What’s that, Bunky? You say that when you went to the specialty liquor store to buy a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old the clerk looked at you as if you had just asked where you could find a northern white rhino? And now you’re having a hard time even finding Maker’s Mark at your local grocers? Well, brace yourself for disheartening news for all of us who have ever spent a hard day slogging through the outback looking for game, with the thought of pulling the cork on a bottle of bourbon back at camp to give us consolation at the end of the day. America’s native spirit is in short supply. In fact, there are some brands that you cannot find anywhere, at any price.
To be sure, not all bourbons are scarce, and if you are not particularly finicky about what you pour into a snifter or on the rocks, you’ll be able to find some version of premium bourbon somewhere. But if you are looking for specifics–such as the aforementioned Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old, which normally sells for around $300 a bottle, be prepared to pay a premium, if you can find a bottle at all. The last one I know of went for over one thousand dollars. And even Maker’s Mark, which is one of the best bargains around, felt the wrath of its fans when it announced that it was going to cut the proof in order to meet demand. The backlash, as you might expect, was so furious that the folks at Maker’s backtracked and restored the original proof, which means, of course, that now there is less Maker’s to go around.
Of course, these aren’t the only two brands to feel the pressure and frustration of not having enough bourbon to meet demand. It is felt throughout the industry. In fact, just recently, when I visited Independent Stave Company, a Kentucky cooperage that’s been around since 1912 (and one of the few bourbon barrel making companies in America), I discovered the firm is now working to full capacity just to fill the orders it has and is not taking on any new clients. They are literally making all the barrels their workforce can produce, and the distilleries, likewise, are working 24/7, except in those areas where they must close on Sunday. At Wild Turkey, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell told me their workers alternate with six-day shifts, “…because we have to give them at least one day off.” Or to put it in another perspective, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, whiskey sales have increased 40 percent during the past decade. And the greatest acceleration has been in recent years.
So what’s behind this sudden thirst for a brown, barrel-aged liquid that has been around since the 1700s? For one thing, before the austerity movement among China’s elite, bourbon (it is redundant to say American bourbon, because this is the only country where it can be made) was one of the “in” drinks, and foreign demand had seriously started to cut into our supplies. Europe has now also caught the allure of sipping the hearty spirit of America. On a recent visit to Paris, where one would expect cognac to be the drink of choice, one of my French hosts proudly bought me a glass of “real American whiskey,” a snifter of rare 126.6 proof William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon. One more coveted bottle for Europe, one less coveted bottle for America.
But overseas demand has only intensified the fact that our own country has suddenly been discovering what has been here all along. Chalk it up to the craft cocktail movement or to new generations tiring of vodka and scotch and looking for something heavier, meatier, or perhaps, figuratively closer to home. Yet ironically, during the 1990s, bourbon sales had slumped due to lack of demand, having been pushed to the back seat by the rise in single malt scotch. As a result, bourbon distillers started cutting back on their production, putting less whiskey into barrels for aging. Now scotch sales are down and bourbon consumption is soaring, to such an extent that a recent Vinexpo-commissioned survey predicts a 19.3 percent global increase in bourbon sales over the next five years.
Needless to say, the past slowdown in the number of barrels being aged has finally caught up with the bourbon industry and the distillers find they simply don’t have enough aged spirit in their rick houses to fill the increased demand. After all, by law, a spirit has to be at least four years old to be called bourbon, and some of the
better brands are much older than that. Knob Creek, for example, is nine years old and even Jim Beam’s powerhouse Bookers, which is bottled unfiltered, straight from the cask, is aged from six to eight years. And aging is not something that can be artificially enhanced; it takes 21 years to make a bottle of 21 Year Old Elijah Craig. Plus, the bourbon shortage has been exacerbated by a barrel shortage, because, again by law, bourbon must be aged in new charred white oak barrels. That means the barrels cannot be reused for bourbon (although they have found a ready home in Scotland for aging scotch whisky). Thus, there is now a growing oak shortage, which is the only wood that can be used for bourbon barrels.
So where will it all end? Well, in time the clear spirits that are currently slumbering in new, charred oak barrels, where they are gradually turning into the amber-brown potable that is so much in demand, will eventually meet the master distiller’s exacting criteria for flavor and will be bottled, and eventually the shortage will subside, perhaps in conjunction with a fickle public’s attention shifting to another spirit. Thus, the bourbons we crave will once again gradually become obtainable. But for now, we simply have to cope with the shortage, opting for internet sources and perhaps driving to a different store or even another state to locate that certain American spirit. As for me, if I can’t find the bourbon I want, I’m looking for a bottle of single malt scotch.– Richard Carleton Hacker