Welcome to Chasing Whiskey, a monthly newsletter delivering barrel-proof takes on whiskey, new bottles to look out for and recommendations from Gear Patrol readers. Subscribe here to get it, and other great gear news delivered directly to your inbox.
New Whiskeys to Look for from April
Stellum Bourbon: Barrell Craft Spirits released a more affordable, more Indiana-focused blended sub-brand bottled at barrel proof. $55 / 4 to 16 years old / 114 proof
Laphroaig 10-Year Sherry Oak Finish: Classic, peaty, briney Laphroaig 10-year with a dark, fruity spin. The brand says it'll be available in limited quantities annually. $90 / 10 years old / 96 proof
Booker's Bourbon (Donohoe's Batch): After a short hiatus, the original barrel proof bourbon is back. Expect peanut, caramel and a lot of heat. $90 / 7 years old / 125 proof
The Price of Bourbon Is Growing Quickly. Why?
If you want a lawn mower, you might find the price of the one you're looking for on the manufacturer's website and shop it against what Lowe's, Home Depot or Ace Hardware are selling it for. Maybe you get a price match from an Amazon listing. In the end, it's hard to get ripped off, because everyone knows how much it should cost. What about bourbon? Anybody know how much Blanton's costs?
Good value — understood either as the possession of a strong quality-to-price balance, or just stuff that's plain old cheap — has been inextricably tied to American whiskey since its birth. It's one of the core (albeit less sexy) factors that sparked the Bourbon Boom, and a key differentiator between it and its elder kin, Scotch whisky. Like the glaciers, that's melting away.
Popular whiskey pricing discussion revolves around allocated, usually ultra-premium bottles of bourbon that are far more expensive than their manufacturer suggested retail price would have you believe. None of Blanton's ($60 MSRP), Weller Single Barrel ($50 MSRP), Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond ($85 MSRP) or really any whiskey you've ever heard the skeezy guy at the liquor store ask about bottles "in the back" are available near the list price. In response, communities and apps like BoozApp and Overpriced Bourbon have sprung up in an attempt to provide clarity for these whiskeys for which scarcity and hype is more valued than the whiskey itself.
As a product category expands, so too does the competition — in numbers, scale and options. The number of whiskey makers in the US has ballooned, bringing a swell of new and generally more expensive bottles to shelves. At the same time, the amount of whiskey being produced by the traditional mega-distillers (Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Brown-Forman, etc.) has never been higher, and they're prioritizing the good stuff, with most new releases aimed at the premium and ultra-premium sectors. Each of these developments yield more and more expensive whiskey. This, in combination with the Lawn Mower-Blanton's Paradox, however, provide excellent cover for accelerating price growth in the rest of the American whiskey market.
"Prices are expected to increase with heightened competition, as more brands enter the category. Existing brands are also releasing higher-end variants at trade-up price points," Adam Rogers, North American Research Director at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis says. "Consumers have acclimated to higher craft brand prices so increases from mainstream brands are going unnoticed."
Between 2016 and 2020, the average price of a 750ml bottle of bourbon, Tennessee whisky and rye rose by $3.49, according to IWSR data, or an increase of 9 percent. That makes the current average bottle of whiskey $44.12.
Back to lawn mowers. Lawn mowers are made by a company who might sell them through their own websites and through whatever retailers they choose. It's not that complicated. Bourbon is made by companies that don't have a direct connection to the customer. In most states, the whiskey makers legally cannot sell whiskey to drinkers (except through gift shops and the like); instead, they're only able to sell their product to a distributor, who then may only sell to retailers and bars, who possess the sole power of selling to regular whiskey drinkers. This is called the Three-Tier System, and among a host of negative side effects is the obfuscation of a bottle's fair price. Distilleries very rarely publish a bottle's suggested retail price, because retailers may have it marked differently, which is a bad look for each link in the whiskey-selling chain. It also means it's harder to know when prices for mainline, everyday bottles go up.
If I'm being honest, there isn't much to be done about this. Even if the Three-Tier system collapsed, you still have insatiable hypebeasts pumping prices up on the high-end. For now, I'll keep buying the whiskey that represents good value even with a price hike or two.
One More Bottle
I really can't get enough of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof. Whoever named it should get a hard slap on the wrist for making me type "single barrel barrel proof," but the whiskey inside is absolutely nuts. It grabs the banana note from Old No. 7 and turns the volume to max without being completely overwhelming. Despite proofs that reach into the mid-130s, it drinks well neat or on the rocks. It is the Norwegian death metal to classic Jack's soft rock, and it really is worth the $65 or so you'll spend getting it.
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The Gear Patrol Podcast is our weekly roundtable discussion focused on products, their stories, and the culture surrounding them. In this episode, Will Price and Nick Caruso talk about the rising costs of whiskey. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode.