The State of the Union: 2017
It's funny every once and a while to eavesdrop on the K&L phone staff chatting about whiskey with a customer. You still hear a lot of this:
"No, we don't expect any more Weller 12 any time soon."
"No, there's no Elmer T. Lee and we don't think we'll have it available any time soon."
"Pappy? Are you kidding?"
I used to get a lot of that kind of thing in the store and via email, but I think most people are hip to the game at this point. That being said, I don't get a lot of other Bourbon questions as a result. Things I rarely ever hear anymore would be:
"What's a good, everyday Bourbon?"
"What's an interesting new Bourbon out there?"
"What's an under the radar Bourbon I might not ever have tried?"
I have my own personal feelings about the future of whiskey in 2017 and—to put it shortly—I think there's going to be a reckoning for those predicting increased growth in the industry. It's simple: a large percentage of whiskey "drinkers" out there aren't actually drinking whiskey. They're interested in acquiring whiskey, experimenting with whiskey, researching their whiskey, pouring samples into tiny bottles, and sharing their opinions about those experiences. The only thing drawing those people in is the rarity or singularity of the opportunity. Once that's taken away from them, there's nothing left for them to enjoy.
I hate to break it those folks, but 2017 will not be the year the Bourbon industry unleashes dozens of new and exciting releases, each over ten years of age, cask strength in proof, and at prices that everyone can afford. As a result, 2017 will be the year that thousands and thousands of Bourbon "drinkers" all over the country will walk away from the category.
But that's not going to happen because Bourbon in 2017 doesn't taste as good as it used to; on the contrary! Bourbon in 2017 is going to taste as good as it always has. The shelves will still be full with plenty of delicious, well-priced options. That's not the issue. The people who walk away from American whiskey this year will be the same people who only just discovered it; they'll move away from Bourbon because the very thing that originally brought them into the genre is now unavailable. In my opinion, a certain percentage of the growth (I can't say exactly how much because this is all speculatory) the category has experienced over the last decade has been founded on the market's boutique segment and the prestige associated with tracking down those rare releases. Now that there's no more boutique Bourbon out there, do you think the guys who spend all their free time Pappy hunting are going to settle for drinking Four Roses Yellow Label? Or standard Maker's Mark? Do you think the guy who has every Willett private edition bottling from 2006 to 2013 gives a shit about Very Old Barton?
At the same time, I don't expect the guy who once paid $120 for Pappy 20 to now pay $550 for a bottle of Michter's 20. Why would you pay more for less? The same thing happened to the Bordeaux market about five years ago. The prices for the top wines had shot up due to Robert Parker's popularity and the market became a feeding frenzy for wealthy collectors. But when the prices kept creeping up and all the hoopla of the 2005, 2009, and 2010 vintages wore off, the château owners got a little dose of reality during the less attractive 2011, 2012, and 2013 harvests. When the trophy wines were gone, the "vintage of a lifetime" moniker absent, and all you had was classic, drinkable, dependable Bordeaux, no one seemed to be interested anymore (even though the wines were still perfectly delicious!). The Bordalais discovered there had been little growth in the actual consumption of Bordeaux, but rather that thousands and thousands of collectors and hobbyists had been caught up in the cultural hype and created that incredible growth out of a desire to participate. The château owners thought the increased sales they had experienced indicated a new renaissance for the category, when in reality it pointed to a mere pop culture faddism. Take away the 95+ point reviews and all of a sudden no one feels like drinking anymore. Isn't it funny how that works?
Personally, I'm not worried. The fact that I was just able to buy a mountain of the Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Bourbon is the result of this phase in the market (and it's good news for people who actually like to drink). This was my favorite Bourbon release of 2016: a rich, weighty, oily, supple mouthful of Bourbon goodness at 115 proof for a reasonable mid-range price. Yet, because it's not allocated or age-stated, there's plenty to be had. I've learned a lot about comparative analytics since becoming K&L's assistant head buyer last year and having worked extensively with our head buyer and owner Clyde Beffa Jr. They call Clyde "the King of the Off-Vintage" in Bordeaux because while everyone else is clammering for the hot vintages like 2000, 2005, and 2009, he's looking for deals in less-hyped years like 2001, 2007, and 2012. He's much more excited when he finds an overlooked $20 gem from 1998, than a $4000 case of Haut-Brion from 1995. But that's because Clyde likes to actually drink Bordeaux, not fawn over it or show it off. He drinks Bordeaux every night of the week. He's basically just looking out for his own interests and the people who shop for Bordeaux at K&L are thrilled to enjoy the same benefits.
Expect a similar philosophy in the K&L spirits department this year: looking out for the interests of drinkers who drink because they like drinking.