The Golden Age of Whisky ended years ago. That period of unprecendented quality and availability was the direct result of an industry in turmoil, unsure of its future. The complex situation, both culturally and economically, that led big booze to abandon America’s original spirit is the very same that created the conditions necessary for the period that the whiskey cognoscenti experienced in the late 90s and early 00s.
To be fair their was excellent bourbon being produced throughout the 70s and 80s, but tons of that whiskey simply sat on the shelves. Vodka, tequila, flavored rum, jagermeister all took the precedent of Kentucky’s finest. Legendary old whiskey sat on the shelves, but the dusty hunters wouldn’t come out in earnest til the internet age allowed even the most casual consumer to identify a gem. But, before this period almost no one was buying bourbon and the big companies were sitting on massive stocks of evaporating whiskey.
It was the a handful of forward thinking merchants and bottlers to realize that some of this old whiskey the big guys didn’t want could be bottled and sold at prices that no one had ever thought possible. It might have started in Japan. Their culture for appreciation of old bourbon, is what kept many of these great brands alive. AH Hirsch, Pappy Van Winkle, Very Old St Nick, Four Roses, all had products geared exclusively to the Japanese market. An industry that had always eskewed old age statements was now being turned upside down by the old whiskies they thought no one would ever buy. The dawn of a new age.
For many that experienced this period of unprecedented bounty, they look at the current whiskey-scape and declare it devoid. The incredible explosion in the category over the last 10 years means competition for the dwindling supply of old and rare bourbon continues to mount. We’ve experienced this like any other collector of great whiskey.
There was once a time when we had free reign. Pappy, Blantons, Willett, Rockhill, Eli Craig, McKenna, Elmer, Weller, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Jefferson’s Presidential, Four Roses, all once abundant, now scraps remain. I told myself that the 7 barrels of Stitzel-Weller a didn’t buy, weren’t quite as good as the one I selected, but that was mostly to make myself feel better. Countless barrels of whiskey were passed over with some inconsequential excuse, but honestly we didn’t really have any way to sell all that whiskey at the time.
About 5 years ago things changed. Our suppliers, whom we’d taken for granted could supply our needs, began to scale back their barrel programs. We’ve been forced to get creative to fill gaps in our portfolio, but honestly if we had the same access that we’d once had over these last 5 years, we could have easily sold twice as much bourbon.
So it came to a head last year. Our Kentucky trip consisted of only two barrel selections, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark. Still worth the time, but nowhere near the massive warehouse exploration that we’d once experienced. That’s not to say that we weren't getting other whiskies, but supplies were so tight that selecting onsite was a near impossibility.
It wasn’t like before, where we had the opportunity to find the best cask among many. Four Roses was the last place that allowed that and they only let us have a few at a time. Back at the shop we select between two or three samples if we were lucky. Sometimes it's a take it or leave it proposition.
Then things started to change. It starts as a trickle. A cask of Weller pops up from Sazerac. Our samples of Knob get progressively older and more delicious. Our old friends at Smooth Ambler score some great old Tennessee bourbon. Whistle Pig releases some old MGP stocks to us as single barrels.
But a trickle becomes a stream. A stream becomes a river. Suddenly, we’re headed back to Kentucky with the most exciting line-up of we’ve seen in half a decade. Almost every major distillery is on our list. Almost all of them will include barrel selections. The list is truly astonishing and will include a completely new product from one of the big three distillers as well as barrel tasting as a number of distilleries that had previously been completely off limits to us.
We are extremely lucky and proud of the relationships we’ve built with our partners over the years and while we still won’t come close to meeting the incredible demand for the amazing products that Kentucky continues to create, we are at the beginning of a new phase in the whiskey revolution. A category reborn from its own ashes. It will never be the same, but it just might be even better this time around.