there was still a lot of work. John’s favorite quote was “I shouldn’t have to tell adults to act like adults.” Anyone familiar with bourbon forums knows that getting guys to “act like adults” can be difficult. Sometimes it’s even impossible. There’s still a “ban” list maintained on a spreadsheet with names and reasons why that person was banned. Reasons span from “Joined just to troll.” to “Being the worst person ever”.
John started a BX sister site called BourbonBlueBook.com. A lot of his inquiries came from guys wanting John to appraise their bottle. This new site was a place to send the appraisal requests that were now taking up a lot of his time. In the end, updating BBB took even longer and he ultimately sold it to a competing site.
How influential was Bourbon Exchange? I don’t think there’s a bourbon trading group on Facebook that can’t tie its roots back to Bourbon Exchange. A lot of guys left BX and started their own groups. These groups splintered into dozens of other groups. There’s also no denying the affects it had on price. Before Bourbon Exchange, there were a few bourbon groups on Facebook. None of them revolved around buying, selling and trading. Most of the bourbon discussion took place in forums like StraightBourbon and BourbonEnthusiast. Both forums banned John because of their disgust with the exploding bourbon secondary market (StraightBourbon eventually let him back in).
Facebook groups like Bourbon Exchange brought new excitement and interest to bourbon. For better or worse more demand meant higher prices. Higher prices meant people could make a few dollars off of their “hobby”. It wasn’t just consumers taking advantage of this new market. One distillery re-released an older bourbon after it was discontinued a few years earlier. The re-release came with a higher price tag. Coincidentally, that new price tag matched the BourbonBlueBook price exactly.
In a few short months, John Scott Bull was able to turn a small Facebook group into an active community. This community shaped the bourbon world we have today. For me, one question remained. Why not just start your own site and not have to deal with Facebooks constant threat to shut the groups down. Here is John’s response:
From the beginning, I had some domains purchased and thoughts about how to do it. My issue was 2 fold. I have a history of start-ups, so I understand the intricacies there. My first issue was that I believe Facebook is what really facilitated Bourbon Exchange’s popularity. People were already on Facebook and kept getting sucked into BX each day. Remembering to go to a random site would have been more difficult and clearly, would have happened less often. The bigger issue was how to monetize it? I didn’t come up with a way that made me comfortable enough to invest the time and money into the development. I’m not a developer myself, so it’s not like I could just invest time. I’d have to sink real money into it and most of my extra funds were focused on adding to my collection. I’ve had some success with ad revenue on a travel blog I have, but nothing that would fund the development. So I never pulled the trigger.
Today, John still maintains a small bourbon group focused on buying, selling and trading. For now, it flies under Facebook’s radar. It’s a collection of mostly inactive members that have been with BX since the beginning. There’s also another group that popped up under the same moniker. While Facebook shut down John’s “Bourbon Exchange” they allowed another group to use the same name and operate. The fact that there is a “fake” Bourbon Exchange may be John’s biggest frustration about the whole ordeal. Yet, there’s plenty of bottles to remind John of his reign as the King of Facebook Bourbon. He’s had friends over to taste through his full Parker’s Heritage Collection vertical. He has an entire Thomas Handy and EH Taylor vertical but says he still goes back to Blanton’s Gold for his daily drinker.
Today, the bourbon secondary is the most controversial part of bourbon. Reflecting on how it all transpired is still interesting. I don’t think any of the early BX members would have predicted the prices we’re seeing today. I would have never traded a Four Roses 125th for Angels Envy Cask Strength or “sipped” a 2012 Staggs for $150!