The Plight of A Bourbon Retailer

by Jonathan Gaby on April 5, 2018

*Editor’s Note: The below is the full text of an op-ed written by Rachael Peak and published at the State Journal on Tuesday, March 27th, 2018. The actual article appears on the State Journal’s website here:

By Rachel Peake

Guest columnist

There are things we all hear often enough at our jobs that, when we are trying to sleep at night, we hear them again — voices, questions, comments and patterns of words.

Those of us lucky enough to be working at any liquor store in Kentucky during the past few years, during the “Great Bourbon Shortage” we’re all currently experiencing, are quick to tell about the sound they hear the most. It’s the sound of the phone ringing, and the familiar question “Do you have any Pappy?” A hopeful voice, anticipates possibly reaching a secret treasure trove of a liquor store with all sorts of goodies stored in a dusty box somewhere.

We hear this question multiple times a day, in phone calls, in person, through emails, through social media. Our employees can pick up the phone and practically mime the question before anyone says anything, especially in September and October when the phone calls go from a few a day to 40 or 50. The “Pappy” (Pappy Van Winkle bourbon) arrives to most stores at around that time.

And our answers, although truthful, always tend to be disappointing.

Yes, our store is just a mile away from the distillery that makes Pappy. Yes, we have great business relationships; yes, we order as much as we can from our distributors, and, even though we are proud to be one of the few truly independent liquor stores left in Kentucky, that doesn’t help us — we just can’t get our hands on enough of the stuff to make everyone happy. Nobody can.

The bourbon shortage around the entire country is real, and it isn’t just Pappy that we’re talking about.

The other bourbon products made by Buffalo Trace Distillery are picked over the minute they arrive whenever they do arrive (which is more or less monthly) right from their boxes — products like W.L. Weller, Eagle Rare, Ancient Age, Blanton’s, and the elusive Elmer T. Lee and Rock Hill Farms.

At a recent Frankfort Bourbon Society board meeting, I decided to bring a couple of new bottles of bourbon and have everyone taste them “blind” in unmarked cups. These folks are used to tasting and trying products and generally have what we consider “good palates” — that is, they are used to tasting and evaluating the aromas, flavors, texture, aftertaste in products and can use verbal or written descriptions in ways that everyone can understand. Better way to see how the product might do in the market than have the experts taste with me?

“Blind” tastings are fun and one of my favorite ways to taste because we don’t know what we’re tasting, and we have to use all of our senses to figure out what it is. One of the products had lots of floral and fruity aromas, reminiscent of honeysuckle and oranges. The color was relatively light, and it didn’t look like any of the bourbons that most of us might be accustomed to drinking.

The comments were spot on. Most could tell by blind tasting that it was indeed a “young” bourbon. Most could tell it was a “bourbon” rather than its cousin, the spicier “rye” whiskey, and most thought it was unusual. And, when it was revealed as a less-than-two-year-old “bourbon” (as opposed to a “straight bourbon” which must be aged for at least two years) the colorful label and cool package shown, the distiller and unique process revealed and the price revealed (less than $20), we generated some interest — which, in turn, led to sales.

For times like these, when some of your favorite bourbons are out of stock on a sporadic basis, try gathering a few friends together and share some bottles in a blind tasting manner. You can find lots of suggestions about how to conduct blind tastings online or talk to some Frankfort Bourbon Society members about the more clever ways they explore each other’s collections.

Rachael Peake is the owner of Capital Cellars Wine and Spirits Café Market, 227 West Broadway in Frankfort.

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