As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came across a photo posted to a Texas bourbon group of someone holding a bottle of Weller Special Reserve prominently next to their crotch in their car with the caption "huge score in the wild!" First, can we get away from the crotch shots please - and second - since when did this become a "huge score" out in the wild, especially in Texas which, similar to Ohio, sees the lion's share of allocations of Weller Special Reserve?
Year after year, what used to be common bottles are becoming not just uncommon but completely unavailable. Often times, when one does come across an allocated bottle, the pricing is not just high, but stupid high and well above what even secondary markups would entail. Let's not forget that the secondary pricing most times includes shipping that bottle direct to your front door even as well!
Allocated Bourbon is another term for rare or limited or otherwise hard to get bourbon. These are the Pappy Van Winkles, the E.H. Taylor Barrel Proofs, and the Four Roses Limited Editions of the world. They are not the Mellow Corn, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked or Jim Beams that you can pick up any day of the week at most liquor stores. They are highly desirable bottles that a seller is allocated (e.g., provided) in a certain limited quantity.
The bulk of allocated bourbon goes to chain liquor stores with few coveted bottles finding their way to independent shops. Much of the allocation is based upon volume of sales in a carrot-and-stick type approach whereby bigger stores have much more opportunity to get a case or two of something special. When distributors review who they're going to reward with allocations, it's rarely going to smaller shops that move limited amounts of product. Generally speaking, however, there is not much transparency in how the allocation process works in most places.
In some states with state-owned liquor stores there are raffles or lotteries that allow the opportunity to purchase allocated bottles. In principle this sounds great, allowing for an equal opportunity to get hands on allocated bourbon. Unfortunately, even in these situations you're possibly just getting the leftovers. Just earlier this year six officials with the Oregon state liquor commission were found to have used their positions to procure and purchase Pappy and other allocated bottles. I'm sure this is more commonplace than we'd expect, and really shouldn't surprise anyone.
As bourbon continues to gain in popularity more bourbons are moving to an allocated status, which is bad news for most of us. Even some retailers are having a hard time getting certain products, or the same number of various products they used to receive in years past. Interestingly, depending on what part of the country you're in as well may make a particular bourbon allocated. In the example earlier of Weller Special Reserve, in Texas this particular bottling is still available though much less available than what is has been in years past. In Texas, Weller Special Reserve sits out on a shelf and is usually priced fairly cheap. Contrast that to a liquor store in my hometown in Illinois which puts Weller Special Reserve in a large safe along with things like Pappy and Eagle Rare 17. Location means everything.
With the demand for bourbon being what it is, the supply of bourbon is not keeping up with demand. Granted many distilleries have been announcing expansions, such as Buffalo Trace's $1.2 billion expansion, but bourbon shortages aren't going to go away anytime soon as bourbon needs time to develop in the barrel and that process is measured in years, and for the kind of bourbon you're likely wanting, you won't be able to count those years on one hand. Expect some time to pass before we see any sort of remedy to the current market woes plaguing Bourboneurs everywhere.
One reason that bottles are becoming less and less available also is that owners of retail locations are siphoning off allocated bottles and pushing them onto the secondary market where they can charge much more than MSRP. A scroll through any number of secondary sites reveals entire cases of coveted bottles, and in some cases pictured amongst piles of other cases of even rarer bottles. And, sure, these aren't all retail store owners, but the handful that aren't are most likely tied in pretty tight with folks who own or manage these locations and are likely getting a cut of the action.
So, you're probably wondering with all this glum news if one can even get allocated bourbon anymore? The answer is yes, but with an ever-shrinking slice of the pie, just know that your chances continue to drop of walking into a store and actually finding something that isn't going to put a huge dent in your wallet. It does happen and to prepare yourself we suggest reading the Bourboneur Guide to Rare Bourbon Hunting as a primer. Much like many of the lotteries that exist both private and public for getting allocated bourbon, the hunt in the wild is a game of chance and draws on luck more than anything. Of course, you can always slip down to one of your favorite local watering holes and forgo all the hunting around and just sit back and enjoy some expensive pours. Beyond crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, there are a number of Secondary Bourbon Markets that exist on the fringes of Facebook and other sites where you can find a lot of different bourbon...those purchases come with risk of getting a counterfeit, which is why some distilleries are stepping up their game with counterfeit detection measures like NFC tags. Good luck finding these groups however, as they're not just out there advertising their existence.
The fairytale land of MSRP is a great story, but unfortunately for most folks out there not a non-fiction one. More often than not, you'll be spending above retail on any particular allocated bottle and sure you can bellyache and pitch a fit all you want but the market is what the market is, and the market is hot and if you want something bad enough, you'll pay for it. As it stands, people are lined up in droves willing to pay top dollar for a chance to have most allocated bourbons. It's easy enough to know the bottom price (MSRP) for any particular bottle, but that doesn't do much good when you're rarely going to see it. You need to know what the top is so you can negotiate properly. For that, there's no better resource than our free Bourbon Blue Book which captures weekly secondary sales and provides a top, bottom and average price for hundreds of coveted bottles of brownwater.
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Bourboneur Glencairn Glass