Bourbon Dispatches No. 11 – How to Hunt Rare Bourbons

This week I picked up a copy of Whisky Advocate magazine to check out their Annual Whisky Awards. For the record, Booker’s Rye ($300) won the year’s best American Whiskey and has been added to the top of many Bourbon hunters’ “Unicorn List.”

But I also stumbled across an insightful article by one of the top Bourbon writers around, Fred Minnick, on hunting rare Bourbons. This article by itself is worth the $6.99 price tag or you can subscribe for $22 a year.

So today, I am going to summarize Fred’s advice for those who are new to the game.

First, let’s look at which bottles are considered rare in this day and age. Here’s a quick list of some of the hardest to find:

  • Van Winkle - (Release starts in fall, but some retailers and distributors stagger the release.)
    • Pappy Van Winkle includes 23, 20 and 15 year
    • Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year
    • Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year
    • Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year
  • Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) (Release begins in Fall, but can vary depending on the locale)
    • William LaRue Weller
    • Thomas H. Handy Rye
    • Eagle Rare 17 year
    • Sazarec Rye 18 year
    • George T. Stagg
  • Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition (Releases in September; 9,258 bottles released in 2016)
  • Parker’s Heritage Collection (Releases in Fall)
  • Elijah Craig 18 Year (Releases in early spring in 2017)
  • Booker’s Rye 13 Year (Released as a one-time bottling in May 2016)
  • Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (10,000 bottles to go out in Fall of 2017)
  • Weller 12 Year (Releases in the Fall)

Here’s Minnick’s assessment of how the Bourbon hunting has evolved over the past few years:

“Starting about a decade ago, high-volume retailers saw Bourbon fans arriving early, and such limited edition bottles were gone by store’s close. By 2009, the early-risers stood outside waiting for the doors to open. They were camping out the night before in 2012. Now, if you want to glimpse such elusive prey, you’ll have to prepare, make a game plan, stalk the target, and readily adapt to a changing landscape. You must become a Bourbon hunter.”

Rules for Bourbon Hunting

Minnick overviews five rules for bourbon hunting in the article and over the next few weeks, I will share some of his thoughts on each one. Let’s start with rule number one:

Choose Your Hunting Grounds

  • “Rare Bourbons are meted out like genie wishes to top retailers, a process known as allocation.”
  • “Major markets get the bulk of the bulk of the product and high volume accounts are rewarded for selling their products. In this system, the Chicago retailer who sells the most Four Roses Yellow Label will receive more Four Roses Limited Edition bottles than a low volume account.”
  • “Despite the doom-and-gloom allocation stories, retailers are receiving bottles and you increase your chances of obtaining one if you know which stores receive them.”
  • “In control states, where the liquor stores are government operated, allocation numbers are available to the public. The Pennsylvania Liquor Board (PLCB) received 927 bottles of BTAC for the state in 2016...In 2016, vying for 1,601 bottles of Van Winkle, the PLCB received 88,068 entries from 13,085 entrants. Nearly 10,000 names were removed for duplicate entries, non-verified Pennsylvania addresses, and violation of lottery terms and conditions. Even with cheaters removed, participants in the 2016 PLCB VAn Winkle lottery had about a 2 percent chance of winning.”
  • “You’ll find better odds in Bourbon’s mother state. At the Liquor Barn’s Springhurst store, 700 people participated in a lottery for 100 BTAC bottles, a one-in-seven chance of taking home a bottle.”
  • “K&L [a popular California and online retailer] only received one bottle of Sazarec 18, three of George T. Stagg, two of William Larue Weller, six to twelve bottles of Four Roses Limited Edition and a dozen bottles of Pappy Van Winkle. This allocation must be split among 5,000 K&L customers. After trying raffles, [they] are moving toward preferential treatment."