Second to the pleasure of tasting and sharing whiskey? The pleasure of hunting for it!
I thoroughly enjoy The Hunt. I’ve noted elsewhere how early on in my whiskey journey I hunted to find big fish I could sell at whale prices to pay for small fish. But this approach proved very disheartening, and, for me, counter to the spirit of the grains distilled so carefully into sunlight. I dropped that angle on hunting pretty quickly and got on with the pure pleasure of The Hunt!
The Hunt takes many forms:
1. Googling reviews about bottles of interest, to assess my own interest.
2. Cross-checking prices of specific bottles at various online shops, and on websites of brick and mortar shops.
3. Keeping close tabs on the online shops that offer new product feeds, especially when I’ve been tipped off that some specific bottle is soon to be released.
4. Following the posts on certain Facebook groups local to my area — where tips on new bottles and good deals often appear, trade and selling offers are made at cost rather than pirate prices, and sample shares are often offered.
5. Going on “dusty walks,” strolling on foot around some particular neighborhood to see what happens to be on the shelves that day.
It’s this latter form of hunting I enjoy most—on foot! There are certain stores I visit regularly. It’s fairly easy to discern when one is dealing with a shopkeeper who knows their whiskey from experience and takes genuine pleasure in it. Other shops are very civilized, yet over-priced and the staff not always knowledgable. One shop I know of sells some bottles at normal prices, yet inevitably jacks up the rarities to four or five times the suggested retail price. And the employees there seem to never have tasted whatever bottle I ask them about. (I finally stopped going there for good when they raised the price of Henry McKenna up from $30 to $100 after it won an award.) Whereas another similarly sized shop—plunked at seeming random in a residential area way out on the city’s outskirts—not only sells at average prices or less, but their store-picks and even some unicorns are typically sold in a respectable vicinity to the suggested retail price. And the staff taste everything. It’s worth it to me to make the trek farther out to visit them.
My favorite shops are owned and staffed by folks who have tried what they sell and are open to conversation. I like getting to know people. It’s neighborly. And, the more you get to know someone, the more they seem to have odd bottles tucked away or some inside scoop about an upcoming release. These relationships become key to mapping out one’s hunt over a given year. Not too long ago I walked into a store to find they had a Weller Antique 107 private barrel for sale. The fellow working that day recognized me from my past visits and shared the tip that, despite the one-bottle-per-customer limit, they had a second Weller Antique 107 private barrel on hand that would be released as soon as the first sold out, and I should come back for it in about two weeks. He asked me not to spread that information around, as they had a great many people coming in who they knew to be online resellers, flipping the Wellers for hiked prices. He took the time to value me as a customer, and so he has my return business. It’s a win-win situation.
Then there are the random convenience stores. Some of these folks know what they’ve got when a unicorn comes their way, and their prices are often worse than the “civilized” establishments. (One corner store I know has been trying to sell the same bottle of Weller Special Reserve at $150 forever. No bites. I suspect the owner has mistaken it for Weller 12.) But occasionally, whether because they don’t know or don’t care, one encounters a convenience store that shelves things at the suggested retail price and gets on with business. They must be making a profit otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
And whenever I come home empty handed from a day’s hunt, my back stock consoles me. There is pleasure to be had in The Hunt whether one finds anything or not. It’s the hunting itself—the walks, the conversations with knowledgeable and enthusiastic shopkeepers, exchanging tips with fellow hunters, internet searches for new stores and best deals—that is the pleasure, building up the drama behind any bottles found. Fellow hunters revel in sharing how they came across a particular bottle. These stories add flavor to the whiskeys themselves. There is a particular satisfaction in savoring a glass of something you know was patiently smoked out of the wild!
Keep an eye on the calendar — Know when bottles are getting released. How? There are some good folks out there gathering that intel for the rest of us. Breaking Bourbon is a great resource for release dates. In time you start to memorize certain patterns. The autumn months are a big release time, for example. January is a good time for deals, since a lot of the stuff that didn’t sell by the end of the previous year gets discounted. Come springtime there is a second rush of releases. Late summer sees more discounts in anticipation of the autumn’s new onslaught. Being familiar with release patterns also saves you from bothering shopkeepers with questions about out-of-season rare bottles.
Be a good customer — Liquor store folks are inundated with whiskey hunters these days. So if they roll their eyes or even laugh at you when you ask for Pappy or William Larue Weller, don’t take it personally. You’re likely the tenth person that day. (I was browsing in a shop once and a guy came sweeping in, scanned the shelves quickly, then asked the shopkeeper pointblank: “You have any unicorns tucked in the back?” The shopkeeper shook his head, and the guy was out the door. Not too subtle.) Find the shops you like, and be a good customer. Good customers buy things. Buy lower-cost bottles throughout the year rather than only sailing through for the big fish. If there isn’t anything on the shelf you need or want when you go in, buy a bottle of water instead. Strike up a conversation. Get to know them and what they like. They’ve often got great taste themselves. I’ve learned a lot from my conversations with the owners of shops I frequent most.
One part planning, two parts accident — Plan ahead in terms of your budget for the given month or season, and what you anticipate you most want to get. But also keep your eyes open for surprises. So many times bottles have appeared along my path seemingly out of nowhere. A lone bottle of the rather uncommon Shenk’s Homestead Bourbon, for example, priced at msrp at a random corner store in a neighborhood I don’t frequent. Or a trio of dusty 2006 Wild Turkey 101 bottles, tucked on a lower shelf of a store I’d gone into many times before, but I’d just never noticed them down there!
Know your way around a label — Get familiar with the language of whiskey labels. This can help you know what you’re buying, and to separate the honest whiskeys from the pretenders. Some producers are more transparent on their labels than others, and labeling rules are different from country to country. (In Japan the laws around transparency are pretty loose, for example. Whereas in America definitions are quite strict.) Certain aspects of a label are dependable. If a bourbon is under 4 years of age, for example, the age must be stated on the label. So if no age is stated you know the bourbon is at least 4 years old. Also, a producer can’t claim to have distilled something it hasn’t. So if the label says, “Distilled in Indiana, aged and bottled in Ohio,” then you know the joint in Ohio likely sourced the whiskey from MGP in Indiana, shipped the fresh distillate to Ohio for aging and bottled it there themselves. MGP makes a lot of great whiskey, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But knowing the source will help you estimate whether it might be to your liking. Furthermore, learning how a given distillery uses laser codes on their bottles can help you pinpoint when the bottle was released. This is highly useful with Wild Turkey products, for example, which are known for their consistent mash bill but changing entry proofs and meticulous warehousing. And WT master distiller Eddie Russell, in his frequent interviews, is given to dropping bits of info about ages, barrel proofs before bottling, and other blending details, adding clues as to the contents of specific annual batches. So knowing when a given WT bottle was bottled can be useful. Luckily there are folks who have done that laser code research for the rest of us. (For more basic whiskey label terminology and legalese, check the Resource page.)
Go on “dusty walks” — Walking is good exercise. Periodically I’ll choose a neighborhood and walk its grid, stopping into any store that sells liquor. Early in the day on weekdays is best if you can swing it—fewer fellow hunters than on weekends or after 5:00 p.m. when most folks get off work. I’ve often found older bottles this way, or current bottles at good prices. It’s also been a good way to get to know which shops tend to have what. It’s surprising how sometimes the most nondescript little store will randomly have some great bottle tucked between its stocks of Bulleitt and Maker’s Mark. Most bottles of Weller 12 I’ve found have been at such places, and priced anywhere from $40 to $70 rather than the increasingly standard $150+.
Collaborate — Get to know what your local whiskey hunting friends like. Look out for them, noting when you’ve spotted something on a shelf or heard of a certain bottle’s drop date. Know their hunting list, and buy something on their behalf if you find it first. The favor will be returned. It all works out in the wash and everybody benefits. Likewise, sharing samples with one another can be a great way to try bottles out before making the financial commitment. I keep a box of empty 2oz bottles at home for this purpose. Sharing is caring!
Get social on the media — Follow the Instagram accounts of distilleries, local shops, and bloggers (😉) to get hits on new offerings, drop dates, and other info. Find Facebook whiskey groups based in your region and join them. If such a group doesn’t exist where you are, start one. I’ve come into so many great bottles this way, for both cash and trade. Just recently, a very kind fellow, whom I’d only known of online through a local Facebook group, read in a post that I was inclined toward a certain bottle but only below a certain price. He found it at that price in Texas, where he was on a business trip, and volunteered to “mule” a bottle to me. Whiskey friends are generous—even when you’ve never met!
Stay optimistic — Read that again. It’s foundational. Bitter is the easiest thing to be, and the biggest waste of time. Think of it this way: In actual fact, there is no shortage whatsoever of great whiskies at great prices. Likewise, a seemingly unlimited stream of “limited” editions comes out each year. If you make it your sole goal to get Pappy Van Winkle and the full BTAC line up each autumn, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, for not making your next mortgage payment, or both. It’s true that folks with disposable income can fairly easily get most any unicorn most any time of the year. I can think of three shops off the top of my head that I could go to right now, plunk down $400 to $1000 if I had that kind of money to spend, and walk away with a Pappy or BTAC. Easy as that. But most folks aren’t hunting on that kind of budget. And anyway, with a quick Google one finds any number of articles echoing that the unicorn bottles aren’t necessarily better tasting than other easier to find, less direly hunted, infinitely more affordable options. Buy shots of unicorns at a bar and see whether the taste-experience is actually of value to you. And if it is, let the hunting begin! If not, great, you can devote your time and money to other things. Once I blind-tasted Weller Special Reserve and the more sought-after Weller 12 side by side, and could barely tell the difference. My need to hunt Weller 12 nearly vanished in that moment. It was then I also started paying more attention to other wheated bourbons, like Redemption Wheated and McKenzie BiB Wheated. Their quality pushed Weller 12 even further down my hunting list. So now when I near-miss some special bottle I’d been hunting, I relax and look on for the next—like a patient cat hunting birds in the backyard, knowing there’s always going to be food in the bowl.
Be honest — with yourself, with your bank account, with your whiskey friends, and with your local liquor stores. Honesty will never, ever bite you in the ass. It might mean it takes longer for you to nab that prized bottle. But you’ll nab it eventually. And that will be a very satisfying moment.
Offering similar and additional tips:
A Guide to Dusty Hunting — First We Feast dot com
6 Tips To Help You Be A Better Bourbon Hunter — Liquor dot com
How To Find Rare Bourbons — Whiskey Advocate dot com