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Modern Guide to Bourbon Hunting

bourbon hunting guide tipsThe bourbon hunting game is changing and hunters need to modify their approaches to keep up.

Here’s how it used to work.  It would start as an endurance challenge. Cover the most ground in the shortest period of time and hope to stumble across something great. Over time, you would identify the subset of stores that have the good stuff and narrow your search to a few select spots. It was still a game of chance, but the odds went up because you weren’t wasting time at stores that didn’t carry allocated bourbon. You would start visiting these high-value stores every few days or weeks, scanning the shelves for new product.  Eventually, some of the managers would recognize you, learn your name, and build a relationship with you. Once the relationship formed, you would start getting tips on new releases and stop visiting the stores where you weren’t known. In the end, you would settle on a few key stores to support and buy all of your liquor, beer, and wine from those supportive merchants. In exchange for being friendly and spending hundreds of dollars a year, you would get a few prize bottles of whiskey and a lot of great tips during bourbon season.

That was before the bourbon boom.

Now there’s a herd of cash-waving whiskey fanatics stomping all over your hunting grounds and the game has changed. With each passing bourbon season, relationships are earning fewer and fewer bottles. Raffles are replacing handshakes, waiting lists are replacing special orders, and distributor allocation strategies are pushing mom & pop shops out of the distribution chain.  Hunters who used to get a whole set of BTAC are lucky to leave with a bottle of Blanton’s.

Fear not! We’re assembling a ton of wisdom, tips, and tricks to help you adjust your strategies to compete in the current whiskey-crazed market.  Right now, it’s only one story, but this list will be updated frequently, so check back often to hone your skills!

1.  How to Avoid Buying Bad Bourbon – Knowing what not to buy is just as important as knowing what to buy.  Here’s a good technique to keep cash in your wallet and great liquor on your shelves.






How to Avoid Buying Bad Bourbon

(This post is the first in our new series “The Modern Guide to Bourbon Hunting“)

modern guide to hunting bourbon two listsNow that the bourbon boom is upon us, many liquor store owners are looking to their distributors for help expanding their bourbon aisle. Unfortunately, many of those distributors are using these requests as opportunities to move stale product, push marketing agendas, or hit sales targets, and bourbon hunters are paying the price.

Since most store owners are far less educated about bourbon offerings than the average enthusiast, they look to the distribution channel for tips on what to buy and how to sell it.  The distribution channel often responds by unloading mediocre bourbon on the retailer along with tasting bottles and shelf tags showing an insanely high rating from some official-sounding tasting institute.

When a customer comes into the store and asks which bourbons are best, the unknowing retailer repeats the producer’s/distributor’s marketing message and the customer leaves thinking they just found a delicious, highly sought-after whiskey. Many bottles of Calumet Farms, Hudson Baby Bourbon, Bib & Tucker, WhipperSnapper, and Templeton Rye are sitting in liquor cabinets right now thanks to this marketing method.  (Sidenote: Before you send hate mail, I’m not saying any of those are bad whiskies.  They’re just not considered by bourbon enthusiasts to be in the same league as the highly allocated bourbons most hunters are talking about and actively seeking.)

Since most bourbon hunters feel obligated to purchase something when they go into a store, it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves with one of these over-marketed items in our passenger seat as we drive home.  When we finally look online to see what we bought, we often learn that the tasting institute isn’t top tier, the reviews are paid endorsements, the whiskey is from a Non-Distiller Producer, and the bourbon in the bottle isn’t really all that good.

So, how do you cut through the hype to find the bottles worth buying?

Easy – just create two shopping lists!

Shopping List #1 – Let’s call this our “Stick to the Plan” list.  It is a well-researched and frequently updated list of all the allocated or highly-rated bourbons you want to buy, their suggested retail price, and how much you’re willing to spend above retail. The more time you spend managing this list, the less likely you are to buy something you regret.

When you’re in the store and hear about an incredible new bourbon that is flying off the shelves, simply look at your list. If it’s not on the list and within your price range, write down the name and price, but don’t buy it.  Period.  Ever.  When you get home you can look it up to see if it deserves a place on the list or a price adjustment for the next trip.  If you stick to this method, you’ll keep more money in your wallet to spend on the whiskey you really want.

Now, on to the second list.

Shopping List #2 Let’s call this one our “I Have to Buy Something!” list. It’s the list you pull out when you have the undeniable urge to buy something in the store to avoid leaving empty-handed.  It also comes in handy when you want to form a new relationship with a local liquor store or maintain an existing store relationship throughout the year.

Here’s how it works.  Write down all of the occasions you have throughout the year that involve buying, giving, or getting alcohol.  Summer cookouts, co-worker holiday gifts, big games, tailgating, brother-in-law birthdays, etc. should all make the cut. Now, figure out which liquor, wine, or beer you’ll need to buy for each of those events.  Maybe 6 bottles of wine for the cookout, a bottle of medium-grade scotch for the brother-in-law, a case of beer for tailgating, tequila for game night, etc.

If you’re like most people, your normal routine for buying these non-bourbon items is to go on a last minute shopping spree at the closest liquor store.  It’s likely a one-time purchase at a store you don’t care about where you’re just another nameless face in a long line of people stocking up for the big game or buying wine for the weekend.  That needs to change.

If you’re a hunter, you need to focus all your purchases on the prize.  Every single alcoholic beverage you buy needs to support the store or stores that support you.  Don’t just act like a great customer – you need to actually be a great customer.  Put your money in the hands of the people who are helping you.

But that doesn’t mean you need to buy things you don’t want.  Make sure everything you buy is something you actually plan to drink or give away.  No exceptions.  So next time you’re in one of your favorite stores and feel the urge to buy something, pull out list #2 and start adding to the pile of Christmas gifts and cookout beverages you’ll need later that year.  If you do that one simple trick, you can save money, support your favorite stores, become a well-known customer, and avoid last minute liquor shopping forever.

If that doesn’t convince you about list #2’s value, then I’ll add that it’s a great “get out of jail free” card when your spouse is questioning your credit card bills.  Here’s how to use it:

Spouse: “WTF!?!?!?!  You spent another $80 at the liquor store this week???  Have you lost your damn mind???”
You: “I’m trying to spread our holiday expenses throughout the year so we don’t get a big bill all at once.”
Spouse: “Seriously?  Prove it!”
You: “Sure – Your sister really likes Pinot Grigio so I picked up a nice bottle that was on sale. I don’t drink the stuff, so I put it in the front cabinet. We can pull it out for her on Christmas Eve.”
Spouse: “You are a financial genius.  Thanks for looking out for us. I love you.”
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