It’s that time of year, when Pappy Van Winkle raises your hopes and then dashes them.
Every October, the brand releases its annual allotment of whiskies around the country. While it hasn’t commented on the size of this year’s shipment, the odds of you snagging a bottle are still very low thanks to the fact that every whiskey drinker on Earth wants one. The stores lucky enough to get a few bottles of Pappy usually put them aside for their best customers. (Don’t even ask about waiting lists; those who are offered Pappy buy it.)
But Pappy fever has had an unintended consequence, it has created a whole new group of drinkers who search liquor stores and the internet for specific whiskies. What a difference a decade or two makes, it wasn’t that long ago that American whiskey distillers had the reverse problem of trying to convince stores to stock more than just the basic bourbons and ryes.
The current popularity of American whiskey (and the success of Pappy) has now made once fairly common but excellent bottles from a range of distilleries hard to find and pushed their prices ever higher. Of course, the supply and the popularity of these spirits varies widely depending upon what part of the country you’re in but, suffice it say, these bottles are generally in very high demand.
Here are a few prized whiskies to look out for. If you see one in a liquor store I suggest buying it. There’s no telling when you’ll be able to buy it again.
Blanton’s is one of my all-time favorites. And while it was never cheap, it was easy to find a bottle if I needed a special present or if I felt like spoiling myself. Those days are over. Clearly, I’m not the only one who likes this bourbon, which helped kick off the modern whiskey boom. It was, in fact, the first single barrel bourbon when it was introduced in 1984 and was created by George T. Stagg master distiller Elmer T. Lee. (It was originally priced at $30, which was an unheard sum at the time for an American whiskey.) I’ve recently seen it selling for nearly twice its current suggested retail price of $60. When I asked why it was so expensive, the cashier explained that the demand was so extreme that they raised the price to keep it from selling out. Other stores, including New York’s legendary Park Avenue Liquor Shop, are completely out of stock and can’t get any more for the foreseeable future.
When Pappy reached fever pitch a few years ago, I kept hearing a rumor that Weller was the same thing but just packaged under a different label. That turned out to be not quite the whole story. They are both produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Buffalo Trace makes a number of whiskies, including Blanton’s.) Weller and Pappy are both so-called wheated bourbons, since they’re made with corn, barley and wheat instead of the more standard rye. And the two brands have the same mash bill (mix of grains). So how are they different? To answer this question, I had to consult with my colleague and whiskey maven, Lew Bryson. He said the two brands age their whiskies for different amounts of time and in different warehouses. (The barrels are even kept on different floors of their respective warehouses.) These might sound like small things but are factors that can actually have a big effect on how the finished whiskey tastes. So, while they’re not exactly the same product, that rumor and the fact that the whiskey is good, suddenly made Weller very, very popular. W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old, W.L. Weller Special Reserve and Old Weller Antique have become extremely hard to find and sought after. So, if you see any Weller whiskey buy it!
It’s getting ever harder to find a 10-year-old American whiskey for less than $50. So, it’s no surprise that the 100-proof Henry McKenna 10-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, which has a suggested retail price of $35, is getting very popular. While you can still buy it, the cost is definitely creeping up in many stores and it wouldn’t surprise me if it soon becomes impossible to find. I suggest buying it now before it’s too late.
Just a few years ago, if you were lucky you might find Old Forester Birthday Bourbon on sale at your local liquor store. The old-fashioned glass decanter stood out, but the limited-edition whiskey, which celebrates the September birth of Brown-Forman’s founder George Garvin Brown, wasn’t a great seller. The secret is now out and the suggested retail price has grown from around $35 originally to $100 as ever more drinkers want to add it to their personal whiskey collections. This year’s Birthday Bourbon, which is the 18th in the series, was just released a few weeks ago and, with a bit of luck, you may be able to still find. Unfortunately, Brown-Forman releases the whiskey just once a year and went it’s sold out, it’s really sold out. How tight is supply? I just visited the distillery in Louisville as the brand’s guest and even heard some of its employees grousing about the difficulties of getting a bottle for themselves.
While Basil Hayden’s made its name with bourbon, some of the brand’s ryes have become very popular. In particular, the Dark Rye ($40), which debuted at the beginning of the year and is made with two different rye whiskies and port, is selling as quickly as the brand can make it. Many stores are now pricing the liquor for $50 or more. No doubt the price will continue to climb.