Fall (specifically September to November) is the season of hunting for rare whiskey. It’s within this window of time when many of the most sought-after bourbon bottles come to market – otherwise known as “the drop.” It may seem odd to be writing about something that’s not going to happen for another eight or nine months but you’re going to need that time and there’s no better time to start prepping for the drop than the present. Lets face it, those garage bar shelves don't just fill themselves.
In a previous post I wrote that I have spent a considerable amount of time on “the hunt” trying to find bottles in the wild and have come away with rather lackluster results…that doesn’t mean you can’t find something and shouldn’t try if you have the time to put in, and ambition to really make it happen. I mean, it wasn’t but just two years ago that a man I refer to as “the unicorn hunter” just happened to walk in to a liquor store and pick up a bottle of William Larue Weller at retail price. It most assuredly happens and it can happen to you, but you're likely going to have to put some elbow grease into it.
Setting the Stage | Scouting Bourbon
So, first thing is first, and that is getting a lay for the land and understanding where the real opportunities may exist to snag allocated bottles in your area. Liquor stores are not all created equal and you can easily get a sense for that when you peruse around their selection. You’ll see, going store to store, one stores bottom shelf may be another stores top shelf.
In most states (thirty-four of them to be exact) the three-tier system is at play - supplier/wholesaler/retailer - suppliers, or distilleries, parse out a certain amount of product per state in these areas, wholesalers then determine which locations receive these unique bottles based on sales volumes, etc. finally trickling down to the retailer who in some instances may only get one or two of any particular bottle. If your sales are mostly Ancient Age and Old Grand Dad (and don’t get me wrong – Old Grand Dad is actually not a terrible pour) you’re probably not going to see some Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year-Old hit your store.
When you set your sights on “the store” you’ve got some work ahead of you to lay the foundation for what will hopefully be a fruitful venture. Given the outlay of rare bottles is fairly limited at any particular location, if you’re an unknown, random dude inquiring about Blantons or Pappy you can forget about it. Not only are you an annoyance, but your chances of beating out Pete who comes in once a week and knows everybody by name are zilch. I actually saw a sign once at a liquor store that said, “don’t ask about Blantons or Pappy.” Moral of the story is don’t add your voice to the echo chamber of every other Harry, Dick and Tom launching the same ol’ line of inquiry.
Pay to Play
Second and equally important to building rapport is being a paying customer. If you’re not spending money in their store, then why are they going to care to help you out? Make it a point to purchase all your liquor in one or two places. At the end of the day, it’s a business and just like any other business, it’s set up on the principle of making money. Putting the shoe on the other foot, if you were managing a store, you’re most apt to reward the guy that’s your best patron and not the window shopper with a sparkle in his eye when you mention Pappy.
Increase Your Odds | Lotteries and Point Systems
Although not every store has a lottery or point system, many do, and it can be advantageous to participate. I recently became a Grand Reserve Member with Total Wine for instance – do I shop there regularly? No. But, they had a promotion whereby you could get 10x points on glassware and bar accessories. I spent $250 (normally, it would take $2,500 @ 10 points for every $1 spent to achieve this feat), got a bunch of odds and ends that I gave out as Christmas presents this past year and am in a lottery now that includes all the Pappy’s and Buffalo Traces Antique Collection. Wish me luck! At the end of the day, it’s another avenue to find your way to gaining priority access for select allocated products.
Stalking Your Prey | Social Media
You’d be surprised what you can learn about allocated bottle drops and random lotteries online. It’s not entirely uncommon for a liquor store to push out information on their Facebook or Instagram feeds, so be sure to like and follow these stores especially as “the season” approaches.
Dealing with Defeat
Maybe you’ve found yourself at the end of the year and have no allocated bottles in hand. That’s a possible and likely scenario that you should prepare yourself for. The good news is that you can drown your sorrows in a pile of whiskey bars and restaurants that have some of those bottles you were so hoping to add to your top shelf – just be prepared to shell out a pretty penny!