It’s Not Gouging

Price gougers have joined the ranks of flippers as bourbon public enemy number 1. Who are the price gougers? They’re the retailers that charge secondary and above prices. Gourgers include brands that have jumped at the opportunity to release limited edition whiskeys for $100+. Let me be clear. I don’t like either of the previous examples but what’s going on in the bourbon world today isn’t price gouging. These liquor stores aren’t jacking up the price of water or gas after a natural disaster. They’re selling a premium product at premium prices. Profiteering at best but even that’s a stretch. It’s not gouging.

bourbon robery

Last time I bought Pappy my decision wasn’t, buy an exquisite and elusive bottle of wheated bourbon OR provide food for my son. Why does it matter? Just because there’s a misguided use of terms doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem. Brands and retailers are using the popularity of bourbon to sell more bottles for higher prices. I can’t blame them. They’re testing bourbons price elasticity and until people realize they’re wasting their money it won’t stop.

Stop buying every new shiny bottle (this guy said it a little better). Stop grabbing everything with a backstory and a $400 price tag. I’m the guiltiest person in this scenario. Maybe this post is more introspective. I know this won’t be a popular post with some. But, it’s the truth. I write a lot about limited editions and try to ignore prices in my reviews but I think that will have to change. As prices increase so must the scrutiny of each release. If you’re prepared to release a bottle with a $200 price tag it needs to be unbelievable! If not, I hope it sits in a warehouse for years until some distributor is forced to throw a bourbon blow-out sale. And for the retailer that tries to sell Elmer T Lee or Elijah Craig Barrel Proof for $200+ I’ll never step foot in that store again (more to come on these “sketchy” liquor stores).

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In the mean time just drink one of these bourbons. You’ll save time and money and won’t miss out on quality. If you’re looking for an adventure, feel free to hunt Pappy and other LE’s. If you’re looking for good bourbon just grab a bottle of Blanton’s

44 comments

    It drives me a little crazy. There are so many great pours for less than 50$. I tend to want to try everything, but constantly find myself underwhelmed at some of these limited edition price points.

    Really, really well said! I had the Pappy 10, 12, 15 and 20 expressions several weeks ago, all in the same evening and loved them all. But there’s no way I could justify the price for them. There are so many more widely available bottles that are a fraction of the price that taste just as good. This is pure capitalism and market demand driving prices. Let people go goofy over them if they want. I’ll keep buying Four Roses and Old Forester and Beam, etc. until the cows come home.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. People can only do what we allow them to do, and until the bourbon drinking public realizes that many, MANY, of these bourbons that they’re being charged top tier prices for are really no better than, and sometimes not as good as, more readily available, more affordable offerings, then retailers and secondary market profiteers will continue doing what they do. It’s good to have columns like yours that seek to educate people on these tasty bourbons that people tend to let linger on the shelf because they believe it must be no good because it’s always there, or it doesn’t have a story, or the price is low, but it’s up to the people to be more open-minded to actually try them and see for themselves. I’m always looking for that sleeper bourbon, so, please, keep it coming!

    I completely agree, especially with your Blanton recommendation. At a blind bourbon tasting, the Blanton finished a close second to a 20 year old Pappy1 A close third was Eagle rare. We can drink these fine bourbons until the frothiness Blake described, hopefully subsides.

    I recently decided I was going to become a bourbon snob. I bought the expensive stuff and I tasted and tasted – waiting for the flavor of char, or pear, or Apple. What I tasted was whisky. Some was better tasting to me that others. Over and over. Expensive and cheap. Young and old. From Pappy to Gentelman Jack.

    What I’ve decided- after spending thousands of $$ on stuff that just wasn’t that good – is that a good solid 10-12 year old bourbon is as good as most anything. And even better is bourbon that is plentiful and reasonably priced. Elija Craig 12 and Eagle Rare 10 are excellent, and generally less that $30.

    I still sip at all the expensive stuff I have, but would rather have the EC it ER.

    To each his own, but most high prices are simply marketing. A distillery can never overestimate what a bourbon snob will pay for something that is mediocre but rare.

    It’s fun and kind of disturbing all at the same time. So many ‘newbies’ are deciding they better start drinking bourbon while it’s “HOT”. . . .yet if you ask them what they normally drink, it’s Coors light and Jack n coke. I’m a member of a few of the groups on FB and as new members are added the first question is “I’m out shopping and found this [name your] bottle. . .is it any good for $130.00. . .? The store owner said it’s very limited and don’t want to miss out”. . . . oh ya, and I need to be sure I have the $11.99 left to get my 12 pack. . . lol

    Good and interesting article. Living in the liquor controlled Commonwealth of Virginia, the opportunity for rare and limited editions is close to impossible as we can only buy at the state run ABC store. Fortunately I live close to DC so there are more options for smaller DC shops (some great, some in the “sketchy” category) and can have something like Caskers ship to my office. But even the price fluctuations between the ABC and descent DC shops and online options are amazing to me. For example, Bib and Tucker is on Caskers for $55 and VA ABC for $88. I can understand $5 and even $10 in either direction, depending on the bottle, but $30 is crazy. Just my two cents.

    Do you think this is price gouging? I was number one on the list this past year for a bottle of Pappy when it came out. The list at a major retailer (Groceries,Liquor,etc.). I called to go pick it up (they only were allotted a few bottles) and the Asst. Manager ( a friend of mine) told me it was gone. He said the store manager purchased it and another. I subsequently discovered it for sale on a web site for three hundred dollars more than the selling price. My friend the Asst. Manager told me how he (Manage) was bragging about the killing he made. Now by your reasoning that is not price gouging. I disagree. There is a limited number and in most places if you are a regular customer you can be put on a list.

    well said. pack mentality. i’m a retailer, but my position has always been, and always will be, there’s a profit structure that i need no matter what the product. that’s what i charge. i’ve never added profit due to availability. but that exists in lots of places. want a Mustang Cobra? have seen it with all kinds of highly reviewed wines, overpriced from the get go, with grand buildings to boot. but that’s what expendable income is for. to each their own, but trying to make sense of what’s going on with “craft” releases is well beyond me. trying to understand why i can’t get Blanton’s after all of the years is frustrating.

    I’ve definitely started boycotted stores for price-gouging their LE bourbon releases. This is the only way things will get better, IMO. And anyway, Eagle Rare 10 outranks most $100+ bourbons that I’ve purchased in my estimation.

    This only happens when people pay. Unfortunately right now, they do. Sometimes it’s for great stuff by supply and demand (Pappy 20) which you can’t really find fault in. Sometimes it’s hype and who know’s what (Seasoned Wood, M10 post-2015). Thank god for the sample world so smart tasters can weed things out.

    I still find the adrenaline rush for certain “limited” releases (Wild Turkey Master’s Keep comes to mind) to be fun. However, it’s amazing how many great deals there are at under or around $50. Just picked up a bottle of 1792 Single Barrel last night (for $50 here in Michigan) and was very impressed with the pour. In fact, 1792 does a fantastic job with all their releases. I’ll be very intrigued with what EH Taylor Seasoned Wood is going for at my local spots. I think Taylor does an amazing job, but I don’t want to spend $200 on a bourbon that’s listed at $70. I always thought the price at the store was controlled by state liquor control boards. Happy to see the bourbon craze is in full swing. Sad to see what retailers are doing just to sell a “limited.”

    Free market pricing and capitalism in general were the engine of growth for this great country of ours. I have zero problem with price hikes in the bourbon market. There is clearly something wrong with the price of a product where there are 100 buyers for every unit made. My issue is that the price hikes need to come from the distiller, then to the wholesaler, then to the retailer. This added money at the distillery level would provide the capital for increased production which would ultimately solve the problem. I do have an issue with the last tier of the three tier system taking all the profit putting the extra money in the hands of the people who didn’t earn it and can not use it to solve the problem. My fear is that distilleries have more of an incentive to keep demand high then they do to have higher profit on a low volume product line. I am told that “Pappy Influence” gets Sazarac tens of millions of dollars worth of free advertising with the retailers through product placement and store mandated product recommendations. If the best bourbon distilleries were not owned by conglomerates that pedal crap like Fireball the free market system would work this problem out on its own. In the mean time drink high QPR bourbon and let the rich waste their time and money on the LE stuff.

    I will just wait until the next liquor fad comes along. Then all these rare distributions will be available for reasonable prices again. BTW, I did taste a really fantastic Rum the other day. I went to the neighborhood liquor store and bought both bottles. Found a website that said this rum was originally smuggled out of Cuba and only recently was he allowed to sell in the US. Yeah, i am just waiting for this to happen..Cheers everyone…

    I disagree, when a retailer pays $50-$75 (suggested retail prices are listed on the distillers website) for a bottle I expect to pay $150 or so that’s a 100% mark up. To expect someone to pay $400-$500 for a $75 bottle is definitely gouging. I lucked out and happened to be in the right store at the right time and I got a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle for around $125 because in my opinion the retailer was scrupulous.

    Truth! Pappy 23 is only $2,000 if someone wants the trophy that bad. While I live in VA like a few other commenters, thankfully there are not complete restrictions on online liquor sales [and the subsequent shipment into] the state of VA. With a quick eye, I was able to snag the following (all of which are not readily available in VA expect for Jefferson’s Reserve) all at retail prices (half coming from your wonderful sponsor Hi-Time) for the bargain price of $300 total including shipping!- Stagg Jr, Baby Saz, SOAS 10Y, Willet Pot Still, Old Weller Antique and Jefferson’s Reserve.

    Call it what you want, it’s absurd. I live in NYC, which is the absurd bourbon capital of the world, no matter what price someone puts on a bottle of booze someone here will happily pay for it and the liquor stores are more than complicit with this practice. It’s so bad, I buy most of my hooch online from out of state retailers who will ship to me. Blantons regularly goes for $70-80. Every once in awhile you can score a high end bottle for a decent (not MSRP) price but it’s basically like finding a unicorn.

    Just semantics, but if you prefer profiteering that’s fine But $1699.00 at a store here in Maryland for a Pappy’s 23 is outrageous.

    I 100% agree. In fact, since I do not like very oaky bourbons, the more expensive ones often do not agree with my palate. I have find myself looking for a lot of reviews on ones that I have not tried and the age statements. If they are more than 12 years old, then they better have great reviews, or low price points. I have been burned by following the shiny new bottle, only to find myself tasting wood chips (yuck!). Some other ones I would include are Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Noah’s Mill, Bookers,. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Belle Meade Sour Mash, Makers 46, Evan Williams 10 y/o and Elijah Craig NAS (formerly the 12 year old).

    I like your perspective. I myself used to buy Pappy regularly in the early to late 2000’s and always had a bottle of 10 or 12 at home (and occasionally a 20 year) before the demand shot up. I bought them to drink, not sit on the shelf. Unfortunately with the rise of Pappy as the “in” bourbon, there is always someone who has the $$s to drop $500+ on a Pappy 12 year and then keep it on the shelf as a trophy to brag about.

    So now my search for fine bourbons at a reasonable price has actually become more enjoyable. I have never spent hours searching for a bottle of Pappy. I didn’t have to back then and today I’d rather spend my time speaking with other Bourbon enjoyers and try new bottles. This in turn has shifted my palette from the wheated style to ones with more rye content.

    At home right now I have:
    – no less than 25 bourbons (including several wheated bourbons) including – Larceny, Michter’s 10, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Four Roses (single barrel and Limited Edition), Old Bardstown, Faultline, Rowen’s Creek, Elmer T Lee, Elijah Craig 12 and 18, W.L Weller, Big Bottom, Blade and Bow, Rough Rider, Amador Barrel Strength and Double Barrel, Metze’s Select, Barrell, Henry McKenna 10, Hookers House, Buffalo Trace and 3 different Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection, and Jim Beam
    – Several Ryes – Michters Rye, Corbin Cash, Bulliet
    – A handful of Scotch – Glenfiddich 15, Macallen 12, Oban, Achentashen, Highland Park, Glen Ord, Singatory Glen Ord 17 year, Glenrothes 1994, Clynelish, Johnny Walker Black
    – And other whiskey’s – Red Breast 12 and 15 year, Dickel 12 year, Hibiki Suntory

    So am I missing my Pappy? Not really. I have Jack, Johnny, Henry, George, and others to keep me company.

    So I have asked store owners about this exact problem. The reason for the extreme prices on the more popular bottles is because the distribution companies charge an arm and a leg to get them. It’s not uncommon for a company to make the store spend $20k or more often of cheap liquor for 3 bottles of Stagg Jr. One store I was in recently said he had to buy over 100 cases of fireball to get 3 bottles of Elmer T. Lee. So to get that money back faster they are forced to raise the prices. So often times it’s not even the store owners fault.

    Colonel Taylor Small Batch is consistently voted the best bourbon at my tastings. And frankly I agree. People think I am crazy when I tell them I had rather have the 12 year family reserve over the 15 or 20 year. I only drink what I like. Blantons, 4 roses OBSV, colonel Taylor are perennial favorites at my house!

    I am super leery of anything that labels itself an “ultra premium spirit” right on its bottle. The first time I encountered that particular verbiage was on a bottle of Blood Oath. Now, I’ve never tried Blood Oath, but I have heard from folks who have and read plenty about it in reviews that it probably isn’t worthy of the “ultra premium” title. The same goes for a lot of Diageo LE’s and all the hype about Blade and Bow seemed a bit overdone too.

    How is this for gouging – I just got an email offering Rock Hill Farm for the low low price of $115!

    ps. Blake, it was from one of your sponsors.

    de wine $pot. QLS is just as bad. I can enthusiastically endorse High-Time Wine Cellars. Very competitive pricing, great selection and service.

    Rick – go to HiTime (hitime wine.net) and then look at their bourbon category over $100 and then tell me what you see. It’s insane pricing. I like the store and visit there a few times a year but their premium bourbons are way out of sight.

    I’m what I guess you would call a newbie to the bourbon world. I always knew what the good stuff was but I was into craft beer. About 6 months ago I moved from craft beer to bourbon. Mainly because of cost. 15 to 20 bucks for a 4-6 pack or 10-15 bucks for 32oz bullet of beer was getting old.

    Moving to the bourbon world I’ve armed myself by reading reviews, finding correct pricing and going to my local bourbon bar and trying pours before I buy. I basically refuse to pay more that 55 bucks for a bottle. I found great bourbons from 13 bucks (Heaven Hull BiB) to 50 bucks (Bookers 2015-06) and every where in between. So I don’t see a point to buying something about 60 bucks a bottle unless there is a legit reason the MSRP is over that. Stupid stories don’t count and stories make me sceptical of the juice in the bottle.

    I think that educating yourself on what the price of a bottle should be goes a long way. And then avoiding stores that are clearly hiking prices to gouge people is important for the health of the Bourbon world and that chase.

    Well said! This is the whole point of the article “I think that educating yourself on what the price of a bottle should be goes a long way. “

    I am always entertained by and attempting to continue to learn from Blake’s writings and the ensuing discussions. I do tend to like the wheated Bourbons. Quite fond of Weller Antique 107 for example. I have branched out and been trying lots of “rye bourbons”, and my favorites of those tend to be Eagle Rare, Blantons, Elijah Craig 12-year, and one I haven’t seen mentioned here which I recently discovered: Henry McKenna 10-year. But, when all is said and done, my wife and I always wind back up with Maker’s Mark as our go-to favorite bourbon, with Maker’s 46 as my “special treat”. I guess I will never make the ranks of the “bourbon snob”. But, I know what I like. 🙂

    Funny you mentioned Maker’s Mark… Whisky Advocate just listed it in their current issue as their “value pick,” with a score of 89/100. Maker’s Mark is a great bourbon, IMO… it may not have the “hand crafted” credentials of some craft releases (a dubious honor, IMO… the proof of the bourbon is in the drinking of it) but it delivers the goods and is often the best pour available when you go out to a bar. Have you tried their Barrel Proof?

    Yes John, I have tried, like, and still have on hand some Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. Very smooth and easy to sip for a high proof bourbon. I have not yet had a chance to sample Cask Strength Marker’s 46. It’s on my list!

    It’s funny. This post is all about price gouging and the liquor stores guilty of these practices. And at the very top is a banner ad for just such a store.

    $200-500 for old forester birthday bourbon. $1300+ for pappy.

    Tsk tsk. Lol

    Nice post. It’s a very interesting time for booze in general. I’ve been into high end pours for a long time but have just recently noticed bourbon. Never considered it high end stuff. Hunting it is fun, but for new bourbonrs, a quandry presents itself when a “unicorn” is found. What to do with it? I’ve got a bottle of Seasoned Wood staring at me accusingly on my shelf and I can’t decide whether I should save it, sell it, or funnel it.

    I live in the state of Oregon where liquor sales are controlled by the state alone. They set the prices so there is no gouging, they decide which stores around the state get what and how much. Stores can order what they want, but they might not get it.

    Elmer T Lee hit the stores here in November and was in ample supply until about late January/early February where the last of the supplies dried up and now can’t be found anywhere here. But it was nice because it was $33.95 everywhere. Weller 12 Year could be found without the price hikes (now sold out until the next release), Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is $49.95 (batch 10 is drying up here and is a little harder to find depending on what area of the state you’re in).

    I talked with an employee at a liquor store down the street from where I live and we were talking about all the limited releases that tend to come out in November (specifically Eagle Rare 17, George T. Stagg, Sazerac 18, the Van Winkle line). Amazingly here in Oregon the Eagle Rare 17 retails for $79.95, GTS retails for not much more. The Pappy 23 Year? It’s $249.00 if you’re one of the lucky ones who are able to obtain one when a store opens in the morning that has some. The price then drops for all the other Pappy Years younger than the 23. Two of which are under $100. The crappy part is a lot of the bars and restaurants tend to get some of these rare ones (who are these liquor stores biggest accounts) before the public sees them, but a certain amount that stores get do have to go out to the public, but there is a little bit of manager’s discretion too of how many of these rare ones they actually want the bars and restaurants to get and just selling them to the general public, but often they feel like they have to honor they’re big accounts in some regards.

    Voters have turned down twice I think it is to allow grocery stores etc to sell liquor because everyone saw what happened in Washington State. Voters approved it, and what was supposed to be competitive and cheaper pricing for booze turned into somewhat of a nightmare as the state government used a loop hole to jack the tax rates on liquor and in some cases saw prices increase more on certain brands than what they were when the state controlled prices and sales. People for it are trying again and have to get 88,000 signatures by July to get it on the November ballot.

    While the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is an old and outdated form of selling liquor from the time it was formed during the Prohibition era (they’re in charge of marijuana sales and stores too at it’s legal here now) at least with the state setting prices, there is no gouging and often prices on everything tends to match, or maybe be a little cheaper than in other states or maybe a little more expensive in some cases too, at least there is no fear here that you’re going to pay twice, three, or four times the price of what something really should be. Bars on the other hand can charge whatever they want for pours on whatever it is they’re selling and that I’m ok with.

    I gotta disagree that it’s not price gouging.

    While I did some research as to the legal definition of price gouging I believe an obvious point has been overlooked. It seems to me that, in the examples given at least, prices were deemed gouged and therefore illegal (based on the difference of price pre/post event) on services or products without an MSRP (such as gas or hotel rooms or bottled water). Just because there is no legal precedent for items not deemed essential for the public good, doesn’t mean a similar code of ethics doesn’t exist. Furthermore, in the case of bourbon (of which for the sake of this argument begrudgingly consider nonessential), many bourbons and specifically the limited editions we all vie for, have an MSRP easily obtained (and more often known by the individuals seeking them out). If the bourbon industry really wants to put an end to the secondary/retail ‘gouging’ they would nix the ‘S’ in MSRP and mandate what their products are sold for. While one could view the outrageous secondary/flipper/douche-bag-retailer’s prices as an economic effect, or as a form of ‘not gouging’, I believe most people would consider $400 for a $49.00 bottle a form of price gouging. That seems to be common sense to be. To alleviate gouging or ‘not-gouging’, don’t pay those prices, don’t support the secondary or flippers or retailers marking them up. Open that rare bottle, gift it, or buy a new one for MSRP.

    It is simple economics and Blake used the correct term referring to elasticity. Demand exceeds supply, and prices go up. How much? The companies don’t know what the real market prices are until they see what people will pay to establish a true “market price” for the goods. I don’t see it going away soon.

    However, patience is a virtue. This recent demand has caused an enormous surge of capital investment in Kentucky. More stills, more rickhouses everywhere. The distilleries are running round the clock and laying down more barrels than ever before. Eventually when all this new capacity is at the 5 year old+ age we are going to start seeing way more supply. Will it be the “unicorns”? Not not for another 10+ years, but hopefully at least things like the Weller line, ETL, ER10, ECBP and others will be readily available again at whatever the MSRP will be at the time. Maybe not a return to the “glut” days but the supply/demand imbalance will get better.

    Now, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people bashing LE bourbons over the last few years saying things like “I don’t need Pappy and BTAC because I have my Blantons, Four Roses private selections, and OWA or W12”. Well, in most parts of the country Blantons is streaky at best, W12 is gone, OWA is streaky, and Four Roses has jacked up private barrel prices and nobody ever seems to mention that. Those prices seem to be $65 or more in many areas now. Tasty, but decidedly straying from what many people claim with all the comments about how everything is OK because there are so many good pours under $50. Oh, and the ran off Jimmy, which does not make me feel good about them in the future, above and beyond their recent climbing prices.

    I am a retailer in Louisiana and understand the scarcity of those LE’s. Buffalo Trace is the most frustrating of the distilleries. They are very disingenuous when their MSRP is less than my wholesaler’s cost. Louisiana is cut out of the market place for many things we have gotten for years. I will admit that all LE’s are hard to get of course not just BT’s. We do sell our LE’s at the same mark up as any other bourbon, that’s our policy but of course the LE’s are stored in the back for our best bourbon customers. They come first. That’s our caveat. I really don’t see this ever changing in the foreseeable future. I hope I am wrong but I doubt it. We do buy barrel selects to help give our customers something out of the ordinary to pick and on the rare occasion open LE’s to let our customers enjoy. Our policy is not to jack up prices just because you can but I do know all retailers don’t think the same way.

    Blake, I love your blog and respect your perspective on all things bourbon. That said, and with all due respect, you’ve assigned a definition to the word “gouging” that just so happens to fit your position.

    The idea that one can gouge only on essential items (you mentioned water and gas, specifically after a disaster) is not part of any formal definition that I couldn’t find. Webster’s dictionary defines “gouging” as “an excessive or improper charge for something.” Most would contend that $500 for a bottle that retails at $49.99 is both.

    The terms “excessive” and “improper” both rely on some other established value to derive meaning. In the case of commercially sold spirits, we have an benchmark expressly designed to establish a reasonable price: Its called MSRP. This is crucially important, as it represents the opinion and position of the actual manufacture.

    Why is it that we don’t balk at the price of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild at the liquor store? Because we know that the lion’s share of that price is set by the manufacturer. they chose to sell at a certain point for a specific reason, as do bourbon distilleries. Without naming names, I’ve spoken to a few distillery owners who explain why they haven’t raised prices by saying: “We price our spirits for the Everyman/woman.” When liquor stores gouge, they effectively short circuit the intent of the distillery.

    Now, is store gouging illegal? Of course not. We all agree on that. But just because something is legal does not make it right.

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