Production

Too little of a good thing?

Charles K. Cowdery looks at the buzz created by the limited editions market.
By Charles Cowdery
Recently, limited edition bottlings have become a staple of American whiskey producers. Many of these releases – such as Buffalo Trace’s George T.Stagg, Four Roses Barrel Strength, Parker’s Heritage Collection from Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey American Spirit – are so coveted by enthusiasts that they sell out instantly, often without ever reaching retail store shelves.In some cases, demand seems to exceed supply by orders of magnitude. In others, high prices temper demand, at least short term.Even though many consumers are disappointed when they can’t lay their hands on a coveted bottle, the buzz keeps people excited about American whiskey in general.All of this is pretty familiar stuff to Scotch drinkers, and fanciers of rare wines and brandies, but it is a new sensation for fans of rare American whiskey. We never had this until a few years ago, limited edition annual releases, limited edition one-offs, vintage bottlings, and so on.Inevitably, there are also reports that producers and distributors are using access to the most desirable of these rarities to induce retailers to buy other goods, merchandise the seller wants to move but the customer doesn’t necessarily want to buy.Again, nothing especially new there, except we’re not used to the product being brokered being an American whiskey.Leveraging of rarities to get other sales occurs openly where it’s legal and surreptitiously where it isn’t. David Soto, spirits director and specialist at Sam’s Wines &Spirits in Chicago, calls it “free enterprise,” and says you “have to know how to play the game,” but feels he’s been treated fairly by his vendors. “I realise the value of limited quantities and scarcity,” he says.In New York, where the practice is illegal, LeNell Smothers of LeNell’s Ltd: a wine and spirit boutique, says distributors will sometimes say, “Well, LeNell, you really don’t support our portfolio enough to get that product,” to which her response is usually some favourite Southern expletive.“I don’t ever need anybody’s product that bad,” she says.“We work hard to make sure that our rare whiskeys are allocated in an even and fair manner,” says Buffalo Trace president Mark Brown, whose Antique Collection is a popular annual release program that began in 2000. He acknowledges that rules vary by market, but “my experience is that wineries, distilleries, distributors and retailers endeavor to closely follow the rules.” Availability of products in the Antiques line varies and scarcity at retail isn’t automatically a function of how little was produced. The hardest “get” seems to be George T. Stagg, even though there were 94 barrels dumped for the 2007 release. About that many combined were dumped for the 2007 releases of stablemates William LaRue Weller, Thomas H. Handy and Eagle Rare 17 Years Old, yet they don’t seem to fly off the shelves quite as fast. Most genuinely rare is the 18 Years Old Sazerac Rye, of which just 28 barrels were available for the 2007 bottling.With the most coveted limited releases, everyone in the supply chain has to allocate, even the retailer. “I do not believe in a simple, ‘more bucks you spend, more bottles you get’,” says Smothers. “It’s still about relationships more than financial reports.“If we’ve had conversations enough that I remember your face and name, you will get my allocation more than the big-spender that never comes into the store personally,” she says.Other retailers keep a list of customers who have inquired about limited releases in the past. “I’ll email everyone,” says Soto, “and then it is first come, first serve.” But he usually limits how many bottles each person may take.Selling out is a nice problem for a producer, even at the risk of frustrating some consumers, and when the products are mostly whiskeys in their teens (ancient by American whiskey standards), it’s a challenge to keep the labels supplied for annual releases. “Over the past five years we have had to go through numerous and exhausting planning and reorganising barrel inventory meetings, in order to make sure that we are going to be able to continue to provide a steady, albeit modest supply of our older whiskeys,” says Buffalo Trace’s Brown.In part because of this problem, some producers prefer the one-off to the annual release. The latest from Wild Turkey, for example, is Wild Turkey American Spirit, the oldest Turkey sold in the U.S. at 15 Years Old.It gets the full-on collectors’ item treatment, with fancy bottle and wooden box. So does Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse Very Rare Rye, which has had two releases. The 21 Years Old was of 32 barrels. The 23 Years Old was just 25 barrels.If none of this seems particularly new, especially to long-time buyers of rare Scotch, what is new is how consumers today find out about limited releases. More often than not, it’s the internet. If they know where to look in cyberspace, hunters for rare bottles can find out what stores may have inventory and maybe even shop around for the best prices. The information isn’t always reliable, reported sightings don’t always materialise, but the internet has become an important part of the buzz machine.Last year, when Four Roses decided to release just 1,700 bottles of a special 13 Years Old, unfiltered, barrel strength bourbon to commemorate master distiller Jim Rutledge’s 40th Anniversary, they intended to distribute it at retail only in Kentucky, and also by-request in Metropolitan New York, a market they had just entered, but they were deluged with requests from across the U.S.“Consumer requests for the package totally amazed me,” says Rutledge. “Much of this was due to the ‘buzz’ created on the internet, which went far beyond the markets in which the bottles were sold.” If there is a fly in the ointment, it may be magazines like this one. Says Soto of Sam’s, “people will get a new issue of a magazine, call, and expect to get a bottle that I sold out of two months ago.” Soto wishes they would publish a disclaimer, warning that the featured products may be hard to find.“Yet everyone loves to brag about the score of a great bottle.”