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How much do bourbon hunters spend on bourbon?

Every fall, I take my credit card on a non-stop joyride up and down the east and west coasts looking for the season’s must-have bourbons.  If I see something on my list, I buy it. When the releases finally end, I return to my normal routine and spend the rest of the year paying off my insane bourbon debt and convincing my wife that I don’t have a problem.  “I’m not alone,” I tell her.  “Everyone does this.”  “Prove it,” she says.

So here goes.  Help me settle a long running dispute with my wife about the average cost of bourbon hunting.

How much do you spend on bourbon in a typical year?

Bourbon Hunting is an Extreme Sport

extreme-sportTo someone who’s never been through a bourbon hunt, I can only describe it as one of the most intense, emotional, stressful, rewarding, extreme and exhausting non-contact sports in existence.

Starting in mid-September, bourbon fans across the country begin checking-in daily with local store owners to rekindle lost friendships, lobby for list spots, and work leads on potential delivery dates.  They slowly change their commuting routes to pass a few liquor stores a night, scouting potential new hunting grounds.  To avoid the embarrassment of leaving these scouted stores empty handed, they also start buying stray bottles at each stop.  The debt starts to add up and they don’t even have any of the good stuff yet…but they’re hot on its trail.

Within weeks, they know more about this country’s bourbon inventory than the store owners and distributors combined.

About that same time, a national rinse & repeat headline news story surfaces about the bourbon shortage, the hype surrounding Pappy Van Winkle, how much store owners hate getting bourbon calls, and the insane prices people are paying for rare whiskey.  Pappy renews its reputation as the ultimate accessory and the brand name clothing crew joins the hunt.  The excitement grows.

Then, just before Pappy hits the stores, the news runs a story about a potential lead in the Pappy Van Winkle theft and whips the crowd into a frothy frenzy.  “MUST FIND PAPPY!” they chant as their shivering huddled lines wind through the aisles, out the doors, and around the neighborhoods of potential release sites.

Photos of BTAC and Pappy start popping up on social media with captions like “Look what I stumbled across!” or “don’t like bourbon but heard this was good”.  Hate, jealousy, urgency, and frustration join forces and push the excitement beyond all measurable levels.

Stunned by the level of competition, the bourbon hunters prepare themselves mentally for potential defeat.  They start claiming Pappy Van Winkle is overrated, new bourbon hunters are ruining everything, nobody sells it right, and prices are insane.  They curse the distilleries for not making more, the distributors for favoritism, and the local retailers for ignoring them despite a long history.  Finally, they reach a breaking point, swear they don’t care anymore, and decide to permanently switch to widely available $30 bourbons that are ‘just as good’.

…then they snap back into the game, sneak off to a dark corner of their house, and start calling around for new leads on BTAC and Pappy.

At some point in late October the overwhelming pull of the hunt eclipses virtually everything else and consumes the hunters.  Their normal lives fade into the background as they skitter from store to store and website to website, scanning the aisles for new bottles and the headlines for new leads. Money? Who cares.  Work? Who cares.  Sleep? Overrated.

And then, as if by magic and with a sense of pride that rivals hitting a game 7 World Series walk off home run, they finally find a rare bottle.  They stare at it in disbelief while they slowly swipe the credit card and claim it as their own.  Prize in hand, they shuffle out to the car, buckle it into the passenger seat, and take the long way home…proudly staring at it all the way.  They are emotionally exhausted and utterly amazed at what they went through to reach that point.

When they get home, they take a few bragging photos to post online then immediately hide the bottle away, knowing that it will be a long while before they work up the nerve to open something that took so much dedication, time, and energy to earn.  When the bottle is safely in the bunker, they finally step back, realize how much they missed during the past few months, and swear they’ll never hunt bourbon again.

…and then they get a tip about another bottle.  Game on!


Author’s Note: During the fall, we often hear stories about the companies that make the bourbon and the stores that sell it, but we rarely hear about the people who buy it.  I am a bourbon hunter and I thought it would be fun to show another side of the news story.  Enjoy! – Erik


Our Best “Ask for Pappy” Store Experiences

It’s a well known fact that most liquor stores hate Pappy season. Starting in mid-October, they get dozens of calls a day from complete strangers asking “is it there yet?”.

It’s also a well known fact that how those stores treat their customers during Pappy season determines how those same customers will treat the stores for the other 11 months of the year.  The stores that see the calls as a chance to build a new customer relationship are getting it right and we want to recognize them.  The stores that see it as an opportunity to make a few extra bucks or express some weird sense of power are getting it wrong and deserve to be called out.

We call hundreds of stores throughout the US and visit a similar number of New England stores in person during bourbon season to get the inside scoop on Pappy, so I think we officially qualify as one of those crazy callers.  We never identify ourselves as phantom finders for BourbonSeason because we want to get the same experience that anyone off the street would get.  In our phantom role, we’ve experienced just about everything.  We’ve had a store owner laugh in our face and we had another one offer us a blind taste test of Pappy next to a few other bourbons to help us evaluate the bourbons for flavor alone.  With all the hype around Pappy in recent years, the market is getting more competitive.  It’s bringing out the best and the worst in the stores we contact.

For now, we’ll highlight a few of our best  “call and ask” experiences for 2014, as calling ahead is the most popular method for hunting down a bottle.  When we get a chance, we’ll talk about some of the best “in-person” experiences too.  And we’ll eventually share a few of the worst experiences that have pushed us to remove the stores from our Pappy hunting grounds entirely.

Here is a running list of our best “call and ask” experiences. 
Hats off to these stores.  They’re doing something special.  If you have any good or bad experiences of your own, please post them in the comments section below too.  Thanks!

 1.  Table & Vine in West Springfield, MA – This was one of the best phone discussions we’ve ever had with a liquor store about Pappy Van Winkle during Pappy season.  Table & Vine is listed as a vendor on the ORVW retailers list (under an older store name) and likely gets many calls about Pappy.  Our initial call was transferred to someone specializing in spirits (off to a good start!) who was very welcoming and eager to help us find a good bourbon.  They took the time to help us understand the Pappy market and spoke honestly about the allocations that they may  or may not receive this year.  They also walked us through their process for selling Pappy if they happen to get it, highlighting that they’ve been looking for a way to give everyone the chance at owning it through raffles, drawings, etc.  We then went on to discuss other bourbons that they do have, highlighting a few good ones and letting us know that they have Michter’s 10yr and Parker’s Heritage Collection in stock right now.  Our phantom finder absolutely loved how this store handled the question and Table & Vine is now on our road trip list to see in person.
A+ for honesty, helpfulness, and service

2.  Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, MA – This is a close second for incredible customer experience.  Our phantom finder called Ball Square on rumors that they might get an early allocation of Pappy (they did).  The owner (we think) answered the phone and was more than happy to talk with us.  He said that he only got a few bottles of Pappy and had already sold it on a first come / first serve basis, but he followed that up by explaining the Pappy flavor profile and suggesting that there are many other bourbons that are just as good, and not nearly as hard to find. This little bit of follow-up turned this from an average call into an incredible call.  I can’t tell you how rare it is for a store to engage our callers to help them actually find good bourbon.  This store did, and they did it right.  Ultimately, he narrowed down a recommendation to Prichard’s Double Barreled and suggested that we try it, noting that many good liquor stores carry it all year long.  No heavy sales push.  Just an honest attempt to help us find good bourbon.  All that emerged from a simple “do you have it yet” phone call.  And to be honest, we were aware of Ball Square as a wine store before our call, but they weren’t really on our radar for bourbon.  Believe me, that has been corrected and they’ve now earned a big spot on our hunting grounds list.
A+ for honestly trying to help us find good bourbon.

3.  To be continued…we’re only halfway through the season


ABOUT US: started as an underground mailing list shared between a few bourbon lovers who enjoy hunting unique bourbons. We shared tips on store inventories, release dates, events, and prices around New England and the US. Word about our mailing list got out and we started adding more folks (everyone is welcome!).  Eventually it became a little too much to handle as a mailing list so we decided to open it up to the world and created this website to meet new hunters and share our hunting guides with a larger audience in a better way. We’re still building out this site and before too much longer we’ll post all of our full store notes, ratings, statistics, etc., but for now we just have time to share a few highlights.  We do this for fun with no sponsorship.  Nothing you read here is paid content and the stores or bourbons we mention have earned our comments on their own merits, not through any sort of paid endorsement or affiliation.  So…that’s us.  Welcome to our humble little part of the whiskey world and “Welcome to the hunt!”