Bourbon Blues & the Secondary Market

Folks, I firmly believe we are living in the good old days of whiskey.  If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because I use this line at the end of every review–and–I truly believe it.  Sure, there are flaws in the industry, and bourbon is far from infallible, but we’re at a unique point in history.  So much of America’s native spirit has been aging–awaiting its time to migrate to bottles.  I have some grievances to air, however, and as such–I figured starting the year off with a bang could be fun.  Let’s talk about the bourbon blues.

Photo: Buffalo Trace Distillery

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John H.

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January 13th, 2022

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF WHISKEY

To kick things off, it’s probably best I explain my “good old days of whiskey” mantra.  It’s easy to think that good old days  are in fact days gone by, but hear me out.  I’ll refer to bourbon specifically in this post, but I believe this to be true for all American whiskey (and this should be read in that context).  Let’s take a cursory look through bourbon’s [relatively recent] past to understand a bit more.

It’s not uncommon for “the good old days” to be used in a more literal sense of the days that no longer exist.  I’m with you.  This makes sense in most cases.  That being said, the bygone days of bourbon aren’t necessarily reflective of it’s current popularity.  In fact, bourbon’s rocky history serves only to bolster my opinion of these being the good old days.

The glut-era of bourbon is something well known to brands, distilleries, and folks who identify as enthusiasts in the whiskey world.  During the dark days of bourbon (beginning in the 1970’s) there was a shift in supply and demand that, sadly, left distillers and producers with more product than they could realistically sell for a profit.

In some sense I could see how this may–again–lead a bourbon drinker to think that the old days were–in some ways–better, due to the fact that so many brands were more or less forced to put their older stocks into more common offerings.

This practice is, of course, in stark comparison to today’s bourbon market where it seems that age statements keep descend as prices move disproportionately upward.  For the glut era, it was a simple reality of the times.  Distillers needed to get the already aged whiskey bottled for retail, where it would (hopefully) be purchased by a consumer who might appreciate the quality of the distillate for the price.

Many things have changed in the bourbon industry since the glut era, most notably, the amount of exposure the American whiskey scene maintains compared to even a decade ago.  Outlets such as social media, bourbon clubs, podcasts, and this very blog you’re reading are all significant changes to the way potential consumers discover new brands and products.

WHAT IS THE SECONDARY MARKET?

A secondary market, by nearly any definition, is simply a market where something is purchased from a party other than the original seller.  In the case of bourbon it’s simple: buying bottles (often at a premium) from someone who is not the producer or retailer.  This usually comes in the form of a transaction from an online platform, whereby one person lists an item for sale (or trade) and another person inquires to acquire it.

Why does the bourbon secondary market exist?  That’s a fairly straightforward answer: if there is room to make a buck, there are folks willing to do it.  Below is an excerpt from a 2015 Reddit post where an experienced enthusiast answers the question, “What happens on the secondary market?”.

The prices can be ridiculously high, especially for anything Pappy, but they’re only that high because people are willing to pay them, so to the buyer they are not outrageous. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

R/Bourbon member DustlessWalnut

Simply put, the secondary market exists for the purpose of–sometimes substantial–personal gain.  What does this have to do with the good old days of whiskey?  One might think I’m suggesting that buying rare bourbon at retail and flipping it for profit makes this the golden age of whiskey.  Quite the opposite.

THE BOURBON BLUES

I’ve covered a portion of bourbon’s history, and also revealed some of the newer (and potentially less scrupulous) trends in the category.  Now it’s time to talk the blues – the bourbon blues – and what I mean by that.

To me, “the bourbon blues” relates to the soul, romance, and grit my mind conjures when I appreciate blues music.  There’s passion in the bourbon industry, and that passion can fuel a lot of things: innovation, love, even a bit of hate.  Let’s be honest–there are facets to everything in life that fall into a less-than-savory column of the ledger, and bourbon is definitely not immune.

Tired of chasing allocated products in a control State?  You might just have the bourbon blues.  Burned out seeing the bottles you want stuck behind a glass case priced exponentially higher than the MSRP?  Yep, sounds like the bourbon blues.  Can’t stand the sight of (yet another) sealed bottle posted on social media by someone who is almost certainly going to flip it for profit?  You, my friend, have guessed it: it’s the bourbon blues.

So what’s the cure for the bourbon blues?  I’m not a doctor, but I have a prescription…and it may surprise you.

CURING THE BOURBON BLUES

At the risk of sounding a bit like a late 1990’s TV ad for a hair loss product, I’ll confess: I’ve suffered from the bourbon blues myself…and beat them. But wait, there’s more! Believe it or not, can find salvation for your bourbon soul as well. But seriously, I don’t mean to mystify things. The solution for me was quite simple: get involved.

For me, this included the very website you’re currently viewing.  I wanted an outlet to share my thoughts on whiskey.  These days more than ever, we’re unable to spend as much time with friends as family – having a space to post images, thoughts, and tasting notes was a change I decided worth my time.  While kicking off a whiskey blog may not be the answer for everyone, there is always opportunity out there for those willing to make changes of their own.

That’s right. Take a page from the same book of countless writers, musicians, and poets and decide for yourself – it’s time to make a change. I have no intention to preach, so I’ll attempt to toe the line carefully.  But make no mistake, this post is a polite rant about bullshit presently occurring in the bourbon world.  It seems that as prices have increased, the levels of entitlement, derision, and elitism have hit an all time high in tandem.

I flat-out dislike the idea of hoarding bottles to flip for profit, waiting in line overnight in front of liquor stores for bottles that aren’t going to be opened and enjoyed, and the outright animosity that flies around bourbon groups. I have set out to foster a more positive environment where reviews (good or bad) are made to be shared, as is the whiskey.

But I’m not alone.  There are other creators in the hobby that share a similar mindset.  Accordingly, I’d like to take a moment to highlight some of the bourbon world’s positivity – places where bourbon fans can soak up some great knowledge, or just enjoy themselves without feeling like they absolutely must have every limited edition bottle out there. Here are a few outlets you can use to entertain, educate, and enjoy:

  • The Bourbon Pursuit Podcast – Hosts Ryan, Kenny, and Fred conduct great interviews on topics that whiskey enthusiasts want to hear about.  Those who prefer podcasts won’t find a more informative platform.
  • Rare Bird 101 – Author and blogger David Jennings is the most devout Wild Turkey Bourbon fan around. The guy (literally) wrote the book on Wild Turkey. If you’re looking for reviews with a realistic perspective and a great writing style, you’ll fit right in with his flock. (Pun intended)
  • Whiskey Raiders – My co-host and great buddy, Jay West, runs “The Rotten Tomatoes of Whiskey” over at Whiskey Raiders.  Aside from reviewing damn near every whiskey under the sun, they go the extra mile and aggregate scores from other reviewers to provide a unique wide-angle perspective.
  • Chuck Cowdery – If you’re new to the whiskey journey, you’ll find Chuck’s blog an absolute goldmine of information. He has surely forgotten more about whiskey than I’ll ever know.  And if you’ve been around for a while, but haven’t read Chuck’s content, you’re in for a real deep dive. Enjoy!

As someone who categorically rejects the idea that any bottle of whiskey is “worth” a price someone other than the manufacturer decides, I think the premise of a secondary market is foolish.  (Granted, I have plenty of exceptions to manufacturer’s pricing as well.)   I’ve heard all manner of arguments against my position, and there’s an underlying theme I’ve noticed in a great many.

Arguments in favor of utilizing a secondary market range in creativity but often come down to the fact that someone, somewhere, feels entitled. Entitled to “get their bottle” of something; entitled to make a profit by [illegally] reselling it online; entitled to trade it for a bottle they didn’t have access to otherwise.

Look, if you want to take part in that I’m not here to stop you.  If you’re inclined to use disparaging terms like “tater” rather than share thoughts about whiskey with friends, that’s on you – but I’m here to share my thoughts on the topic, and if these musings strike a chord with even one whiskey enthusiast who has the time to read longer blog posts, I feel like it was worth my time in writing.

Final thoughts…

Remember the early days in your bourbon journey and the excitement of every new product ?  Or if you’re still getting your feet under you, consider how much you’ve enjoyed trying something new, only to find out you’ve discovered a new favorite.  Keep these fond memories intact throughout in your whiskey travels and remember that great whiskey is meant to be shared!

These are the good old days of whiskey, but all the same, they are only what you make of them.  Join me in one of the many whiskey Discord servers I run, Email me, or subscribe to Weekly Whiskey on YouTube when you’re ready to leave the bourbon blues behind and start having fun.  I’ll be right here!

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