Fall in Seattle sends many locals scurrying for the latest ways to stay warm. However, not all the locals head for the newest fashions at R.E.I. Bourbon aficionados scour liquor stores in person and online for the rare specialty bourbons released each fall in very limited quantities.
article and photos by Lindsay Evans
What’s the big deal with specialty bourbon?
Specialty bourbons are frequently aged between eight and twenty years longer than standard bourbons such at Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey. Those extra years spent in oak barrels soften specialty bourbons by masking the alcohol and creating a smoother taste. Additionally, these bourbons often develop intense and interesting flavors during those extra years. While smoky oak and mildly sweet grain flavors characterize most standard bourbons, the flavors in specialty bourbons can range from fruity (like the red berry flavors in Four Roses barrel strength and single barrel) to savory (like the herb and vegetal flavors in Elijah Craig 21-year) and everything in between.
Why is specialty bourbon so hard to find?
Unfortunately, the extra aging time required to make specialty bourbon has a few major drawbacks. Each year that bourbon spends in an oak barrel, 4 to 6 percent of the liquor evaporates through the pores in the oak. So a 53-gallon barrel aged for 23 years may yield only 6 gallons of specialty bourbon, leaving precious little to go around. Specialty bourbon is often distilled one or two decades before it is ready for sale. Thus, distilleries are tasked with predicting the demand for specialty bourbon 10 to 20 years in the future and adjusting production accordingly. The 20-year-old bourbons arriving in stores this fall were conceived in the early 1990s, when the future of bourbon looked abysmal. At that time, consumers were interested in vodka, gin, and tequila; bourbon was viewed as something old-timers drank. Slow bourbon sales forced many distilleries to consolidate. Today, the demand for bourbon is eclipsing its supply, especially in the case of specialty bourbon. Most liquor stores consider themselves lucky to receive as few as 2-6 bottles of some specialty releases despite having ordered cases. Most of these bottles are sold within an hour after being placed on a shelf; others are presold and never reach a shelf.
The Bourbon Boom
If you, like many other Seattleites, were oblivious to the bourbon boom, look for some of the signs the next time you go out. Along with the other variants of whiskey – Tennessee, Canadian and Scotch-bourbon has appropriated shelf-space from vodka, gin and tequila at trendy bars and restaurants throughout Seattle. Q nightclub in Capitol Hill has even sacrificed dance floor space to offer a bourbon tasting lounge. Some of Seattle’s newest establishments have even proclaimed their devotion to whiskey right in their names; Radiator Whiskey and Bourbon & Bones are two recent examples.
Before embarking on an odyssey to acquire a rare bottle of bourbon like Pappy Van Winkle, here are a few recommendations that will save you time, money and effort:
- Try before you buy. Some specialty bourbon producers require liquor distributors to allocate the majority of specialty releases specifically to bars and restaurants. Even though Pappy Van Winkle is nearly impossible to find in a liquor store, it is often available to try at craft cocktail bars and restaurants. Fortunately, many local bartenders are also expert bourbon scavengers and have stocked their bars with an exquisite selection of bourbons from the great everyday brands to the sublime rare releases. Seattle’s Canon stocks 22 pages worth of American whiskeys including everything from Pappy Van Winkle 20-year and 23-year to whiskeys from the late 1800s costing over $1,000 per pour.
- There are many great bourbons produced each year and several are more available, more affordable and just as delicious as Pappy Van Winkle. According to Federal regulation, bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels instead of used oak barrels. New oak imparts flavors, nuances and tannins much faster than the used oak barrels used to age Scotch whisky. While it takes the average Scotch a minimum of ten years to blossom, bourbon reaches its prime bottling age in as little as six years and can deliver a drinking pleasure on par with or exceeding most of the ultra-aged bourbons. Sound too good to be true? See for yourself by following recommendation number 3.
- Before you buy an entire bottle of bourbon based on reputation, reviews or an expensive price tag, I suggest you try several specialty and regular bourbons in a blind comparison tasting. The key word here is blind meaning that you taste each one and then rank your preferences without knowing what bourbon is in which glass. Most craft cocktail bars in the greater Seattle area will eagerly assist you with a blind tasting. Zig Zag Café and Liberty Bar in Seattle, Lot 3 in Bellevue, and Flat Iron Grill in Issaquah are a few establishments in the Seattle area where I’ve had positive experiences. The blind-tastings I conducted were educational and, at times…shocking! Recently, I orchestrated a group blind tasting event featuring two expensive, rare specialty bourbons (Pappy Van Winkle 15-year and Elijah Craig 20-year); one rye (Angel Envy cask strength); and two reputable, readily available bourbons that retail for under $40 (Basil Hayden and Elmer T. Lee). The entire group ranked the two least expensive bourbons higher than the two limited-production specialty bourbons. Although the tasters’ opinions differed on which bourbon was best, the group unanimously felt that bourbon in glass #5 was the worst of the bunch. We were speechless when the bartender revealed that bourbon #5 was the coveted Pappy Van Winkle 15-year. The lesson: everyone has a different palate. Just because a celebrity chef or bartender proclaims that Pappy is their favorite bourbon does not guarantee that it will be your favorite bourbon.