Bunker-Busting And Broadening Horizons

In the United States, it’s Labor Day weekend, which is one of the early signals that the fall exclusive season is about to begin. If you’re inclined to follow whisky blogs or twitter personalities, you’ve no doubt seen rumors of this year’s crop of highly-priced, limited edition releases. Even Reddit is starting to show signs of the fall, with an ever-increasing hype around BTAC and Van Winkle.

As with last year, I’m largely sitting this year out. I managed to happen across a bottle of Stagg last year, which I picked up to share with some friends, but I spent no effort trying to stay on top of the annual release craze. This year, I’m not going after anything – even if I see a bottle, I’ll pass it up.

Over the last few months, it seems that the whisky community – especially bourbon – has been whipped into a frenzy and are buying like the asteroid is going to come and wipe us all out before the new year. The usual cockamamie schemes to land an extra bottle are being crafted and set in motion, as if most places don’t have waiting lists longer than a troubled star’s rap sheet. The community is turning towards itself and now everyone is trying to pull a fast one and make a quick buck off each other on the Facebook exchanges.

The odd thing is that most people involved have enough bourbon to give the entire population of Manhattan acute alcohol poisoning. It seems like whiskey hoarding has hit an all-time high.

And, of course, speaking of making a quick buck, the questionable players who are trying to flog their “whisky investment” business are pointing to rising prices and dropping quality as the surest sign that you need to buy in now.

A few month back, I tapped out of buying much in the way of new releases. The unceasing hype, the rising prices and the real and very clear drop in quality really started to put me off. As I coasted on my old supply, I began to do the math and realize I had far more on hand than I ever thought. As a variety-is-the-spice-of-life kind of guy, the thought of sequentially plowing through a bunch of duplicate bottles (or coming back to them regularly) didn’t grab me. Nor did plowing through a host of questionable middle-aged second- and third- tier independent bottlings that seem to have been released just for the purpose of saying “exclusive single-barrel offering”.

It became a feedback loop, and the less I had, the more the supply stretched on to infinity.

It started simply: chucking those bottles I’d swore I was going to “come back to”: bottles you open, have a glass or two of, and silently vow you’re not going to give samples of. After all, who needs to know you were dumb enough to buy that really iffy too-young Ardmore? Yeah, that bottler had a decent record, but even they are picking the really questionable barrels. That single-barrel bourbon? It didn’t even have the refinement of the standard lower-tier bottle.

Then I started giving bottles as gifts. It was a great way to clear out some of the middle-of-the-road offerings that were decent but I had no real intention to get around. Balvenie’s 15 year old single barrel is great, but I have no idea why I owned a couple unopened ones. I also had so much Old Weller Antique that it seemed fair to pass some along.

And then, when picking up something for a friend, a store owner led with, “you’re a regular bourbon buyer – what do you think about Pappy Van Winkle?” Push came to shove, and I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse – anywhere from 5 to 8 times the original retail price I paid. Is it wanton profiteering? Sure, if you want to call it that. If you were a whisky investor, you’d note this was a sane, considered opportunity to take some profits and diversify. I left the store with enough money in hand to put a substantial payment down on a new car, if I’d been so inclined (I wasn’t). I left thinking perhaps I owed Robert Parker something of an apology, if not a commission check.

All of this, and the obsessive tracking of value (in a cash sense) brings me to the point personally of having an eye to, er, liquidate a fair amount of my collection. Some as gifts, some sold if someone is interested, and certainly some retained for my own pleasure - no way am I selling my 1401/3′s!

This summer, I’ve talked whiskey with a lot of people. The moment where it all clicked for me was at a backyard cookout. A friend said, “I really haven’t had many expensive whiskeys, I can’t imagine what they taste like.” My mouth started before my brain connected, and I heard myself say, “Past a certain point, you’re frequently paying for a certain degree of novelty – extra age, stylistic extremes or attempts to innovate that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. The reality is that I would be satisfied with most average middle of the road offerings.” And after thinking about it, I didn’t feel the need to clarify or walk any statements back. Scotch is perhaps going the way of the dodo for me with $50 NAS releases becoming ever more common; it’s clear the Japanese releases are being kept at a low price for now (how much longer?); and there’s a fair enough selection of enjoyable bourbon at a reasonable price.

It’s an odd time. I didn’t have the inclination to follow the armagnac craze; my tastes in rum are relatively pedestrian and I’m happy to stick with Hendrick’s and St. George’s for gin. Beer provides a much better bang for the buck, but beyond all that, I’m finding that sleeping and waking with a clear head these past few months is even more enjoyable. Plus, with the LA summer heat, I’m not really in the mood for a big sherried scotch or a peat monster, to say nothing of a big oaky bourbon.

When I started this blog, I was going to have a broader scope. I fell into a trap of pure whiskey obsession and really didn’t focus on much beyond it. It’s not to say that all whiskey reviews are done, but I’m certainly not feeling any pressure to stay in the pack of whiskey bloggers anymore (if, indeed, I was even in such a pack).

And seriously, if you’re a whiskey investor, it’s time to SELL. Especially the Van Winkles. Holy cow.