Threats of an impending bourbon shortage hang like a dark cloud over the whiskey world. Consumers have yet to see evidence of a dwindling supply, however. Quite the contrary, in fact; bottle shops seem to dedicate increasing swaths of real estate to America's native spirit. Considering the time and space necessary for proper barrel-aging, it's nothing short of a small miracle that many exceptionally crafted bourbons of the day retail for well under $40. Then, of course, there are those that command more than 10 times that price. Are they necessarily 10 times better, or is the bottle just ten times prettier? Here are some factors to take into consideration before investing in a premium or potentially rare bourbon to add to your liquor cabinet.
Be mindful of hype.
At this point, virtually every whiskey drinker is aware of Pappy Van Winkle and how impossible it is to obtain. Bottles of the 23-year expression can be found online for $200 — empty
bottles. If you want a filled one, good luck. You'll need about $4000 and a prayer. But the very same whiskey retailed for $150 just six short years ago. The only thing that's changed since then is that Anthony Bourdain called it the best whiskey on the planet, and irrational hype snowballed from there. Even the younger varieties, like Lot B — aged for 12 years — can fetch $500 at your local liquor shop. As has been well-documented, it's pretty much the same exact juice as W.L Weller 12 Year — a bourbon made at the same distillery, aged for the same number of years in the same exact warehouse. When consumers caught wind of this, the Weller doubled from $50 to $100 a bottle, seemingly overnight. It's still a relative bargain. And probably a smart investment, as it is now tangentially connected to so-called Pappy Mania.
Age plays a role
in price, of course. But most casual drinkers fail to realize that older isn't always better. The 'sweet spot' for bourbon is commonly accepted to be in the 10-15 year range. Anything older than that risks taking in too much flavor from the oak in which it rests, drowning out the gentler notes of the grain that went into the whiskey itself. Sorry Pappy 23 lovers, but most bourbon distillers would prefer a younger, and far cheaper alternative.
can be a smart move for collectors and connoisseurs, alike. Take, for example, Knob Creek's 2015 Belmont Stakes commemorative release. This one-off was on the shelves for a few weeks with a label that will never be reproduced. The juice inside is exactly the same as regular, everyday Knob Creek bourbon. It's a sensationally complex, 9-year-old whiskey well deserving of its $35 price tag. After American Pharaoh won the Triple Crown, bottles of the special release flew off the shelves. Unopened, it's value is likely to increase greatly as a collector's item. Here, though, as is so often the case in high-end spirits, the bottle is more important the juice itself.
If you truly enjoy what's in the bottle, scarcity of supply
should be your primary concern. Sometimes a shortage is artificially manufactured, to drive up demand, but other times, a stash of exclusive barrels is "uncovered" in the back of a rickhouse, allowing enthusiasts to obtain an old expression that, once depleted, will never be available again. Such is the case with Blade and Bow 22-Year. It slept for over two decades in Louisville's now-defunct Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Although no new whiskey has been created there since the early '90s, it has served as an operational barrelhouse ever since. It wasn't until recently that they opted to release some of their oldest remaining stock, from which came the undeniably clean, vanilla-rich, Blade and Bow 22. It's already been named "Best Straight [aged two years or more] Bourbon" at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, earlier this year. If you have your eyes set on the elusive Pappy 23, a $179 bottle of 22-year-old Blade and Bow is a sensible — and far more attainable — alternative. The former, although in severely limited quantity, is still released every autumn, the latter is a one shot deal. Imagine how it might be valued once it's gone for good?
As it's appeal continues to broaden amongst the general population, all bourbons potentially run the risk of becoming scarce. So you might as well appreciate your $30 bottles while they last. You can also do your part to stave off disaster: discourage your vodka-drinking friends from ever sampling the brown stuff