David - Why aren't there any older Bourbons available at K&L? What happened to things like Rittenhouse Rye 25, Vintage 17, and Jefferson's 18? How long until we're likely to see these again?
Great question(s). Let me start by saying that most extra-mature Bourbon that you've purchased over the years (let's say anything older than 15 years) wasn't really part of any particular business model or forward-thinking plan on behalf of American whiskey companies. It was simply because they had extra booze, sitting there in their warehouses, getting older because no one was buying it. If you've ever gone to a backroads liquor store and seen bottles on the shelf, covered in dust, that look like they've been sitting there since the 1980s, imagine the same situation for America's whiskey producers. These liquor stores never planned on having those bottles for two decades, they planned on someone purchasing those bottles. In the case of American whiskey distillers, they produced Bourbon and rye anticipating a certain number of sales as well. A good amount of it didn't sell, however. The difference between the liquor in a dusty bottle and the liquor in the barrel, however, is that the latter will continue to age. If you talk to someone from Heaven Hill they'll tell you exactly what they've told me - there were never any plans to make Rittenhouse 25. The only reason they even had 25 year old rye is because they made more than they could sell and it just sat there getting old. (According to Chuck Cowdery, they were storing it for a customer who had bought more than he could sell. When it got to be so old, Heaven Hill informed the customer that it was probably getting too old and offered to buy it back, because they realized there was now a market for it. That was a situation peculiar to the Rittenhouse)
Before this whole whiskey renaissance happened, many producers were happy just to clear this old stock out of their warehouses. That's how David Perkins from High West got his hands on older rye whiskies from LDI. Seagrams had made all that rye for their own Seagrams whiskey label, not for some single barrel cask strength limited expression. That rye only sat there in Indiana, maturing year after year, because Edgar Bronfman Jr. orchestrated one of the worst investment strategies in history, putting Seagrams money into the film industry, before finally losing his family's drink business to Pernod-Ricard in the year 2000. All of the Seagrams assets were sold off (Coca-Cola took the sodas and mixers) and PR planned to shut down LDI as well, until it was sold to CL Financial in 2007 – the exact same year David Perkins founded High West in Utah and began readying his old Seagrams whiskey expressions.
As far as I understand it (and there may be some things here I don't understand as well), any older stocks that Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill have on hand are so limited that we're likely to only see a handful of extra-mature Bourbon releases per year, in quantities so limited that getting a bottle of Elijah Craig 20 or Four Roses Limited Edition will be no different from finding a bottle of Van Winkle – at least at K&L (I can't speak for the allocations of other regions or retailers). If they are easier to find, expect a price tag north of $100 as the reason behind it. Heaven Hill plans on releasing an Elijah Craig 21 at around $140 over the next few years, as they continue to slowly leak out what extra-mature whiskey is left. The situation has gone from getting rid of glut-era whiskey, to recouping its full market value. I don't imagine that stocks are going to improve for some time either. If production only started increasing within the last five years that means we're at least a decade away from any healthy supply of 15 year old whiskey. From my conversations with Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses this is the situation I've come to understand. I don't know much about Beam's older stocks, nor the situation at Brown-Forman or Wild Turkey, but maybe we'll learn more when we visit later this year.