Gilded Age of Bourbon

A Tale of Bourbon Today

Bourbon/Tennessee Whiskey sales were up 9.6% in 2014. The super premium sector saw a 19.2% growth as well as exports topping $1.2B. Bourbon is everywhere. It’s at every bar and restaurant I visit. While checking for abnormal heart rhythms, my Doctor discusses the upcoming Pappy Van Winkle release. I can’t even walk down the frozen food aisle of a grocery store without seeing bourbon. Every time I walk into a store to buy a bottle I’m surprised with an increased price tag or an empty shelf. Or, maybe I’ve become accustomed to increased costs its hard to tell. I don’t blink at a $150 price tag for a bourbon I was paying $50 for a few years ago. I assume every limited edition bourbon will exceed the $80 mark.

Gilded age of bourbon profits

The USA Today tells me this is the bourbon “Golden Age.” Pappy Van Winkle is impossible to find. The Antique Collection has hit 2013 Pappy levels of findability. If I ask a Total Wine employee about a limited edition bourbon, they just snicker and turn away. The bourbon community continues to grow. More people want Pappy and with increased demands comes increased prices. The store blames their gouging tactics on the flipper. The everyday drinker blames their inability to get a bottle on the flipper. There are more flippers today but who could blame them with current prices. Who could blame the retailer that charges a premium when they could just as easily sell on the secondary market. Plus, the retailer had to buy 36 cases of vodka they didn’t want only to get allocated one bottle. If you missed a release a few years ago, you could at least go to a bar for a pour. That 1.5 oz of WLW will now cost you $65.

This whole time the guy that enjoys sharing, drinking, and trading bourbon gets left behind. The bottle of Pappy 23 in my closet now exceeds the value of the truck in my garage. How can I open a bottle and not think twice about flipping? But that would make me bourbon enemy # 1, right? I don’t even want to think about the “profits” I’ve drunk over the years. It was funny five years ago to mix Pappy 15 (I paid $65) with Coke on occasion. Now, I laugh less about it since people are paying $900 for the same bottle. This feels less like the golden age.

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain

There was a time when premium bourbon was flowing at a standard cost. Most bourbonr’s referred to this as the Bourbon Glut. A period following the bourbon boom of the 60’s when sales were down, and distilleries were forced to sit on barrels. Sometime around the late 70’s to mid 80’s bottom shelf brands contained much older bourbon than their age stated label. It all stems from a quick decline in demand that most distilleries didn’t react to quick enough. Ever wonder why someone would pay hundreds of dollars for an Old Granddad BIB or Old Taylor 6 year from the 70’s? Chances are those bottles contained much older (excellent) bourbon. It’s incomprehensible for today’s bourbon drinker. Today, we drop age statements and a lot of times quality. We charge premium prices for bottles that are marginally better than bottles sitting on shelves.

Gilded age of bourbon

Are we doomed to see a bourbon bust and would a bust mean a future glut? There’s no question that supply will catch up with demand. The question is how quick will distilleries be able to react. When you manufacture a product that takes 4-23 years to mature projects can be challenging.

While demand still outpaces supply distilleries are laying down as many bourbon barrels as they can. How long will that last? Will I get a chance to live through a bourbon glut? Who knows but it would be nice, in 30 years, to drink a 14-year-old Eagle Rare stuffed into the 10-year bottle due to oversupply.

3 Golden Age Bourbons

Smooth Ambler 10
eagle rare 10
wild Turkey kentucky spirit


    Thoughtful commentary, as always. I have my feelers out for the luxe brands but with little optimism of actually scoring a bottle. But there is solace to be taken in the emergence of many new brands (at least to me) at reasonable price points to explore. The Rock Hill came out last year and was priced at $42 and was an excellent bourbon. In typical fashion news of the quality of that bourbon spread virally and now I can’t find a bottle on the shelves. Sadly we are victims of our own passion to share the gospel of good bourbon.

    As an avid bourbon fan for over a decade, the recent trends have actually started pushing me towards scotch on the premium side. Those prices, while inflated, seem to be much more reasonable these days and I cant justify paying so much anymore. Good think Weller is 12 bucks still and Four roses prices have stayed consistent otherwise my dark liquor of choice would require major cutbacks. Happy hunting I guess…

    Down here in Georgia we are not experiencing any scarcity. Like everywhere else Pappy and BTAC are nonexistent but our store shelves are always packed full of all the other labels. I see new bottles every time I’m in the store and my favorites are always in stock. I like at least one of your Golden Age pictures – Old Scout. With this label I’ve achieved my bourbon Zen. OS7 & 10 are available and affordable and having those I don’t stress out on what I cannot find. My local store recently bought a private barrel of Four Roses OESF and bottled at full strength it is a wonderful spice bomb.

    The only time I’ve seen anything from Weller for $12 in recent days was for a .375 of Special Reserve and that would be a pretty good deal, actually.

    Great article, as always. Thanks for it. I can tell you this about my bourbon purchases. The extremely limited availability of Pappy, other “allocated’ bourbons like George T. Stagg, and limited editions with other labels has turned me from a seeker to an ignorer. I am no longer interested in the pursuit of those “Holy Grail” spirits — eschewing the lotteries, the sign up lists, the lines, the secondary market, and the searching that I used to embrace. Instead, I am on a different sort of quest: the search for the really good, moderately priced bourbons that are readily available but underappreciated. I have made some discoveries that have proven most satisfactory to myself and my friends — as I gladly and generously share what I have discovered with a limited circle of other bourbon enthusiasts. These discoveries come with some self-imposed reticence, as I want to avoid making them the hot commodities that spell unavailability in the future. I will share this much, however. The 110 proof single batch Russell Reserve, at sub-$50 prices is an unbelievable find. There are others as well. But you’ll have to discover them yourself!

    Agreed, and it is for this reason that I signed up to Bourbonr. Not to hear about the special limited release that I would not only never see, but also never be able to afford. Rather, I joined to get more insight to the overwhelming array of labels I’ve never heard of, to find that gem of a bottle while it’s still $25.

    As an employee in a prominent liquor store in Texas, when people ask me about Pappy I honestly do try my best not to laugh. The majority of it goes to our wholesale, leaving not much if any for our public consumers. They ask if we have a list, which we don’t because simply it would unfair. If we only receive 2 or 3 bottles, how far do you think your name ia down the list? The basic guidelines for inquiring about any rare/limited release bourbons with the best chances of success are as follows: become a regular customer of the store. I am not as inclined to help you find your dream product if that is the only item you are looking for from me. Be polite and courteous, if someone is rude, why would I go out of my way to get you something special? Come in person, any call will only receive a polite no. Know the product that you are asking. When I check you out and ask, “Did you find everything?” You reply no with a snear and tell me that the Pappy Van Winkle/ Birthday Bourbon etc is not on the shelf. I will certainly reply with a sarcastic smile, if we did have it, it would not be out on the shelf anyway. If the products release date has not yet hit, don’t even ask if we have it. Again, know your product.

    Last year one of our good customers wanted to get a bottle of Pappy. He was a regular Joe. He saved up the whole year to buy a bottle of 23yr and he still didn’t quite have enough. His friend paid the difference, it was over $400. We made sure he got a bottle, not because he spent a lot of money. Because he didn’t, but he came in every week, was friendly and in general a good guy. He was 1 of 2 people that received any at our store.

    My earliest quest for good bourbon started with a friend of my, from out of state who wanted some Pappy. I knew very little about bourbon, so I naively went to a local store, and asked. They were polite, and explained how hard it is to get, and the idea of a list. But they also suggested a lot of other great bourbons. Since then, I have been a regular customer. They went a long way to educating me, and helping me to appreciate good bourbon.

    I just returned from my annual trip to Bourbon Country (KY). Spent 10 days and most of that in Lexington ranging out in the country side every day. Food and drink scene increasing exponentially. It’s not that I couldn’t find the super premium bourbons, I never found a Weller 12 or an Elmer T. Lee (except in most bars by the drink – and it was only $8-10 a pour). Elijah Craig 18 has returned at Heaven Hill for $199,99!
    I did find some new ones for me including Bib and Tucker and Blade and Bow.
    At a retailer in CA there is a bottle of 10 yr RVW priced at $349 and a bottle of the PVW 20 yr at $1349. That’s obscene.
    And, it will probably get worse. Blanton’s seems cheap now, as do the Four Roses bottlings and they work well for me.
    Thanks Blake for keeping us informed.

    Pappy 20 and 23 will soon all be BT juice if not already. Imagine down the road when everyone figures that out. The SW juice bottles will reach stratospheric prices and become the most sought after bottles over the BT juice produced ones.!

    I think the next ‘bourbon Glut’ will occur when more and more bourbon starts being distilled outside Bourbon County / Kentucky. Right now, there’s very little competition amount the Bourbon Giants where as vodka has a huge market and vast amount of competition. Aside from just ridiculous products that only rapper-wanna-be’s would buy, premium vodka is quite affordable compared to bourbon. There’s a high amount of demand for it, but there’s also a large amount of supply and competition to drive the prices down… I don’t see that happening until there are more mass producing distillers out there.

    Appreciate your observations. The difficulty facing the bourbon community today is the ignorance of many as to what they enjoy drinking. Sure, Pappy is going to taste great because it is so expensive. But if tasted blind, would you choose the expensive or hyped bottle or something else? Think you know? Try a blind flight. It is a great way to determine what you enjoy without being biased by the label. I bet you find several new and widely available bourbons to stock your bar and not have to spend so much time chasing the unobtainable.

    I feel like this fall’s bourbon season is going to change a lot of peoples’ minds. In past years, I knew that if I put in a bit of effort, I could pretty easily find any limited edition bottle I wanted. Like you, I would do things like make manhattans out of Handy or crush bottles of Stagg to make room in the liquor cabinet. Now I’m looking at what I have as possibly the last bottles of it I’ll ever own. Worse, I feel that my efforts at maintaining relationships have been wasted. This will definitely alter my behavior moving forward. I definitely feel that everyone should seek out everyday value buys but let’s face it, there is not a single product on the shelf that is anything like a William Larue Weller or a Handy. It’s sad to see those bottles get to the point that not only are they near impossible to get, but when you do it’s hard to justify opening them.

    I ordered and paid with bitcoins. It has been over a month and have not received the order. The company does not reply to emails. No telephone number listed to call. Don’t be fooled like me – the site appears to be a total scam. The Bitcoin Alcohol Market is a scam.

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