The Price of Whiskey in America

As a whiskey aficionado of limited means, the price of things is constantly on my mind. So when I picked up a bottle of Old Forester Signature bourbon at my neighborhood liquor store for $39, I didn’t take it lightly. It was recommended to me by a friend in Minnesota as a great value; there it’s about $19 a bottle.

Old Forester SignatureWhy was I paying $20 more? The fact that my bottle was a liter didn’t account for it. I went back to the store and asked if there was some mistake. I was gentle, but the proprietor was thoroughly defensive. She stammered and got upset. I tried to assure her that I wasn’t accusing her of anything—in almost every case, her store’s prices were competitive with NYC’s biggest liquor retailers. In the end, she pulled out her wholesale book and showed me her price, which was about $29. I still don’t know why it was so out of line with my expectations. A month later in Minnesota I saw the 750ml Old Forester Signature for $19 with my own eyes. The only explanation I can come up with is that the distiller raised their prices and I was looking at some old stock.

Seems like there’s a lot of that going around lately. I noticed my Macallan 18, which was about $150 a year ago, is now $180. Macallan 12 has crept up a few dollars to around $55, but Highland Park 12 is still a relative bargain at $49.99 — at least where I shop.

K&L, a California-based wine and liquor chain, warned of Talisker 18’s giant price hike last week: it went from a $90 “true value” to around the $150 mark. K&L’s David Othenin-Girard was livid. “Their excuse is the whisky shortage. For years, whisky companies have relied on the so-called whisky shortage to justify price increases, but today the gouging has officially begun. The truth is there is no whisky shortage. The shortage is of whisky that’s actually worth what you pay. There’s plenty of crappy cheap whisky out there. There’s a deluge of super expensive choices that only a select few can afford. There is, however, a shortage of good whisky that is not wildly overpriced.”

Price increases are something K&L’s spirit bloggers have written about extensively, providing some much-needed transparency for an eager public.

Yamazaki12

Perhaps it was there that I read that Suntory has been keeping the prices for Yamazaki 12 and other great Japanese single malts artificially low for the U.S. market as a way to get a foothold. Around the time I read that, I noticed that Yamazaki 12 had gone up from around $49.99 a bottle to $53.99 in New York. I quickly replaced my empty bottle—it’s one of the best single malts under $100 I’ve ever had and I’d encourage anyone who likes it to buy it while the price is under $60. (By the way, K&L in California lists Yamazaki 12 for $36.50 right now — an insane bargain.) Likewise Yamazaki 18 is still under $150 where available.

And I don’t fault anyone but myself for not buying St. George Single Malt, an exceptional American whiskey, while it was cheaper and still in stock. Lot 12, they told me via Twitter, might still be hiding out in some shops, but it’s mostly gone. And the price changed (I’m not sure if the $64 I’m seeing online is the new price or the old one). Lot 13 will be bottled in the spring. Look out for it, it’s worth it.

But I’ll agree with the K&L guys: sometimes I think these price increases are more sinister, or at least cynical. I remember seeing Jim Beam rye for $14.99 before the rye craze hit its stride. Suddenly it was $18.99. Now it’s $22.99. Hmmm.

Old Grand-Dad 114

There are still some stellar bargains to be had in American whiskey. Old Grand-Dad 114 is $24.99 where I shop (just a dollar more than the bonded 100 proof version), and I’ve seen as low as $17.99 in one Minnesota store (surely a mistake!). This high-rye bourbon is unique and wondrous, a perfect intermediate step between bourbon and rye. Don’t tell Beam Global it’s so affordable—it might go the way of Beam’s rye.

And I still await the inevitable price hikes for two beloved $20 bonded spirits, Rittenhouse rye and Laird’s Apple Brandy. Thanks to the bartenders who love them, they’re more available than ever; thanks to whatever strange booze gods watch over us, they still cost less than they ought to.

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3 Responses to The Price of Whiskey in America

  1. It seems like we are entering an interesting time for the spirits industry. Right when interest is beginning to grow again in whiskey they seem to be removing that intermediate level to take people up from the bottom shelf to the top.

    Some of this can of course be explained by dwindling aged stock, especially with rye, but I do think some of this is very shortsighted thinking.

    That said we are still lucky to have a number of very good expressions still under $25 (for the time being). In addition to the ones you mentioned, I like to keep a bottle of old Weller antique around and a friend was recently singing the praises of Benchmarks, a Buffalo Trace produced Bourbon that we can get for $10 a liter. That is next on my list.

    • We’re fortunate that the bottom couple of shelves are so full! I tell you, until I started reading up about bourbon history in books like Chuck Cowdery’s, I didn’t realize how varied and storied some of the cheaper whiskeys were. Some of those brands, like Old Grand-Dad, I just assumed weren’t worth buying because they were cheap. I guess I thought maybe they had been something special before Prohibition, and were no longer notable. That is the case with Old Crow, sadly: it’s now just a name for a cheaper version of Jim Beam. But Beam kept the Old Grand-Dad recipe and it’s still unique.

      I’ll have to try Benchmark. I’m a fan of Evan Williams ($12.99 a liter here). Have you tried Bank Note 5 Year Blended Scotch? It’s about $21 a liter here, and I’ve read somewhere recently (K&L’s blog?) that it’s a good value.

      W.L. Weller Special Reserve bourbon is under $20 here! I keep meaning to buy some. It’s a great example of wheated bourbon (that isn’t Maker’s Mark).

      So between (among others) Weller, Mellow Corn, Grand-Dad Bonded, Four Roses (yellow label), Old Overholt, and Virginia Gentleman (one of the oldest surviving non-Kentucky bourbons!), you’ve got a nice little capsule history of American whiskey, all for around $20 a bottle, give or take a few bucks. One of these days I’m going to give myself a tasting of all to compare them side-by-side.

      So yeah, what’s frustrating to me in regards to that vanishing middle market is this: first, and this is particularly true with scotch, prices are going up faster than inflation. Second, new upstart whiskey makers, mostly American, are entering the market with little experience and charging premium prices. Third, as the market thirsts for premium offerings like anything with the Pappy name on it, distillers (and non-distiller producers) oblige with more high-buck booze. That’s not a bad thing (the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is awesome) but one gets the sense that such premium offerings are used as a justification for price hikes all around.

      I still can’t believe Evan Williams’ annual Single Barrel bourbons are under $30! How is it something that good can costs less than, say, Eagle Rare or Four Roses Small Batch?

      Once something breaks the $50 threshold, I hesitate. It becomes a bigger purchase for me. I waited months to replace my bottle of Yamazaki 12 for this reason (that and buying something I’ve already tried, even if I loved it, seems like a missed opportunity for something new). Unfortunately, the Balcones range all exceeds that, if only by a few dollars. And the St. George Single Malt does too. I’d like to try Corsair’s Triple Smoke (despite what I think is kind of cheesy packaging, I’ve heard good things), but at $50, I have to wait till I can taste it at a bar.

  2. Pingback: Introducing: Whisk(e)y Price Watch | cocktails & cologne

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