There's Still Great Value In American Whiskey
By Andrew Owen
If you've been an American whiskey consumer (particularly a bourbon consumer) over the past couple of years or more, you have witnessed firsthand the rapid rise in bourbon's popularity, and along with it, a rise in prices, several losses of age statements, new allocation policies for whiskeys that used to collect dust, and an dizzying array of "limited editions" and "special releases" carrying head-scratching price tags. Many of your favorite bourbons now command crowds that gather hours and even days before a store releases them for sale, and many of the bottles purchased at that store end up for sale in secondary groups hours later for 6 times what their retail price was. Or even worse, your local store finally gets in one of your favorite bourbons and you discover that they are now the ones charging $130 for what should be a $25 bourbon. In other words, while it's great that so many people are beginning to experience and appreciate the quality of American whiskey, longtime drinkers have every reason to be frustrated at the current state of things. What has the American whiskey industry come to when your friends are bragging about finding a bourbon with MSRP of $60 on a store shelf for "the amazing deal of only $90!"
With new consumers of any product, their definition of "normal" is what they are indoctrinated with when they enter the market. Many folks just entering the bourbon and American rye market have no standard of comparison. They see an Old Weller Antique priced like it is in the picture above and they know it's a rare whiskey with good reputation so they don't hesitate to buy it. They see a new "limited release" rye whiskey with a fancy label and clever marketing for $130, and while many seasoned enthusiasts balk at the suggested retail, new drinkers don't give a second thought to it. The shelves clear faster than you can imagine, and then the poor souls who were late to the party develop major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) as all their friends start posting their purchases on social media. Luckily for them a savvy flipper offers them a chance to make their dreams come true by giving them the opportunity to own this tremendous whiskey for the reasonable resell price of $300.
The above picture is a post from a fellow in one of my whiskey groups. To be honest, in a very non-condescending way I feel bad for him. I'm very happy that he obtained a bourbon he was very excited about, and I did not comment my thoughts to rain on his parade, but I think he's been fooled by the mainstream hype machine into believing that he actually got a good deal by only spending 3 times as much money as what the whiskey in that bottle is actual worth. Let me say that again. What the whiskey in that bottle is actually worth. I'm not talking about how much one can sucker someone into ultimately paying for it; you know that old phrase "an item's worth is whatever the highest bidder pays for it". I'm talking about what the experience is worth when you pull the cork out, pour the liquid in a glass, smell it, and taste it.
I know many of you may disagree with my opinion on this, and that's fine. I'm not here to provide my solutions to things like these. I'm not savvy in economics or bubbles or consumer trends. I'm just a guy who loves to drink good whiskey and has a limited amount of money to spend on it. So rather than continue to focus on what may be wrong with the American whiskey market, I want to spend the rest of this article focusing on the positives. There IS still value - tremendous value - to be found in the bourbon aisle. Great quality, value and availability can be found in most price categories, but for this article lets focus on the lower end; let's say under $30. One need not sacrifice their desire for quality whiskeys at the alter of limited spending power. Let's take another look at the feature picture from atop this article...
There are a dozen American whiskeys here - 7 standard mash bourbons, 2 wheated bourbons, and 3 rye whiskeys - pulled from my own cabinet. All of these have been rated by me at 70 or higher (in other words "good"), and 7 of them have been rated over 80 ("excellent"). All of them were purchased for under $30. I am not writing this to sound boastful, and I know that not all of these pictured whiskeys are available for those prices in your area, or even available, period, in your area. My point is to illustrate that affordability, availability (take out the OWA and Heaven Hill bottled in bond if these are scarce in your neighborhood), and quality can all coexist. These dozen whiskeys are just a small sample size representing a much larger pool that meets these three criteria.
Let me be clear - I am not condemning premium or limited edition whiskeys. I am attempting to offer hope to those discouraged by the inability to acquire - due to price or availability - the whiskeys that everyone likes to brag about on social media.
So how do you know if a budget-friendly whiskey will be a quality pour before you buy it? The word "rot gut" exists for a reason, and many whiskeys inhabiting the bottom shelves will taste like they belong there. I'll mention just a few tips that I have learned:
- Look for things "bottled-in-bond", which certifies that they meet several standards of quality, including being aged at least 4 years and being bottled at a solid 50% ABV.
- Speaking of ABV, I generally recommend avoiding anything bottled at the legal minimum 40%. Whiskeys diluted down to the minimum typically are not crafted with maximum quality in mind.
- Age statements are your friends. I am obviously not an age-statement-onlyist, but as the NAS trend continues, I do pay extra attention to brands that continue to identify themselves with a minimum age standard.
- Find something made by a distillery you trust, or that makes other whiskeys that you enjoy. Most of the major U.S. distilleries have an offering in each price category. If you really liked that pour of EH Taylor Single Barrel you had at your buddy's place, you'll probably be a fan of Buffalo Trace because those two whiskeys share the same mash bill and come from the same still. This requires some due diligence on your part, as you may need to search the fine print of a bottle to find out who actually makes it (do you know off of the top of your head who makes Old Crow or Ezra Brooks?), and even then it's not always clear. Believe it or not, many bottles contain fake distillery names for marketing purposes. Do some online research, ask here in the comments, or if you are part of the WBSE Facebook group, pose the question there if you are unsure.
- Find reviewers you trust and see what their experience was like with a whiskey. If your five favorite bloggers all had good things to say about Very Old Barton, you've found yourself a pretty safe bet.
So let's wrap this up. Don't let anyone tell you that you need to spend big money to get big flavor. Don't get me wrong, I love myself some Pikesville Rye or Old Forester 1920 and think that their prices as well as the prices of many other premium whiskeys are absolutely justified. But high quality American whiskey still exists in every price range, and the highly allocated and mega hyped whiskeys that dominate your social media feed are not the only whiskeys worth pursuing.
If you are anything like me, you're not looking for a trophy bottle to sit unopened on your shelf so that you can brag that you have it. You're looking for a high quality experience of smell and taste. Buy what is reasonable for your budget, know that if you do your due diligence you can still get a very high quality whiskey, and for goodness sake stop worrying about how many "likes" it will get in your Facebook group! I'm happy to let Johnny Millennial command all the likes for his unopened bottle of Weller 12 that he snatched for the amazing deal of $75. He can have his moment of Facebook fame, and I'll happily sit back and enjoy a wonderful drinking experience from my $25 bottle of Henry McKenna 10 Year. Feel free to let me know what your favorite accessible and budget friendly whiskeys are in the comments below! Cheers!
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