On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe puzzle over the surprisingly confusing bourbon market — one that is suddenly saturated with special, collectible bottles that vary wildly in price and are rarely, if ever, available at retail. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the Friday VinePair Podcast full week back to work.
Z: 2023. Our first podcast recording since you dropped some pretty big news and the “Best of Drinks” podcast, Adam, congratulations.
A: Thank you very much.
Z: We recorded the intro and after that episode, before I’d actually listened to your take and I was-
A: I was going to go last anyways.
Z: I knew. I knew. I was-
J: I guess I should listen to it because I don’t know what you’re talking about.
A: You didn’t listen to the episode?
J: I don’t listen to this podcast.
J: Because I don’t want to hear myself ever again.
A: I listened to that because I wanted to hear what everyone else said.
Z: That’s a great one to listen to. You’re barely present on it, Joanna.
A: We got a dissertation on mezcal from Dave Infante.
Z: I promise I edited that down for some degree of concision.
A: I’m sure you did. I love Dave, but Dave writes a lot. I was not surprised. It was a very good segue, though. Keith had some beautiful words that he shared.
Z: Keith, he was moving. I actually thought I was surprised at how emotional it was, which not surprised, I guess, but pleased. That was good.
A: Keith was moving.
J: Wait, what was your news?
A: Oh, I shared that I don’t have a drinking buddy right now and so my favorite moment of drinking this year was the last time we hung out together and got a little drunk at-
J: That’s so nice.
A: Anyways, this Friday, Joanna, the topic is all yours.
J: Yes. What I want to talk about is how bourbon has become an impenetrable market-
A: For the consumer.
J: For the consumer, generally, but for the consumer. I wanted to talk about this because I was recently trying to buy some nice bourbon and found myself kind of stumped on, like, what direction to go in, and how to take $200 to $300 and make it worth my while.
A: That is really interesting. I think what we’re seeing is bourbon has taken on the same — bourbon used to be the liquid for every person. It was like this accessible liquid that because it’s in charred new oak barrels is a little bit sweeter. It’s vanilla-ey. The palate is more pleasing to the majority of Americans. It was affordable and it was the anti-Scotch. Scotch was always the spirits version of wine and that like, everyone was — if you didn’t really understand it and collect it, you basically looked at it in the same way you look at the high-end wine section of the wine shop. You don’t really know who these producers are. You can’t say the names. You don’t know if the $150 on this single malt is worth it or not; is a 12-year-old that’s $200 better than the 18-year-old that’s only $100 but comes from a distillery that you’ve never heard of before. Do you just go to the one-brand Macallan? I think what’s happening is that that’s occurring and bourbon, to an even more insane degree and obviously much faster because you have all these things. I think what’s happened with bourbon that’s crazy is that because we’re such a huge country, not only do you have a few of these distilleries that are celebrated, but then you have all these distilleries that are able to open up all over the country, and produce bourbon.
J: Using liquid from other places.
A: Using liquid from other places or just following the rules of however long they have to keep it in the barrel, et cetera, and then charging a lot for it and putting it in a nice bottle and being like, hey, this is quality. I think a lot of consumers have no idea. Then there’s this fear that also at this point in time, if you’re bringing the bourbon to someone, maybe the person knows that it’s good bourbon or they don’t, or they look it up and wonder how much you spent on it. For example, we are huge fans here at VinePair of Evan Williams single barrel. We think it’s like one of the best value bourbons on the market in terms of it’s a quality bourbon that does really really well at tastings, but it’s still very affordable. You can still find it in the $30 range. Right now I’m looking at it in Drizly in New York City for $30.99. If you’re bringing that then as a gift, right, to someone for a birthday expensive, some milestone, even though that is actually quality liquid in the bottle, then they look it up they’re like, “F*ck Joanna, man. She spent $30 on the bourbon. That’s bullsh*t.”
A: It’s really because bourbon is in a very weird place right now because of that.
J: Also because if you’re doing some research because you want to pick a good bottle and then you’re trying to find it and source it, there’s such price discrepancies as well. You look at the MSRP and then you see what you can actually buy it for. It’s so dramatic in a lot of instances. You can have an MSRP for $95, but then you can find that bottle on sale at places that actually have it for $300 or worse, or you can find one for $200 or $400. I think that component of this is just so challenging.
Z: I want to add a little bit more context to both of these points. I think one of them that should be elaborated on is when the bourbon craze first got going, the thing that I think drove it was this idea that within this broad category of bourbon, which was largely devoted to producing widely appreciated large-scale production of the standard bottlings of your large distilleries or your large brands, there were these little things that had fallen through the cracks. There were these smaller distilleries mostly in Kentucky who didn’t necessarily have as much reach, but who produced great bourbon. There were some one-off bottlings or single barrel bottlings or things like that, that again, didn’t have the same level of production but you could find around, and/or sometimes you had this kind of legacy labels that had been reborn under a different guise, but were maybe using an old recipe or sometimes were bottling old stock or who knows what? What the bourbon industry learned from all this was that a certain set of people, the taters, as Adam likes to call them, get excited about-
A: They are called the taters.
Z: Not just Adam, they are called the taters, I know. It’s just so fun to credit you on this podcast because I think you love saying the word. It’s a good word. No criticism there. I think that some part of the industry has reoriented around that group of people in a way that says, to capture that market, to retain that market, we have to constantly be putting out new bottles, different bottles, things that are limited release. It’s like, I was never a huge collector of baseball cards, but I was definitely a little bit into it as a kid. What I think the widespread telling of the baseball card industry in its crash in the late ’90s and early 2000s, was that as more and more people entered the game, and as the card companies started producing more and more special one-off cards or sets and claiming that these things were very expensive and very valuable, suddenly the market as a whole looked around and said, wait a second. Everyone is producing these foil cards, holographic cards, cards with pieces of jerseys attached to them or whatever the f*ck they were doing. At the same time, what most people buying baseball cards wanted was to see their favorite players and collect them. I think what we are potentially seeing here in bourbon is for people who like to drink bourbon, I agree. It should not be so difficult to both find good bottles of bourbon and for you to risk feeling like a moron when you try to go do something that you have no idea. If you were someone who 10 years ago was like, “I like Maker’s Mark.” Now you go look at, say, all the offerings from Maker’s Mark that might be potentially available either in a store wherever you live or online or through secondary sites, et cetera. It’s overwhelming. Obviously, Maker’s Mark is far from alone. That just happened to be the one that came to mind to me. I think that it is this combination of, as we said at the top this weird aping of Scotch and of fine wine of hyper-specialization and higher price points, but also a flooding of the market by these distilleries of we’re going to put out so many collectors-edition offerings that they perhaps robbed that term of all meaning. I think maybe they have.
A: I think that’s actually a really interesting point, is that the problem with the bourbon market right now is that the brands that are highly collectible become highly collectible as an entire brand. For example-
J: The whole portfolio.
A: E.H. Taylor, all of it’s collectible. Even the entry-level, you’ll find for around $100 in a lot of places because everyone’s decided the same with Weller. All of Weller is now hard to find. The problem for consumers is that — we’ve written a bunch about how the Maker’s Stave Series is one of the best bourbons on the market right now. The problem for the general consumer is that, you know, Maker’s is this huge brand and so you’re like, the regular Maker’s is still $30 or $40, $45 whatever. Am I just buying like that? As Zach was putting it, as a collectible for $150 or $200, you don’t know because the entire portfolio hasn’t become massively collectible, but Maker’s just makes a f*ck ton of liquid. They just do. They always have. They make it really well. I think a lot of people would say Maker’s is a great bourbon, everyday bourbon for most people. I think that that makes it hard to convince the person going for a gift. When you see it’s Stave Series or a barrel pick of it, which are pretty easy to find, you should buy that at $150 for someone when all you’ve heard is Pappy, Taylor, all these other names, Blanton’s, but those things you should look for. Again, and those all, which I think we’ve talked about before, is interesting because those are all coming from one distillery, too. We’re basically talking about how you could imagine if there was one winery that was considered to just be, all in all, anything they produced was better than everything else out there. That’s basically the way Buffalo Trace is viewed at this point. You could never see that. You don’t see that in Scotch either. There’s not one distillery in Scotland that everyone’s like, every Scotch they put out is better than anything anyone else is doing. That’s what’s happened with Buffalo Trace. It also makes it really hard because that’s what the consumer looking for that special bottle is expecting is to get something special from Buffalo Trace.
J: I think we have this concept of the unicorn and it’s very pervasive in bourbon right now. A lot of it is like, is the liquid actually good or are these bottles so coveted because they’re hard to find? One example from just my recent search, and I can’t remember the brand, but I was reading reviews and this bottle was really hard to find and very expensive, but the liquid wasn’t. Some people didn’t think the liquid was that great, but it was like a customizable bottle or something. I was like, “Please. I can’t.” I think what you guys are saying is right because it is like fine wine, and like, in Scotch, it’s collectible. I find personally that it’s really damaged the marketplace for it.
Z: It’s funny because on the one hand, I think that’s definitely true that you have seen this dilution of these special bottlings because there are so many of them and it’s so hard to understand what might make any given one of them special. On the other hand, I do think something that has happened interestingly in bourbon is that maybe because of this or perhaps just unrelated but simultaneously, the quality of the bourbon that you can get in the — I wouldn’t say the bottom-shelf bottlings, but the mid-shelf bottlings has gotten so good. The quality of bourbon that is widely available in the country is actually shockingly high, whether it’s the everyone single barrel that Adam was talking about earlier. There’s just so many more resources available to distilleries. There’s been so much put into building new distilleries, remodeling existing distilleries, the prestige attached to bourbon distilling has attracted a lot of talented distillers from all over the place to come work mostly in Kentucky but wherever bourbon is made, to some extent. Because it’s become such a popular category, I think the consumer demand as a whole has obviously gotten much higher. Also, in some way the expectation has gotten higher as well. I do think that it’s an interesting thing where in some sense, I think no other — I’m not sure there’s another thing in drinks that exactly maps on because one of the reasons why I think you haven’t seen — You’ve seen these bourbon distilleries take on different paths. Buffalo Trace have a different reputation than any given, say, single malt distillery in Scotland is that the story of Scotland and of distilleries is still pretty heavily tied to where they are, the water source, some of the local peat, et cetera, the barley, all these things that are rooted in the part of Scotland they have to be located in. Obviously, bourbon is heavily tied to Kentucky. There’s reasons for that the historical, and to some extent, the natural resources on hand in Kentucky. The story of bourbon has so much more been about the individuals and the distilleries and their recipes and their legacy and their practices. They have taken a different path and I’m not sure that the one that they are walking in this high-end category is the right one. I think we’ve all shared some real and understandable hesitations, but I do think that what it has allowed is for the quality of those lower- and mid-tier bottlings to rise in a way that just is harder to do in fine wine. It’s harder to do in single malt whiskey because of — We don’t have time to get into all the ways in which those things are different, but I do think it is not an exact parallel.
A: I think it’s interesting. I do think bourbon is one of these things that is going to continue to grow. I think for the time being it will continue to be pretty — as it brings more people into the category it will continue to be pretty confusing to most people besides those people knowing the big names.
A: Hopefully they will get more interested and do more research and read and try to learn. Hopefully, people who sell the bourbon will be accessible and friendly and not snobby about it. I think the problem right now that I see is, because there are only a few of them, when someone comes and asks about it, you find often the person in the shop is like, we don’t have Blanton’s. Why don’t we have Blanton’s? They’re saying Blanton’s is really hard to find. You might not realize that. It’s very rare you would find it nowadays, but here are five other bourbons of the quality of Blanton’s around the same price point that are just as impressive or something. We have to get to that stage, I think in bourbon, so that consumers feel more comfortable or it’s just going to always be something where people just are looking for the biggest brand.
J: Right. I think that’s why it’s a huge opportunity for some of these craft brands.
A: Yes, I do, too. I do, too. Let us know what you think. Do you feel like bourbon’s become more or less accessible? Shoot us an email at [email protected]. I’m also still waiting on some of you to hit us up with the best things you drank this last year. We will see you all back on Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
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Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.