How to Hunt Bourbon

Bourbonr’s Guide to Hunting Bourbon

If you follow bourbon on any social media outlet I’m sure you’ve found yourself jealous of another Bourbonr’s bottles that they found “in the wild”. This is bourbon slang for “sitting on a shelf and I paid retail or close to it”. If you’re like me you probably wondered “how did they find that!” and curse the poor selection of bourbon at your local stores. I’ve been fairly successful at hunting bourbon over the years, and while it has become increasingly more difficult, I wanted to share some of the tips and tricks I use on my bourbon hunts.

First a prequel to all bourbon hunting steps. DO NOT ASK EVERY STORE “Y’ALL GOT ANY PAPPY?” The bourbon world is in a state a transformation right now and the days of Pappy Van Winkle touching a shelf (at close to retail prices) are long gone. I suggest starting to build relationships with stores now but don’t expect any (chance at) Pappy at least until the fall. Most stores won’t know how many bottles they’ll receive, if any at all, until it arrives on their loading dock sometime this fall.

Know What You’re Hunting

Yes, everyone is “hunting” Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection but lets be realistic. It has been at least 2 years since I’ve randomly walked in to a store and found any of these bourbons (with the exception of a George T Stagg) sitting on a shelf. Sure, it can happen but I’m looking at odds and percentages, not shots in the dark. Here is a list of bourbons I’m looking for at every store I walk in to:

Bourbon hunt

Most of these are “dusty” bourbons but it still gives you an idea of what to look for. Obviously, you’re not going to pass George T Stagg or Four Roses Limited Edition if you find it but these other bottles broaden the scope of what to hunt. Also, WhiskeyID is a great resource for learning and researching old bottles.

 Scout the location(s)

As a bourbon hunter, google maps is your best friend. I simply type in “liquor” to google maps and start driving towards the target. Some Bourbonr’s like to plan their bourbon hunts by looking at the neighborhood first. I’ve never had much luck or seen a correlation between store location and good bourbon finds. That’s why I choose the scorched earth method of bourbon hunting and try to hit every location I possibly can.

Bourbon hunting map

Ask questions & Be polite

This goes back to the original advice about Pappy Van Winkle. Walking in and asking for Pappy is an automatic turn off for any store owner. Chances are they’ve been bombarded with request and questions over the last few years and have hit a point of Pappy-overload. The money they make off of the few bottles they receive is not worth the headache of answering hundreds of phone calls.

In reverse, if you walk in to a store, engage the owner/clerk in a friendly conversation and show that you know a little bit about bourbon you may be surprised with the outcome. Personally, I’ve seen bottles pop up from behind the counter or from the back offices this way. I’ve scored multiple bottles and even tasted some pretty rare bourbons by doing this. It doesn’t have to be anything contrived but when you find store owners that are also passionate about bourbon talk to them about it. For most, it’s their way of fending off flippers.

BUY SOMETHING!

This is more for the fall bourbon releases but still needs to be mentioned. If I’m a store owner and I have a limited amount a bottles and an exponential amount of buyers I’m much more likely to sell to the guy I see every Friday buying a case of beer of a handle of bourbon rather than the random phone call I get from some guy that’s driven from a state away to find this months Limited Edition.

When Bourbon Hunting Fails

Like any hunt, not every trip will be a successful one. There’s still a thrill in thinking that you may find a great bottle tucked away for years in hole-in-the-wall liquor store. In the meantime, just drink these bourbons. They’re very good and can be found almost anywhere.

four roses single

Let’s hear some bourbon hunting stories in the comments. What was are some of your best finds bourbon hunting?

44 comments

    Thank you for your blog posts! Would you mind explaining the UPC Code in the Old Grand Dad picture, please? What’s the significance there?

    The 86259 UPC is from National Distillers which is an old distillery that is now shut down. Much different taste. If you like caramel notes in your bourbon you need to check it out

    Being polite is indeed the way to go. Also, people tend to take care of those who spend some money in their store. Even when I don’t find something special I still grab a bottle of wine for my wife, some beer or a bourbon that came highly recommend by the owner who I have now become friends with. Just last week I made my usual weekly stop and what does he pull from behind the counter? A bottle of Cured Oak! Just when he told me he doubted he would get any and I figured I was SOL for a bottle, a week later this happened! If you get a chance to try it you must. It really is exceptional!

    Best (and to date, only) find: one night in late 2012, I went into my local liquor store to buy beer and there was a bottle of Pappy 15 sitting in plain view on the shelf, among its poor cousins. The price? $79.99! (I’ve kept the receipt to prove to myself I wasn’t dreaming.) Doubly amazing since I’m in a “control” state and we get ZERO amounts of any limited stuff. That find, sadly, will probably never be repeated – unless I go on a long and expensive road trip encompassing many, many mom-and-pop stores in urban and other areas.

    Thinking of your bourbonr recommendation about being polite, I’d add that it always pays to scope out the atmosphere of the store you’re in: are the staff extremely busy? -in that case they may just not have enough face time to allocate to more than a brief conversation, even if they wanted to. If it’s a lower-volume, not-as-busy store with a good selection, the staff should welcome the opportunity to engage with a knowledgeable customer.

    Be there on the day of delivery( usually right when a store opens, but always before 12 pm). I was able to purchase a Pappy 20 & 15 today because I was there talking with the manager about bourbon. After he checked in the product he told me to come to the back where he asked which ones did I want! Oh and he said he wasn’t getting in any pappy when I first started to talk with him. BTW…he is the most fair guy I have experienced. He picked the 23 and said if I didn’t buy the 20, he was going to. Not sure if it’s released everywhere… Maybe a KY Derby perk!

    A nice topic you have touched Blake, being a retailer I get a lot of calls about PVW or BTAC but since you have explained it well that it is all about your personal relationship with the store. I have a list of about 20 customers who frequent my store all year long and I don’t get 20 bottles of PVW in a year, so have to pick and choose even though it is very hard as I want to stay fair with everyone. But as you said try to be a regular at your local store and it should definitely get you some of the most wanted bourbon bottles starting fall, at least that is how I allocate my PVW or BTAC allocation for customers.

    I’m a rookie to the game. I had lived in Louisville for nearly a year and spent more time chasing the beer scene than bourbon. When I got back home and realized what I had missed, I started learning more and hunting. Nothing big yet but I have found a few good ones on the shelf: I kicked a box of Staff Jr. over. It hadnt even been opened or a sign placed on it. My first limited release bourbon! The other day I walked in to see the store clerk shelving a bottle of the ECBP #7. It was the only bottle they received and I was lucky enough to buy it. No Pappys or Staggs yet but October is still a few months away!

    If you are in Louisville go across to Clarksville to the Rivertown Liquors store. I have had good luck stopping there coming through Indiana.

    I suggest buying tomorrow’s dusties and hard to find bottles today. Old Grandad 114, Beam Black 8 year, Weller 12, Elijah Craig 12 – I bought cases of all of these. Very Old Barton 100 proof age stated 6 years (not the fake version with just the number 6) as well if still available.

    That’s a good point Wade. I’ve done some stocking up of Weller and OGD 114 but I think its time for Beam 8 year and Elijah Craig 12 too

    Agreed. Wishing I had done that with Elmer T. Lee in VA last year. Can’t find it on the VA ABC Shelves now :-(.

    I was also on the phone with some folks in Frankfurt on 4/17, and they were talking about folks being able to get a PVW release that day. Again, I assume it was something special for the Derby, but, man, sometimes I wish I lived closer to Frankfurt!

    One of the best in Frankfort is Red Dot liquor. They’re fair, honest and don’t practice cronyism. They get a lot of the ultra premium stuff and will reward their loyal customers first then give walk-ins equal opportunity by holding back a few bottles then put them on the shelves after the dust settles for whoever is lucky enough to be there to buy it. A real legit business who’s not out to screw people over to benefit themselves.

    Last week as I was driving back from Chicago to Kentucky I stopped at 6 stores. Most had nothing but I was able to pick up a High West MWND, EH Taylor Single Barrel, 1792 private selection barrel, and an old charter dusty at a couple of stores. These are almost impossible to find where I live due to the large amount of bourbon drinkers. It just proves there is good stuff out there just getting harder to find.

    Walked into a store in Mauldin, SC around Thanksgiving of 2014 and PVW 10,12,15,20, & 23 were displayed on a small nondescript shelf behind the counter – Spotted it immediately as I walked in and almost lost my breath! Anyway, I mulled around a bit, the store was not busy and the Owner asked if he could help. I talked a little about Bourbon and that I’d collected about 150 Bottles of both good and bad over the last year or so. He was excited and said he’d been doing this for 40+ years and had never seen the craziness of the Bourbon thing as it is right now. Anyway, I bought a bottle of ER10 and proceeded to the counter. He showed me the PVW display and said that he was doing an auction to the highest bidder that was ending the next day. I didn’t really act all jacked up but did ask if I could place a bid. I had never been in this store before and explained to him that I was in town on some business and I had just found his store as I was passing by. He started into a story about his grandson and said that he should probably just keep it and put it up for him some day. I told him I thought that would be a good investment for his grandson. So, he rang me up and never said anything at that moment about my entering the bidding. So, I just let it go and headed toward the door. About the time I got to the door, he stopped me, asked me if I had a minute, and invited me back to his office. When we got around the corner, he told me that he was sick and tired of all the people calling and had just about had a fight in his store between two of his regulars over the PVW. Anyway, he asked me what I thought it was really worth. I told him that at the high end, I thought the value for all might be around $3500. So, he asked for my bid. I said I would be willing to pay $1500. He immediately shook my hand and I wrote him a check. He said I seemed like a nice enough fella that could appreciate that Bourbon and said that it was really not about the money in the first place. I thanked him kindly and he boxed the 5 bottles up nicely with the 20 and 23 in their velvet bags and I left the store. Kindness, sincere interest, and a good handshake go a long way these days. BTW, his name was George!

    I am fairly new to the bourbon collecting and have had some very pleasant interaction with both other bourbon hunters, store staff and a bartender at a speak easy. The speak easy had a nice selection and as I was talking to him I got a chance to see a better selection. Friendliness will go a log way instead of demanding, hey even if you don’t end up with that special bottle you have at least had a nice visit. Brent enjoyed your post

    I’ve found btac and Pappy every yr running now for the past 3yrs. Key is relationships as you mention and yes, buying a thing or two. Most people are tight lipped about their spot and guard it like a secret treasure. So it’s hard to break the veil of secrecy unless you have friends into the same thing and they inform you of a spot and you divulge a secret as well. A location I shop at has a specific whiskey lotto system for most special allocations. To this day I have no clue how I even got onto their list but I’m glad I did since I’ve won some bottles. From what I gather, it’s because of my buying history and the products I’ve purchased over many yrs. Clearly they look at customer profiles and choose who to give the allocations to. First timers or a passerby has zero chances of scoring one since the email to enter the drawing is by invite only. They know if you walk in asking for pappy, it means you’ve never shopped there. It’s a clever way to get flippers to out themselves without them knowing.

    I live in an abc control state (Alabama), my bourbon hunting primarily consists of locating BIBs, there is a very limited selection of BIBs here, so one day I call the control board asking about certain bottles and if they have any inventory, long story short the person I was speaking to was somewhat confused and gave me the phone number to the Buffalo Trace salesman who services the state, after speaking with him he gives me a lead on what stores would be carrying EH Taylor “Cured Oak” bottles but he didn’t know when they would be hitting shelves. Fast forward 3 weeks from my conversation with him and I go into one of the stores he told me to keep an eye out on because I wanted to ask them if I found a bottle of something I wanted online if I could have it shipped to their store and pay the taxes on it there. When I show up I notice people in the check out line without anything in their hands so I jump in line and start watching, sure enough the store kept the EH Taylor Cured Oak behind the counter and they still had some available when I made it up to the front to ask my question. So I call the BT salesman later in the day to thank him for the lead he gave me and he asks me if there is anything else I am looking for, I tell him some of the BIBs I don’t have and that I am interested in getting a bottle of Weller 12 or special reserve, he than tells me about a liqour store in Hattiesburg, MS I should check out. I head down there after calling because they had 2 of the BIBs still on my list, the owner was really cool after I told him that the BT salesman directed me to his store, he brought out his weller 12, BT expiremental collection and single oak project bottles, needless to say I went way over my budget that day. The store owner also signed me up for there Pappy lottery. So without a doubt I recommend socializing and buying other products other than just inquiring about PVW or BTAC.

    Thanks, but your advice might have been helpful about four years ago. Today it is meaningless. I began patronizing an upstart mom and pop liquor store in Lex., KY in 2011. The owner appreciated my business and would talk shop, tell me when to expect the good stuff and saved me a bottle when he could. I in turn was a loyal customer spending an average of 3k annually and sending many of my friends there to do business. Once his business expanded he just cut me off. Now he reserves the good stuff for his cronies and flippers who give him gift certificates and false promises of sending him new customers with their big connections while he blows smoke up the ass of his loyal customer base like me. My friends and I quite doing business there. Big box stores like Liquor Barn have cut off their regular customers too. Sure they give notice for the high price novelty crap like Pappy, Orphan nd 4R. Then give you the ignore treatment when it’s time for btac, ecbp, rare Taylor (bp, cured oak, etc.) and WFE. Sorry to say Blake your hunting advice only applies to the past. Now you can be loyal, polite, spend 1000 s and beg at any retailer, but you will end up with little if anything at all. Ultimately in the end greed, corruption and cronyism wins out every time. Anyway that’s how it is here.

    Anytime a customer walks in and ask for Pappy it is like nails on a chalkboard. It tells me that they are totally oblivious to the current state of Bourbon. There are so many wonderful whiskeys out there being obsessed with one is just silly. If you are a collector and not a drinker you are already wasting my time. I would much prefer my rare bottles go to someone who is going to enjoy them, but way more important than that is when you narrow your vision down to one bottle you are just missing out! Let your local expert turn you on to something new. Life is meant to be lived and whiskey is meant to be consumed. As exciting as it is to get your hands on a “rare” bottle it is twice as much fun to find a new whiskey that you actually enjoy. While there may be a shortage of famous bourbons there is an endless supply of awesome out there if you look for it.

    You are right Keith. I have taken store owners suggestions on a bourbon I haven’t tried before and have had some great surprises. Not only is a good bottle meant to be drank I enjoy sharing with other bourbon drinking friends. The liquor stores I stop at the most often will limit any special release, being bourbon or even craft beer. Every one knows they will sell out but by giving more people a chance to get a treat brings me in more often.

    Love bourbonr…read it religiously. My favorite is Jefferson ocean, not just for the story but because it is that good. Pricey. I play tennis with the county ABC store head. That’s how I got my first bottle of pappy. Think smarter! Keep up the awesome bourbonr updates Blake!

    Thank you for your website. I was on a mission this year to get a bottle of Pappy and this site has been great.. Well let’s be honest, I’ve been on a mission every year. I’ve been watching your site daily for the past several weeks and that made me more determined than ever. Pretty sure I bugged nearly every liquor store within a 25 mile radius of Denver. In the process I befriended the owner of a newer store that got 2 bottles each of 12 year and 10 year. He let me buy one of the 12 year. Gotta say that my wife is so happy that she didn’t have to talk me down off the ledge if I didn’t get one:-) Can’t wait to crack it open but I think I’ll just stare at the bottle for a few days first!

    What do you want to know? It’s sourced bourbon (probably from Brown Forman and Heaven Hill) finished in port barrels. It’s good bourbon with a sweet fruity taste

    Reliable info, thanks. I was told about this bourbon a couple of weeks ago, thought maybe you had sipped a taste of it. It seems Bacardi has bought Angels Envy and claims it to be one of the 10 fastest-growing super-premium bourbons in the United States. I’ll probably pick up a bottle and give it a taste.

    I totally agree with the notion of buying something when you’re in the store. I usually grab a pop and a candy bar before i even hit the liquor aisle. That way if their selection is truly poor, i can act like i was just looking around. But I’ll gladly buy a slightly uncommon bottle (there are so many anymore) I’ve been lucky enough to find a bottle of ec barrel proof and elmer t lee in the last month or so, but its also necessary to buy a cheaper bottle here and there to keep the regular drinking stock and mixing liquors stocked. Btw, if any of ya like gin, try the barrel aged stuff. I’ve had a couple that work well in a bastardized old fashioned. I know i speak of blasphemy…..

    I saw two bottles of Pappy (10 an 15 year) on the shelf yesterday in Carpenteria, CA. They were priced at $500 and $1500.

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