Once the lubricant of cowboys and country crooners, bourbon has now achieved superstar status on par with Scotch whisky, evidenced both by its collectibility and commensurate pricing. Gone are the days of $15 to $20 “good stuff,” with $40-$60 now considered average. Like Scotch, bourbon is now striated by age, source, grain, and many other attributes, each level of perceived quality commanding successively higher prices. And it’s impacting casual imbibers and collectors alike.
A recent New York Times article addresses many underlying causes, but the reality is helping, and hurting, the American whiskey market. Kentucky Owl founder’s great-great-grandson Dixon Dedman stated in the article, “$75 is the new $35.” He sold Kentucky Owl to Stolichnaya in 2017 and recently introduced his newest brand, 2XO, a moniker for “Two Times Oak.” This new charred-oak-aged whiskey retails starting at $95.
It began with Blanton’s, brainchild of Buffalo Trace’s then distillery manager Elmer T. Lee, who believed that bourbon was equal in quality to scotch. He proposed that American whiskey could command similar prices and was tasked with proving his theory. Initially released in 1984 at around $30 a bottle, Blanton’s coasted at that price for two decades. But in 2018, it became a thing of legend.
Recognized as a top-shelf whiskey after racking up accolades and awards, Blantons’ price skyrocketed. Today, a basic bottle will set you back $65 to $150, with special releases launching into the $5K range or more and proving Lee’s hypothesis correct. Even that doesn’t touch a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 25-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which recently sold for $55K! Sadly, Lee didn’t live long enough to see his dream materialize, but the industry never looked back.
Spend time at any quality liquor store, and the depth and breadth of bourbon and other American whiskeys become evident. Collectors swarm new releases and auctions to snag the latest boutique bottle, driving prices ever upward and sucking previously bargain-priced options into the cost black hole. Even grocery stores have joined the parade, with dizzying arrays of bottles and brands that leave even the most jaded tippler agog. But is that a good thing? I suppose it depends on your viewpoint.
For distillers, it’s an unprecedented era where experimentation, expansion, and risk-taking pay off big. It’s a tide lifting all boats- almost. While even the more pedestrian expressions benefit from the boom, low-shelf and store brands remain untouched. And with good reason. There are so many great choices that almost every budget has an option, so there’s no need to scrape the bottom. Prior budget brands now present unprecedented quality, and I can think of no better example than my personal standby bourbon, Bulleit Straight Kentucky. As a die-hard scotch aficionado, I’ve never really warmed up to corn-based likker. But Bulleit earned a spot, and at sub-$25 a bottle, how can I say no?
But as much as I like Bulleit, it’s just the first step on a seemingly endless staircase- or should I say escalator! For most bourbon chasers, the marketplace is a candy shop of fantastic variety, albeit with ever-increasing price tags. And despite the days of “cheap” whiskey having passed, it’s more than compensated by impressive increases in quality.