Where's The Bourbon? Shortage Shows No Signs Of Slowing Down

bourbon shortage
Bourbon bottles at Old Town. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington

It’s a question that echoes through liquor stores, bars and restaurants throughout the state of Kentucky: “Do you have any Blanton’s?”

Usually, the answer is a resounding, “No.”

More and more bourbons, many of which used to be readily available at liquor stores everywhere, are joining the ranks of “rare,” and this is particularly true of Buffalo Trace Distillery products. The company’s W.L. Weller line, especially the 12-year expression, are nearing Blanton’s status, and even the relatively basic, screw-top Weller Special Reserve has become a commodity.

So, the calls and questions persist. 

“We get probably 20 requests a day” for the heavily-pursued Blanton’s Single Barrel, said Gordon Jackson, owner of Old Town Wine & Spirits in the Highlands. “And we get probably six or so bottles a month.”

The bourbon boom of the past 15 or so years has seen demand grow far faster than supply. Bourbon lovers speak wistfully of days when they could find the elusive Pappy Van Winkle on liquor store shelves. If they find one now, it’s undoubtedly going to be on the secondary market. Either way, the price is going to be many times Buffalo Trace’s recommended retail price.

For example, the 2020 Van Winkle 15-year expression carried a suggested retail price of $119.99. Do a quick Google search, and the first bottles that pop up for sale are in the $2,500 range. You want a bottle of the once-common Eagle Rare 10-year? You’ll have to get lucky or pay a premium. Evan Williams’ formerly easy-to-find Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond got tagged with a “bourbon of the year” designation in recent years, and bottles disappeared from store shelves. And the shortage shows no sign of slowing down — a recent news release from Buffalo Trace was telling. 

“The bourbon category continues to grow at a rapid rate,” Buffalo Trace Vice President of Marketing Sara Saunders said in the release, “and while we have been increasing production across our portfolio for the last several years, we are still catching up to consumer demand. While we are producing and shipping a record amount of product, we understand the frustration from fans that our brands aren’t easy to find or readily available. We take pride in the quality of our product above all else, and we believe that there is no substitute for aging. Unfortunately, this lengthens the lead time of getting product into consumers’ hands.”

There are many factors coming together causing the market madness, making it tougher and tougher for a regular Jane or Joe to walk into their local liquor store and buy the bottle they used to routinely find. 

These tasty bourbons will satisfy without breaking the bank.
These tasty bourbons will satisfy without breaking the bank.

Allocation Is Not Your Friend

The phrase “allocated bourbons” comes up a lot these days, because bourbon fans understand that distilleries allocate certain quantities of their brands to various states. Often, those allocations are based on past sales. Meaning it’s possible for other states to get more bottles of a certain brand than Kentucky. 

And once the bottles get to the distribution level – tier two in the Prohibition-mandated three-tier system – they are then parsed out to businesses also usually based on past sales. And that can leave the smaller retailers and restaurants grasping at air.

Jerry Nordhoff is co-owner of Taste Fine Wines & Bourbons in the NuLu neighborhood. He religiously orders a case of Blanton’s every month. He routinely gets none. He said it’s been quite some time since he’s received any, and the last time he did, it was a single bottle, which he reserved to sell as one-ounce pours.

“When we get one,” Nordhoff deadpanned, “it’s an accident.”

Many retail stores who do get hard-to-find whiskeys will do some allocation of their own, saving bottles for long-time, loyal customers, while others hold lotteries, often to raise funds for charity, like The Keg Liquors in Southern Indiana traditionally has done. Sometimes, entering a lottery — and waiting in long lines — is the only way to get one’s hands on one of those coveted allocated bourbons.

Oh, and customers these days have come to know the term “allocated” – at least well enough to throw it around.

When a random customer calls or walks into Westport Wine & Whiskey and asks if there are any allocated bottles available, owner Chris Zaborowski typically responds, “What do you mean by allocated and what are you looking for? We have over 340 bourbons on the shelf. I cannot possibly list them for you.”

It’s frustrating for retailers just as it is consumers, especially those who just want a bottle of that tasty brown liquid they used to come by as easily as buying a jug of 2% milk.

“The one I feel most sorry for is the spouse that’s sent on a mission and doesn’t have a clue,” Zaborowski said. “They come in and mispronounce them or have a list on their phone. They’ve been sent on an impossible quest. I understand they have to ask. It’s frustrating on our part, too — I wish I could give them a bottle.”

The Role Of Bourbonism

People travel to Louisville, which bills itself as Bourbon City these days, expecting to find cases upon cases of Blanton’s to be stacked in the liquor store around the corner from their hotel. Heck, they probably expect the bathroom faucet to have three valve handles marked “Hot,” “Cold” and “Buffalo Trace.”

But they’re often disappointed — even a visit to the distillery and a tour doesn’t mean scoring a bottle of Blanton’s or Weller. While all of the bourbon is made on site, that doesn’t mean the gift shop manager can just run out to the warehouse and grab a case. Even the on-site shops are subject to allocation, to a degree.

So how does this affect bourbon tourism? 

Consider this: According to numbers provided by Louisville Tourism, the economic impact of tourism to the city in 2007 was $2.1 billion; by 2019, that number had risen to $3.4 billion, with more than 19 million visitors. Analytics show that visiting friends and family was 44% of visitors’ reasons for coming to Louisville in 2007. In 2019, that had dropped to 14%, while “vacation or getaway” now accounts for 38% of visits to the city. 

“[That] tells us that our bourbon scene has in fact made a difference,” Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for Louisville Tourism, said.

She does agree that for tourists to land here and not have access to these allocated bourbons can be a negative, for the obvious reason that Kentucky is the epicenter of bourbon. 

“When visitors come to our state, they have the expectation they can get things they can’t get back home,” Yates said. “We have talked to the industry about this. But I don’t think it’s so off-putting that people will decide, ‘I’m not drinking bourbon anymore.’”

Jason Brauner, the founder of Bourbons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue, is particularly frustrated with the idea that Kentucky is allocated certain brands at a lower rate than other states.

“Me being on the ground floor for a long, long time,” Brauner said, “I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to supply your back yard. It’s not only cutting our throats but in the long run you have to look at the impact on tourism. If you can’t make it special to come to Kentucky, why are we going to go there? It’s overly aggravating.”

And this isn’t even about the so-called “unicorns” or “white whales” of the current bourbon craze, such as anything with the words “Van Winkle” on the label and anything from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. We’re just talking about the bourbons that were originally meant to be stocked on shelves regularly. 

Yates points to a “perfect storm” of culture that drives these conditions, from popular culture — think about all the whiskey that was consumed on the popular show “Mad Men,” for instance — to the culture of flipping bottles for profit. And there’s a huge secondary market for bourbon online. All of these factors help drain the supply to the general public while simultaneously driving up prices.

And then there are the so-called “taters,” who overpay and who also speculate that buying up cases of bourbons that, for instance, win an award or are tapped by a critic as “the next big thing” will turn a profit. 

The Distilleries

Buffalo Trace products are hot. It’s as simple as that. And, yes, there are plenty of hard-to-find products that aren’t produced at the popular Frankfort distillery, most of which are released in limited quantities to begin with. A special release is a special release, from the Willett Family Estate releases that number only a few bottles, to brands like Blood Oath, which are coveted, but made in limited quantities.

The demand first for Pappy, then for Blanton’s — with its unique bottle and collectible stopper — then its younger cousin Weller, seemingly created a long-term trickle-down. At this point, even the standard Buffalo Trace green-label bourbon, the stuff Kentuckians previously could put on their cereal every morning because it was so ubiquitous, is even getting more difficult to find. This leaves retailers even more frustrated.

As Zaborowski put it, “The core product for every Kentucky distillery should be sacrosanct.” 

For its part, Buffalo Trace in recent years embarked on a massive $1.2 billion expansion project in a quest to make more products to help meet the raging demand. Amy Preske, the public relations manager for the distillery, answered a few questions for LEO Weekly to help add some perspective.

An example she points out is that, given that the longest-aged bourbon is produced at Buffalo Trace — the Pappy Van Winkle 23-year — the distillery literally is currently aging bourbon that won’t be released until 2044. This year’s stock of Eagle Rare, which is aged for 10 years, won’t reach maturity until around 2031. That doesn’t promise relief anytime soon.

As for Blanton’s — which is believed to be aged between six and eight years on average — Buffalo Trace’s parent company, Sazerac, has an agreement with Age International that sends a large percentage of it to Asia. The details of that agreement, Preske said, are proprietary, so we don’t know just how much leaves the country.

When asked if she can predict when the expansion might start to offer some relief for those folks who simply want a bottle of their favorite bourbon to sip at home, Preske said the company has no exact timeframe. 

“Unfortunately, that’s too hard to predict,” Preske said. “Our bourbons age longer than most of our competitors, so while we have dramatically increased production every year, the bourbon category has become even more popular, drawing more fans to seek out all brands, not just ours. Added to that, brands like Eagle Rare are aged 10 years, Weller 12, and the youngest Van Winkle is 12 years, supply has not yet caught up to demand.”

Now What?

The obvious answer to not being able to get that bottle of Col. E.H. Taylor you crave is to find something else you enjoy — something more readily available. There are almost countless up-and-coming brands worth trying, and there are time-tested brands like Evan Williams, Knob Creek and Elijah Craig that have worthy products on the shelf.

But for many, that’s a consolation prize. And there may be a deeper issue going on that is complicating things further, according to Brauner.

About 16 years ago, Brauner opened the aforementioned Bourbons Bistro, an early entrant into Louisville’s bourbon culture. The restaurant has become known for its robust whiskey program, food-and-bourbon pairings and as a cultural center for bourbon enthusiasts. But Brauner makes no bones about his frustration over his sudden inability — after years of working in harmony with distilleries and distributors — to get certain bourbons which are integral to his business.

One specialty for Brauner was barrel picks — one-off whiskeys that would ultimately be unique to his restaurant and his customers. He tells LEO Weekly that those opportunities are drying up as larger operations are getting more consideration from the distilleries.

He said he was sent a note from “certain people” — he didn’t specify whom — saying that his restaurant’s sales were down in 2020, and that’s why they weren’t being allocated certain bourbons this year. The obvious point he makes is that it was impossible for a restaurant’s sales not to be down during a pandemic, because it was forced to close for weeks at a time. This ultimately gave alcohol retailers a leg up, since they weren’t forced to close. 

“That’s verbatim,” he says of the note. “That’s exactly what I was told. And what a shitty thing to do, especially during the hardest time of our career.”

While he won’t name distributors or distilleries when airing his frustrations, he said their decisions are affecting small businesses in Louisville.  

“As purveyors, our hands are tied from the distillery on down to the distributor. Sometimes they play good cop/bad cop with each other, but I think most of time it’s the distilleries making the decisions. It’s a guy sitting behind a desk. There’s no rhyme or reason why.”

Zaborowski feels similar frustrations for his store on Westport Road. The single-barrel bottles were a staple of his business until recently.

“Who was one of the first stores who jumped on the single barrel bandwagon?” he said. “Us. Long before the regional chains were involved. We cannot get anything from certain suppliers anymore.”

He also wonders aloud why distillery marketing teams make big media pushes on limited releases that the average consumer will never even see, let alone have a chance to buy at retail, such as with the recent announcement by Brown-Forman regarding the release of the highly-allocated Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. He doesn’t understand the rush to create a demand where there literally is almost no available supply — this only drives the fervor that much more, and to what end?

“Help me understand – I understand brand-building – then let’s talk about the real world,” Zaborowski said. “You get to a point where you are shooting yourself in the foot. It’s one thing to create a demand for your everyday product that you can get hold of. But to make it a fact that your window dressing is driving the brand market now, I don’t understand.”

Jackson, meanwhile, remembers routinely stocking Van Winkle 15 Year at Old Town a few years ago. He ordered 10 cases one year before Derby season — 12-bottle cases, no less — and his distributor called to ask if he wanted more.

Those days are far in the rear-view mirror – Jackson literally speaks of the once-ubiquitous Weller 12 in the past tense these days: “Weller 12, it’s like an urban myth.”

So, find that new bourbon you love, then sit back, take a sip and wait. Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Brown-Forman all are expanding production, and plenty more craft distilleries are releasing good products. Maybe one day, when we’re much older, production of those coveted brands will finally meet demand.