One less place to find rare bourbons…for now

For those in the know, Facebook has become one of the best places to buy, sell and trade rare bottles of bourbon and other whiskeys around.  More reliable than Craigslist (thanks to well-manicured member lists), and without geographical limitations, a number of Facebook groups give users the change to deal in all manners of hard to find whiskey, from Van Winkles to BTAC, the newest Orphan Barrels to dusty bottles from prohibition.  As more and more retailers begin marking products up to match prices of the secondary markets, they provided both relief (in offering other means to find your holy grail) and frustration (an increasing number of ‘flippers,’ sometimes posting pictures while still in the store and soliciting higher prices).

These are no more.

As whiskey writer Fred Minnick details here, Facebook shut down many of the sites last night (including at least three of which I was a member of).  So far, the reason has not come forward, but that doesn’t stop the interwebs from speculating.  Whether it was because of direct pressure from companies, or even governments (remember, selling liquor without a license is illegal in many states), the exchanges have been driven further underground.  The bottom line is Facebook is still a free service, and they don’t have to give a reason if they don’t want to.

Read Minnick’s post for more details.  My money says that within days, they will be back up – albeit a little leaner – and it will be business as usual.

“Instant Bourbon” – Red, White & Bourbon takes a look

Over at the great bourbon blog Red, White & Bourbon, they take a look at the recent debate about ‘instant’ or artificially aged bourbon.  We’ve tried a few of these – Jefferson Ocean 2, for example, and have a few others on deck like Cleveland Bourbon, but RW&B really takes an in-depth look at the methods, and controversy surrounding them.

Check it out – it’s a great read!

Red, White & Bourbon: The Fallacy of Instant Bourbon Claims

The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle – Part Two

Back in November, I did the part one of a post about the hunt for “Unobtanium” – Pappy Van Winkle.  Coming off of another fruitless season of hunting for Pappy (and several other ‘collector’ bourbons), I wanted to share some of my experiences.  Judging from the readership stats, I seem to have stumbled upon something, because that post is the third most popular one I’ve put up this year.  I chose to hold off on the second part until now because I had a few irons in the fire, and wanted to be able to report fully and honestly if my alternate plans to procure some of the mystical elixir worked.

I can now report they did not.

Not that this bourbon hunting season has been fruitless.  I have been able to find the Parker’s Heritage Wheated, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the Woodford Reserve Sonoma, the Maker’s Mark Barrel Proof and the Black Maple Hill 6 year, all to try and report on soon – good or bad.  Nor was Pappy the only thing I struck out on.  Like most, I was wholly unable to get my mitts on any of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the 2014 Old Forester Birthday Release, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength or quite a few other sought after bourbons.  But it is Pappy, above and beyond all else, that seems to captivate and frustrate the masses (and often, myself), most of all.

So today I write about some other methods you can try to get the impossible: Secondary markets and Liquor Control states.  Maybe your luck will be better than mine.  I certainly have my doubts.

I want to be sure to state one other fact as well: media sources love to report how Pappy Van Winkle is ‘impossible’ to find, how it’s scarcity is the great equalizer, where billionaire CEOs and bourbon-loving bus drivers are equally perplexed.  That is not the truth.  If you want to but Pappy, there are plenty of places to find it.  As I post this, there are 12 listings on the Detroit Craigslist page for Pappy, the highest being $1,700 for a bottle of 23 year (the lowest being $250 for a bottle of 12 Year).  The concept that no-one can get it is an absolute myth.  The truth is very few can afford to get it except for retail price at an honest store.

Currently, my collection has four bottles of Van Winkle products.  I have a bottle of the 15 Year, that my sister kindly gave me as a birthday gift in 2011, before insanity truly took hold.  Out of respect for the gift, I’ve never asked details, but it’s my understanding she bought it on the secondary market from another state (Illinois, I believe), for a high but not unreasonable price.  I have a bottle of 10 Year that I bought through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website, a bottle of 12 Year I bought from a local Metro Detroit store (by winning the chance in a raffle), and a bottle of 20 Year that I bought from a seller on Craigslist, along with some other choice selections, when I was in Kentucky early this year.

As I detailed in my earlier post, I struck out with my local vendors.  I frequent about six different stores around Michigan. Two didn’t receive any Pappy at all this year.  Two more put it up for sale at astronomical prices ($1,500 for a bottle of 23 Year, for example, a bottle that sells for $250 retail).  And the last two sold it to people for the prices they offered – still exceeding $1,000 per bottle.  It’s an unfortunate game, but one detailed quite nicely in an article posted earlier this month on The Daily Beast.

“Pappy has become a prime example of a certain kind of product that economists called a “Veblen good.” Named for the sociologist of the “leisure class,” Thorstein Veblen, these are luxury items that defy the normal workings of the Law of Demand. Normally, when the price of a product climbs, the demand slips. With Veblen goods, the demand does the opposite, growing as the price goes up. In part this is because the person buying the Veblen good gets what economist Harvey Leibenstein called “conspicuous consumption utility.” And Pappyphiles have been nothing if not conspicuous.

But Veblen goods also function because price stands in as a measure of quality—if you can’t tell what the best whiskey is, but you very much want to be seen drinking the best whiskey, then you choose a very pricey spirit. The more expensive it becomes, the better it must be, which in turn makes it more desirable. But note the embarrassing logic of Veblen goods: they appeal to those unable to determine quality based on the evaluation of the product itself—it’s the stuff of those less than savvy folks who need price as a proxy.” – Full Article Here

Now, I’m not quite ready to go full backlash yet.  I still think that in my experience, Pappy Van Winkle is one of the best bourbons I’ve had.  But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that so much of the allure, even to me, is the scarcity of it all.  That’s why I found myself standing on a freezing downtown Louisville street corner last year, buying a bottle of Pappy 20 from a complete stranger from a Craigslist post.

The Secondary Market

And there are plenty of people on both Craigslist and boozehound websites, happy to sell you a bottle for your first-born child and a few thousand dollars.  Like I stated earlier, it’s all about how much you are willing to pay.  Yes, it is a transaction that may well be illegal in your state.  Yes, it may lead you to make an exchange of paper bags in the darkest corner of a parking garage.  And yes, it will almost definitely mean you handing over an obscene amount of money for a bottle that will potentially then be too invested in to actually open.  But it can be done.  But buyer beware – like any other exchange of the sort, it is at the least potentially illegal, and at most, dangerous.

There are a good number of Pappy Van Winkle “fan” groups on Facebook.  While a good number of the participants will undoubtedly be clueless DBs looking for a venue to brag, there are good, decent bourbon fans, and often, they will be looking to sell (or at least trade).  If you can stand posts and posts of people showing their “collection,” it might be a wise place to put your effort.

If money is no object, there are some websites that offer bottles as well.  They often make the Craigslist prices seem reasonable – a quick look today showed me bottles of 23 Year going for as much as $3,000.  I won’t post any of their names here, because I don’t want to encourage such scalping, but know that they are out there.

Liquor Control States

I’m going to quickly mention this because its fresh on my mind.  Most states have privatized liquor distribution – the state has laws, but the importing and distribution is left to private companies/persons.  A few, however, have state run Liquor Control Boards.  In these states, it is the state government itself that orders, prices and distributes liquor (and often, beer and wine).

Pennsylvania is one of these states, and my wife happens to hail from there.  She has quite a few family members there as well, so we visit several times a year.  I have been able to find some products in Pennsylvania unavailable in Michigan. More importantly, when Pennsylvania gets a particularly popular (and limited) product in, they keep it as only purchasable online.  This works for me because I can order something, and have it delivered to my mother-in-law’s house, where she will hold it until we next meet.  This has worked for me a few times and been a nice avenue.

When it comes to PVW, and to a lesser degree, BTAC, however, it has been an epic fail.  Last year, the email went out that PVW 15 Year was available.  I logged in, bought a bottle, and then found out 3 days later their site had malfunctioned and I would actually NOT be getting any.  I was upset, but I work in technology, I know that once in a while bad things can happen.

This year, the PLCB doubled down.  When the BTAC collection went up for sale, their email blast system mysteriously stopped working, so only those informed ahead of time or following them on Twitter were notified.

Last week’s PVW release went even worse.  After weeks and weeks of teasing it, and knowing that users were circling the site like sharks in the water, they released the PVW last Thursday…and watched the site crash.  And crash again.  The next 30 minutes was a comedy of errors, where the site and app couldn’t stay online for more than seconds at a time.  Within 30 seconds of the site being back up, I had a cart with three bottles of the 2014 VW release in it.  But when I went to check out – crashed again.  Meanwhile, the PLCB was posting on Twitter how products were still available, only increasing traffic – nevermind that by the time they were posting, the system was telling everyone it was sold out.

For a government agency to run something as simple as an e-commerce solution and decent bandwidth in 2014 is disappointing.  Immediately, the Social Media lanes were filled with people complaining, and rightfully so.  In truth, I have seen almost no-one posting about being successful, which makes the lack of transparency the PLCB operates with a little more suspect, and begs the question – who got the 1,000+ bottles?

There is talk of them changing the way they handle PVW sales.  I certainly hope they do.

My advice?  If you have that much money to spend on a bottle and you don’t mind the price, go for it.  I’ve been lucky enough to drink all 6 major VW releases, and haven’t had a bad one yet (OK, I admit, I find the 23 year to be way too oaky and woody for me).  If you just want a great pour, there are plenty of other ones out there worth your consideration.

Happy Bourbon Heritage Month!

As summer rolls to a close, the kids head back to school and the pennant races heat up, September is the gateway to my favorite season of the year: autumn.  College football kicked off last weekend, pro football this weekend, and we all know that with fall comes the new 2014 releases by our favorite distilleries.

September is also National Bourbon Heritage Month, and I can think of no better place to celebrate this year than in the Bluegrass State itself.  So this year, my wife and I are headed back to Kentucky (the third time this year!) for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in a couple of weeks.  I could not be more excited.  We have our tickets to some events, and I look forward to blogging about it all when I get back.

So please, pour three fingers of your favorite, and join me in celebrating this country’s best spirit – to bourbon!

A nice pour for National Bourbon Month!
A nice pour for National Bourbon Month!

Sourced Bourbon – A good article to read…

Eric Felten, on The Daily Beast website today, writes an article about the popularity of “sourced” whiskey in the craft-whiskey industry.  Worth a read – and consideration – when buying that next mystery $50 bottle of bourbon…

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/28/your-craft-whiskey-is-probably-from-a-factory-distillery-in-indiana.html

Bourbon Classic Day One: Cocktails for two

Bourbon Classic Day One: Cocktails for two

After a month of anticipation, I am here in Louisville Kentucky for the Bourbon Classic, and so far it has been tremendous fun. We got in late afternoon yesterday, with enough time to check into the beautiful and unique 21c Museum hotel, and get ready for the event itself starting at 7:00.

Welcome to the Bourbon Classic
Welcome to the Bourbon Classic

This is the Bourbon Classic’s second year, and the presentation last evening was fantastic. For last night’s sampling and competition, several different bourbon brands pared up with some fantastic chefs and mixologists to prepare small plate tastings and cocktails.

Each distillery/chef had a table serving area, and visitors were free to walk up to each one and try the dish, cocktail, or ideally, the pairing of both. The bourbons represented some of the best and most well known in the industry: Angels Envy, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Michters, Blantons and Wild Turkey. We started out on the far side of the convention hall, with Angels Envy, who served up a beef satay with green chili grits, a deviled egg, and paired it with a Boulevardier cocktail. A delicious pairing for, A.E. and Chef Terry French (winner of the Food Network’s “Extreme Chef” contest in 2012).

Chef Terry French at the Angel's Envy table
Chef Terry French at the Angel’s Envy table

The treats kept coming – Highlights included the Sable Manhattan mixed by Issac Fox of Volare using Jim Beam black (delish!), Woodford Reserve and Chef Bobby Benjamin paired up for a chicken and waffles that was truly breathtakingly good, and the work of Blantons and Proof on Main Chef Levon Wallace.

Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main pairs with Blanton's
Chef Levon Wallace of Proof on Main pairs with Blanton’s

Now, my love of Blanton’s is known to readers, so it’s hardly shocking I would find this to be my favorite pairing. But the taste of Chef Wallace’s Lamb scrapple with red eye hollandaise and cornbread fried in duck fat, paired with a Blantons based Fancy Free was the highlight for Jen and I. Both were delicious, and went together so nicely, that we had to give Chef Wallace our compliments – and it was our great pleasure to find him to be a fantastic guy to boot! Suffice to say, we look forward to eating at Proof on Main next time we are in Louisville, and enjoying the fantastic foods.

Chef Levon Wallace talks with Jen and I
Chef Levon Wallace talks with Jen and I

After the first pass through, many of the brands and chefs started rolling out second options, and dear reader, that’s where my notes fall off. We met some wonderful people, like the aforementioned Issac Fox and Chef Wallace, and made some new friends. We spent a good portion of the evening chatting with Gregory and Chris, two very nice gentlemen from Virginia who headed here for a bit of a college reunion. We also met a pair of ladies who are are close to launch on a Bourbon-lifestyle centered website, and who kindly directed us to some other local cuisine to try.

Today is day two, with some learning sessions and more tastings this afternoon and evening. We drove around Louisville a bit today, procured some future bourbon of the week bottles, and ate lunch at the fantastic Garage Bar. We’ve met some wonderful people – from knowledgeable collectors who have helped me augment my own, to the chefs, restaurant managers and people here at the hotel, so far everyone has been fantastic. On to day two!

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

T-minus two days until I head to Louisville, KY with my lovely wife for the Bourbon Classic.  I could not be more excited – and I will be posting updates all weekend as I partake in all the bourbon culture this weekend promises.  Plus, I will get to escape the Polar Vortex madness that has settled on the great lakes!

For those curious, the Bourbon Classic is a (now) annual convention/conference/event bringing together distilleries, writers, speakers, master distillers, chefs, mixologists and just about anybody else interested in bourbon for a two day event in downtown Louisville.  This will be my first time going, so I am ready for a weekend of learning about and thoroughly enjoying all it has to offer.

With such a fine event on the horizon, it seemed the best time to pick a sure thing for my bourbon of the week.  And today, that means none other than the legend itself, Pappy Van Winkle. In this case, the 15 year.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

 

I won’t waste your -or my – time recapping the Pappy Van Winkle story. What I will do is review this elusive bottle for those who, like me, have had a *difficult* (read: impossible) time procuring the drink. Hopefully, it can help someone decide for themselves – is it worth it?

When I say “worth it,” I am referring to the hunt for Pappy, or to pay the increasingly higher prices enthusiasts find when searching. For taste alone, I’m not sure ANY bourbon is worth the hundreds of dollars PVW commands. Many of those who are dropping hundreds of dollars for this, or any other rare whiskey, are doing it more for the prestige of having the bottle in their collection than the taste or quality. But that does not mean that PVW does not have those things. It actually has them in spades.

My take: I’ve had the PVW 15 before, and have actually had this bottle for a year and a half before reviewing. Most notably, I had it at Buffalo Trace Distillery at a Pappy Van Winkle tasting event last year, where I sampled the 12, 15, 20 and 23 year. For my taste profile, the 20 year was best (a little smoother, a bit more stately) but many say the 15 year is the perfect bourbon, and I can see why.

It’s nose is unparalleled. At 107 proof, you expect the bite of alcohol, but won’t find it here. Instead, a sweet mix of cinnamon and honey, maple syrup, honey and a bit of sharp oak comes forth. I held the glass to my nose again and again, absolutely in love with its aroma.

The first sip is sharp – the charred oak mixes with a delightful caramel and it’s creamy texture almost separates on your tongue. There is that sweet thick vanilla caramel on the front, and toffee. In the back, the cinnamon pours out, with more oak and a husk spice that is unique in a wheated bourbon. It’s not harsh, but rather, smooth and strong. Clove and more oak come forward if you hold your sip a bit longer.

Then the finish – very very long and warming. Still smooth, but with warming oak flavor and the lingering of caramel.

I found waiting between sips made it even better. The second didn’t catch me off balance, and the sweetness increased with each subsequent sip, the sugar mingling with that smoky oak char.

Did I love it? Yes, even more this time than before. I can’t in good conscience leave it out of my top five, although I still prefer the softness of the 20 year. Is it worth $500 a bottle? Again, I’m not sure anything is. But a glass at a bar is worth the asking price, and if you have the means, you won’t regret it from the taste.

Yum.

Dan’s Rating: 9.1