Hunting Allocated Bottles: Worth It?

First, a caveat. While I did a bit of Pappy hunting in my day, and I certainly check dusty bins when visiting any new liquor store, you really couldn’t call me a bottle hunter. Some people are truly dedicated. I have friends who have a network of spies friends and subordinates who visit far-flung liquor stores at opportune times to check for rarities and allocations. One in particular oversees a distributed team of sales engineers, and directs his underlings to fetch rare bottles for him on work time. I won’t say who! Such dedicated bottle hunters will cultivate relationships with retail buyers and liquor store owners to try and get first dibs or courtesy calls when sought-after stuff arrives. Some are just simply willing to pay the extreme markups that some liquor stores apply when they know they have a gem. $300 for Weller 12? Couldn’t be me. But it is somebody.

I have a few friends who are relatively new to whiskey in general, and I’ve noticed the bug in them already. They ask me if I know when Blanton’s might arrive in stores. One called every local Costco when I told him that Kirkland Barton 1792 BIB was good. Another has a bead on when the Wellers come in to his local grocery store.

But back to the original question: Is it really worth it? If you’re new to whiskey, like my friends above, you get this immediate sense that anything on shelves is passé and only rare bottles are worth drinking. If people are paying $300 to $3000 for it aftermarket, it has to be the best, right? They forget (or don’t know) that many of us passed by these bottles 10 years ago when they were $20. When I was in high school, one of my friend’s dads used to buy a bottle of Blanton’s every week for his bourbon-on-the-rocks. Pappy 15 was a splurge at $50 for those in the know. “Who spends $50 on bourbon when most of it is $15?” My point is that these are not miracle elixirs that are magically better than everything else. Most are just a name on a bottle that suddenly went viral for some reason.

My favorite retailer said to me recently when I remarked about how good Barrell Seagrass was and asked why it wasn’t selling out, “…because you’re talking about flavor, which no one really cares about anymore.” That hit home. People are buying rare stuff because it’s rare, not (just) because it’s good. I imagine they’re doing it partially because of FOMO but mostly because it’s harder to buy based on flavor. That requires trying stuff and building a whiskey repertoire of likes and dislikes. That takes time, and effort, and failure. If someone’s second-ever bottle is Old Forester Birthday Bourbon or George T. Stagg (and their first was Jack Daniel’s), they’ll be able to tell that it’s better whiskey, but they won’t be able to appreciate why until they’ve tasted things in between.

For me, part of the joy of discovering a new favorite dram (be it bourbon or scotch or anything else) is the innate pleasure of knowing that I have a new reliable name that I can pick out of the sea of sameness at the liquor store. A port in the storm, so to speak. If acquiring that second bottle (or third, or…) means haranguing store clerks, getting in phone queues before opening time, running inventory refresh bots, paying 1000% markups, or driving hundreds of miles then that joy vanishes. I’m sure there’s the thrill of the hunt for some people, but the thought of doing that stuff again just makes me tired.

So to answer the original question: It’s not worth it to me. I’m much happier buying a second bottle of Barrell Seagrass for $85 than I would be stressing out over whether this season’s allocation of Buffalo Trace goodies has hit the local Total Wines or not. Is the rare whisky better than the readily-available stuff? Sometimes. Maybe even often. But is it THAT much better? No. No it’s not.

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  • I’m with you on this one. I’m primarily a scotch drinker, but my bourbon loving friends have told me that Blantons was fantastic for $30 but not worth anywhere near what it goes for now. I’ve commented before that I live in New York and can pretty much get what I want without paying a premium. I know I’m lucky in that regard. I will admit that when it comes to certain bottles like the first release of Blue Spot 7yr old it helps to have a friend on the inside. I’m happy to say it’s a genuine friendship and not one of opportunity. I’ve gotten a number of great bottles this way and they would be nowhere near as great if they were acquired through countless hours of searching. That’s just my opinion and I’m sure there are plenty of people who feel otherwise.

  • It’s disappointing to see an increasing number of distillers focusing their attention on collectors, as opposed to people who enjoy drinking the damn stuff. I’ve never understood why some people enjoy owning bottles of whisky – or rum, or cognac, or wine – simply because it’s “worth $x”, which means only a fool would consider opening it and drinking it. But if it gives them pleasure, that’s their business. However I resent seeing the industry pandering to these kinds of people by saving their premium product for bottles which will never be opened.

  • Well said. The crazy part is how fast things have changed. I remember THH and ER17 being cleared out locally for less than $50 a bottle several months into 2011. I bought one of each, because it was a splurge!

    The upside — and what people are missing — is that we haven’t missed the “golden age” of bourbon (or American whiskey). We’re on the runway to a new golden age. The variety readily available is staggering, and the number of new distilleries trying new things is also staggering.

    For instance, rye is my favorite spirit. 10 years ago, yes, I could get THH for $50, but I had very few choices on the shelf. It was that, Old Overholt, Saz18 and Saz6, and not much else. Now, most stores will have 50-100 choices. Yeah, most of them are mediocre or overpriced, but there are still at least a dozen solid ryes at decent prices in almost any store in the country.

    And the crazy barrel finishes… whether you are for or against Seagrass, it’s the best well-known example on the market of an innovative spirit that’s accessible to the masses. Yeah, it’s a Willy Wonka-like concoction, but put it in a blind lineup against HTF ryes going for $200-$2K, and I’ll bet it will come out near the top on taste every time. And there are hundreds of less-known, innovative finished bottles that are following a similar playbook.

    The best part of this hobby is sharing new drams with friends–and making new friends along the way–and there are more high-quality spirits to enjoy and share now than at any point in history. Cheers!