Questions from the Mailbox

Pretty much every morning for me begins with opening my eyes, making sure I'm in my own apartment, checking to see if I left a half-full glass of Scotch on top of the blanket, and reaching for my laptop to check my email. There are usually twenty-five to forty unread messages that have materialized sometime between the hours of 11 PM and 7 AM. I like to clear those out before brushing my teeth and commencing with fifty push-ups. An average day for me consists of about 300+ emails, of which 250+ will need a direct response. It's nice when I can move through at least 10% of those before leaving the house.

Lately there have been a lot of repeat questions in the old "inbox," so I've considered investing in a rubber stamp for some of them. However, I take pride in the fact that I'm able to answer every email individually. If someone takes the time to email me with a question they should get a direct answer. Not everyone has the time or the desire to actually write me, however, despite the fact that they may have a question. That's why I'm going to start answering some of these queries here on the blog. That way I might be able to clear up an issue that's been bothering you or nagging at your soul indirectly. Plus, you can forward the answers to other people you know who might have a similar question.

Most questions lately have been Bourbon-related. That makes sense seeing that we're running low on a number of expressions that are normally quite easy to find. On top of that, we've been forced into super-strict allocation measures for special edition releases that have confounded many K&L shoppers. Can it really be that hard to get a bottle? Without further ado, let's get started:

David - I'm in search of a bottle of Pappy or Stagg. How can I get one?

Getting a bottle of Stagg or Pappy at K&L is next to impossible. We're one of the most popular boutique retailers in the country so most people start with us. Our website gets scoured every second for new Bourbon releases, many of which will sell out in minutes if not seconds. On top of that, we have an insider whiskey email list that devours most special editions before we ever release them to the general public. If you're not on that list, your odds are zero. If you are on that list, your odds are just a bit above zero. We have so much pent up demand for Pappy and Stagg that we have now started a raffle system that involves us pulling names from a hat (figuratively). We usually get between 1,000 - 1,500 entries into each raffle.

On top of these almost insurmountable odds, Pappy and Stagg are only released once a year now - in the Fall. Technically these bottles are released in October, but that just means they're released to distribution. Once they've arrived in California, the Sazerac reps have to break up their state allocation into smaller allocations for every bar, restaurant, and retailer on the list. All the while, the buyers for these establishments are bitching, screaming, and moaning for their Pappy, threatening that they had better get more than they got last year or else they're never going to sell Buffalo Trace again. With all the pressure to get it right, it can sometimes take an extra month before the bottles are actually shipped to each account. Therefore, release dates are meaningless. You'll never know when the bottles will actually arrive. Last year we didn't get ours until December.

Your best bet to find a bottle of Pappy or Stagg is to visit the most out-of-the-way liquor store you can think of that might still be sitting on a bottle from last year, or even the year before. However, with the demand where it is today I highly doubt there are many places left that don't know what they have. There are guys out there who spend every waking moment searching out every last retail outlet known to man, hoping to find that treasure buried under an inch of dust. Even if your local retailer does get an allocation, I've heard stories of retail buyers hoarding their drop, purchasing their full allotment at their staff discount, only to turn right around and quadruple their money on Ebay. I have to fight off our own staff members with a stick. With the situation as it is today, the odds of finding a bottle of Pappy or Stagg on the shelf are lower than they've ever been and they're only getting lower.

Hope that helps! Have a nice day!

David - You're almost always out of Black Maple Hill and Weller 12, my two favorite whiskies. Can you recommend something similar for the same price?

Yes indeed, we are unable to order more BMH or Weller 12 right now, and even when we do get it in stock we sell out again immediately. Such is life. In the meantime, there are some alternatives. Replacing the Weller 12 is tough because it's only $25 a bottle and you get a lot of wheated whiskey for your money. Other wheaters would include its younger brothers: Weller Reserve and Old Weller Antique, but they don't really pack the richness that the 12 year does, tending more towards the pencil shaving, lean and spicy flavors. Larceny and Maker's Mark are also wheated, but they're a bit more mild and less intense. The Maker's 46 is probably the best replacement if you had to pick a wheated Bourbon, but it's $7 more a bottle. I tend to like the Evan Williams Single Barrel as a substitute for Weller 12, not because it tastes like Weller 12, but because it has a similar level of richness. The palate is creamier and softer, but it's the same price as the Weller 12 and, for me, it scratches that same itch.

Black Maple Hill is much easier to replace. It's made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers ("made" meaning blended, as they don't have any aged whiskey they've distilled on their own) on behalf of CVI Brands just down the street from our Redwood City store. I find that KBD products tend to have similar profiles, especially that lean, grainy flavor that carries through most of their expressions. The Rowan's Creek for $39.99 is almost a spot-on replacement at times, depending on the batch you get. It's a tad higher in proof, so in my mind that justifies the extra few bucks you'll have to spend.

Let me know what you think!

David - When you say something is out of stock and that there's a "shortage," I'm confused because I went down the street to another store and saw it there. How is that possible?

Good question! Happy to answer that one. I guess the first thing I would say is that I'm not an official spokesman for retailers of America, only for K&L. I think sometimes people confuse the K&L blog as a general information site. Just because we're out of stock doesn't mean that other stores will be. We have a high-volume website that is updated constantly with real-time inventory, which means that we sell through things quickly. Whereas I can sell 180 bottles of Black Maple Hill in less than 30 minutes, it might take another store two years to sell that quantity. Therefore, you might find bottles from 2010 still sitting in a smaller retailer today if you check around. When I say a product is "unavailable" or that there's a "shortage" it means that I can't re-order from distribution. For example, I am currently out of Weller 12 year, Rock Hill Farms, and Black Maple Hill whiskies. I am unable to order more. If I could order more I would order thousands, but I can't even order one bottle. If I can't order any more, that means that no store in California can order more either. However, that doesn't mean they're not sitting on bottles they've ordered from the past.

A shortage won't always make itself known on the consumer level, only the retailer level. For example, we were out of Elmer T. Lee Bourbon for more than a month because California distribution didn't have any more to sell us. I'm sure that BevMo had some as did other stores, but not us because we sold our stock too quickly. That means I didn't buy enough the last time it was available. Part of my job is predicting how much we'll need to carry us through the next shortage. Sometimes, however, I'm only allowed to buy a certain amount, which doesn't allow me to backstock against the demand. Black Maple Hill, for example, is limited to 60 bottles now each time it arrives. That's only enough to last K&L about 30 minutes and that's with a "one bottle limit" per person. If I let people buy as much as they wanted it would be gone in seconds.

So you see, sometimes a "shortage" never affects the general public because distribution ends up getting more whiskey before the availability at retail "in general" sells through. Other times, however, there are periods of three to four months were no product is available anywhere. I think you'll start seeing this with Weller 12 soon as it's been out of stock for some time and there doesn't appear to be more coming in the near future. Eventually this will trickle down to all retailers in California and everyone will be out of stock. In that case, the shortage will make itself known to consumers in general, not just K&L shoppers.

Is there a question about booze or the liquor industry that you'd like to see answered here on the blog? Let me know. You know where to find me: [email protected]

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll