Yesterday in the store I rang up a customer who said to me, "For the last ten minutes all I've heard in this store is talk about allocations. What's going on right now with alcohol?" He was referring to the previous conversation I had just had with the man in line before him -- a man looking for more Pliny the Elder beer. "We have a two bottle per person limit," I had told him, "and we won't get very much this week, so it will go fast." He was also referencing the conversation before the Pliny customer, when I had been talking with Michael DellaSantina -- our William Grant representative -- who was in the store to pour Glenfiddich last night. We were discussing the increased intensity surrounding this year's Balvenie Tun 1401 release -- the limited edition, small batch single malt comprised of the distillery's finest older casks. "I've never seen anything like this happen with whisky," he had told us. "I'm getting twenty calls a day, over and over again, the same guys hounding me about when we're going to get our allocation," he confessed. "We're not getting much, either," he added, "Maybe a few cases -- but the cases are three-packs."
If you thought the current whisk(e)y craze was just limited to American Bourbon and rye, you'd be mistaken. We hear less about the crazy demand for single malt because there is simply more of it to be had. There is a lot more mature whisky in Scotland than in the states, so we've been blessed by easier availability. Plus, most of the fanaticism in America is simply geared toward the domestic side of production. Seven out of ten K&L phone conversations about whiskey are centered around the availability of Pappy or Stagg, while the other three might be about single malt. American limited edition whiskies are also much less expensive than their Scottish counter parts, so the affordability allows for a larger demand, but that doesn't mean there isn't the potential for certain single malt releases to obtain that same cultish mystique. If there was a Scotch whisky with the potential for Pappy status, the Balvenie Tun 1401 is as good of a candidate as any. Here's why:
1) There's not a lot of it available.This isn't by design necessarily, but rather simply the case. Every year Balvenie blender David Stewart picks some of his favorite casks from the Grant warehouses and vats them in "Tun 1401" to create a special marriage. I think it's about six barrels total, so figure a couple thousand bottles for the entire world allocation. The less there is of something, the more people want it.
2) It's relatively affordable. Part of the reason there's such a demand for the American special editions is their pricing. Most people can string together $80 for a one-time-only purchase. If the price of Chateau Lafite or Port Ellen were under $100 a bottle you could bet that demand would triple instantly. The Balvenie Tun 1401 usually comes in at around $250. While that might not seem "affordable" keep in mind that most 18 year old selections are running between $100 and $200 these days. The Balvenie 30 costs $750 respectively. Batch 3 of the Tun series had whisky from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in it, so considering the age and rarity of the casks involved the price is definitely lower than it should be.
3) Insiders talk about it frequently (and gushingly). If you're one of those people who doesn't understand why Pappy Van Winkle is as popular as it is today, I can give you the quick synopsis: people who don't understand whiskey often want someone to tell them what "the best" whiskey is. Pappy has been the answer many "insiders" have given for the last few years. If you tell someone that Pappy is the best whiskey around, they're going to remember that. When you tell them they'll never find a bottle, they want it even more. From my experience, the more that we blog/message-board/Facebook/Tweet about our favorite whiskies, the more this information eventually permeates the general market. The Pappy craze we're currently in the midst of began with blogs and message boards, word of mouth, etc. In the same vein, numerous respected review sites have expressed their love for the Balvenie 1401 series. The LA Whiskey Society did an event this past September with the Tun. Internet guru Serge Valentin loved last year's release and called the whole Tun series "a masterstroke." And, earlier this year, the Whisky Advocate decorated it with the "Best Speyside Whisky of 2012" award. When groups of experienced collectors, staunch tasting veterans, and commercial publications all agree on what they like you know there's going to be some serious action in the marketplace. People love consensus when it comes to drinking.
4) It's allocated and only comes out once a year. Sometimes the best part of a great experience is the hunt. The hunt for a loving spouse. The hunt for the great California taco truck. The Hunt for Red October. And, of course, the hunt for that hard-to-find whisky bottle during the Fall allocation season. If everyone could get Pappy then no one would want it. The limited availability is part of the rush. Finding a bottle completes the high. Like the mystical Scottish town of Brigadoon, these things are only accessible for a short period of time before they vanish once again.
I explained all of this to Michael DellaSantina as we cleaned up the tasting bar last night. He sat there looking at me with a look of both excitement and fear. Excitement, of course, over the fact that his company had developed a serious player in its portfolio. Fear, obviously, because he had already gotten a taste of what having a player like that on his roster would entail. If you're a Sazerac rep in control of Pappy allocations then your job is to simply take a beating every Fall. Everyone wants more, everyone is pissed at you because they didn't get enough, and at least thirty accounts will promise never to buy anything from you again. Michael said there's already a whiff of that mentality in the air.
We'll see if it ever actually gets that intense.