Is This All You Have? – A Kentucky Primer
So we're off to Kentucky again tomorrow, hoping to track down a few good barrels to get us through the cold winter months, and as I dig through my email box this morning I'm surprised by how many people still ask me if we have Pappy or George T. Stagg available each day. These bottles come out once a year, and they sell out that very same day when we run our customer raffle (a list that now has more than 19,000 names hopelessly competing for about 30-40 total bottles of various rare American whiskies). When searching for a rare annual release in the Bourbon realm, I would venture to say that the worst possible thing to do is to email the spirits buyer at any major retailer, simply because you're going to be the 37th person to have done so that day alone. At this point the names all blend together in my mind. I have a rubber stamp response to most of these inquiries. No one person stands out anymore. Everyone's husband in need of a special anniversary gift is equal. Everyone's grandfather whose lifelong wish is to taste just a sip of delicious Bourbon is just as sympathetic. These emails get pushed into a gigantic folder that I'll deal with when the time actually comes—that date in late November when we spend about $30,000 worth of man hours digging through names, distributing these treasures fairly, to make about $1000 worth of overall profit.
That being said, I still get a kick out of watching people mosey their way over to the Bourbon shelf, start pacing slowly from one end to the other, their eyes intently focused on each bottle, until they reach the beginning of the brandy section. Then they stop, look back to the left, and wonder if they may have missed something. "Excuse me, is this all the Bourbon that you have?" they'll usually shout from across the store. You mean other than the 80+ selections right there in front of you, from just about every major distillery in the country with a smattering of small micro-distilleries as well? A selection of Bourbon that represents just about everything available on today's market except for the rare, annual releases and those once readily-available things like Elmer T. Lee and Weller 12? Yes, this is unfortunately all the Bourbon I have to sell. If you want to stumble across a startling surprise, you're going to have to go out into the sticks. Bakersfield or Fresno. That's where I would start. Or maybe Toddy's Liquors, a small stop off the beaten path in the outskirts of Bardstown. I found a bottle of 10 year old Ancient Age there once with dust all over it and a faded label. That's the kind of place you have to look. If you want to ride with me over to Modesto, I can take you to every shitty dive along Highway 99 and you can try asking that question again. I'll bet you those guys have all kinds of other Bourbons in the back (whether you would want to drink them or not, however, I don't know).
With this year's trip on the horizon, people inevitably want to know what we're going to bring back. Rare casks? An older treasure? Something mysterious and mystical from a forgotten cellar? Maybe if I were going to Gascony that might happen, but they're ain't nothin' like that in Kentucky anymore. We're going to Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and the usual suspects, but there are no more relics to be had at any of these distilleries. And to be honest, I'm not sure I would want them if they were actually there. I long for the days when Bourbon drinkers came into the store, bought a bottle of Buffalo Trace for $20, told me a little anecdote about their plan to play poker and drink whiskey, and then smiled before walking out the door. Those were great days, and the Bourbons we sold during that era are still right there on the shelf, just as tasty as they ever were, and just as inexpensive. But those heady times have been replaced by an army of antiquers, mainly looking only for the things that we don't have and that we never will again (at least not outside of our long-shot raffle system). And I get it. Every one reaches a certain point in their drinking evolution where they want to taste something older, rare, or outside the norm. I'm no different. We're simply in a situation where there's no room for advancement, however. We're like millions of people working for a company that only promotes fifty people annually. You try hard to be patient, but eventually you get fed up with occupying the same position, year after year—hoping to work your way up from the bottom, but getting denied each time you apply for a higher post. It's almost Kafkaesque at this point.
Despite the rather narrow-minded focus the market has taken, I'm still really excited to be going back to Kentucky. It's going to be a great trip and the weather forecast is terrific. We have some fun appointments lined up, we'll be meeting up with a few legends of the industry, we'll be hitting the streets at night, and we'll also visit a few places we've yet to see previously. I'll be live-blogging the entire time, per the norm, and you can follow along with our journeys here each day. I'm optimistic that we'll find some great barrels for those of you who are still satisfied with the everyday stuff. I can't wait to come back from Kentucky with a few great finds, get the casks bottled, put the new editions on our shelves, smile at my efforts, then watch the first guy come in to glance at the new arrivals and say to me, "Is this all you have?"