Important Question: Is Too Much Whiskey Being Released?
Even with distilleries we love, the limited-edition bottles never seem to end
Welcome to Show Me the Proof, a column in which we pose big questions to the booze world cognoscenti and ask them to argue the finer points. In our first column, we’re tackling an admittedly #firstworldproblem: Is there too much whiskey being released?
A few weeks ago I got a press release regarding some new Barrell bourbon releases. I love Barrell, but at the moment, I’m still sitting on some samples from a few months back. They’re part of a growing collection of booze that I’ve set aside to try before year’s end, which has long since outgrown my bar and migrated to the dining-room table, living-room floor and a kitchen cabinet tor two. (As someone who never liked drinking at home, writing about booze but WFH has actually led me to drink a lot less.)
But maybe the problem isn’t me. When it comes to whiskey, it can feel like we’re drowning under a deluge of barrel-strength, single-barrel, anniversary, birthday, cask-finished and other special releases to a degree that isn’t fair to those who lack resources … and/or lack access to these often limited-edition bottlings.
It’s an example of the Paradox of Choice (when you have too many choices, it’s impossible to make one), to be sure. But it might also be an example of The Moby Problem. Not a perfect comparison, but back in 2017, Bas Gasmeyer described a conundrum in which new Moby remixes kept showing up on his Spotify Release Radar playlists every single week. There’s a point where a seventh remix of the same song — or in this case, a seventh special bottling of the same hooch — is overwhelming.
To challenge my whiskey angst, I contacted two brands I admire that have produced a fair amount of “new” product in 2020 and that also represent two completely separate business models. Barrell Craft Spirits is transparent about sourcing and blending their array of limited-edition whiskies, and Maker’s Mark is a distilling institution, as well as a company that has recently begun to ramp up new releases (some in small batches, some in permanent add-ons to their core lineup).
As I’ve dubbed this “Show Me the Proof,” I’ll present arguments for and against my question before reaching a final verdict.
Point: Even whiskey pros think there’s too much whiskey
“I’m in the business, and I think there’s too much stuff out there,” admits Barrell founder Joe Beatrice. “What’s irritating are the one-offs. As in, am I gonna see this again? I’m cheap and I’m a customer. If I buy something and I get home and I don’t like it … that’s terrible. I may never buy that brand again. Which is why you can’t put out something that isn’t spectacular.”
Counterpoint: There’s too much planning involved to make a quick buck
Whiskey takes time. “It depends on the product, but for, say, a wood-finish release, it might take two years of planning,” explains Maker’s Mark Director of Innovation Jane Bowie. “And we have some longer-term innovation going on — there’s a 75-year old project that maybe my grandchildren will finish.”
And while Maker’s is experimenting a lot more, they have the same constraints as many other whiskey brands. “We have one whiskey, and we tweak it with oak and proof and different flavor levers. And we only have so much whiskey mature every year, so we have to figure out what barrels and inventory go to what product.”
Point: The marketing behind some of these limited editions is misleading
“It’s all about intent,” says Beatrice. “Our company’s intent is clear; we do unique, limited-edition releases on an on-going basis, and our customer expects that. But if your intent is just to cash out, that’s not sustainable.”
Also, “If one of these larger brands is releasing 100,000 bottles, that’s not necessarily a limited edition.”
Counterpoint: If the new releases are special, why hold back? Everybody wins.
Barrell Bourbon Batch #025 and Maker’s Mark’s 2020 Limited Release are some of my favorite bourbons of the year. If that means I haven’t been able to dive into Maker’s Mark 101 (not technically new, but now with expanded distribution) or Barrell’s recent and ambitious Armida release, that’s my problem. I can happily sip on what I already have.
Plus, new releases are good for the brands … which, in a time of COVID, is exciting! “We’ve oddly had an unbelievable year,” says Beatrice. “From May up to now, we’re up almost 50% on even our optimistic projections.”
Point: It’s (potentially) a money grab
While Bowie wasn’t arguing this point at all, she does note new whiskey releases appeal to a certain kind of customer. ‘It’s become a hobby,” she says. “My brother in Nashville, this is like urban deer hunting. He sits in a parking lot, waiting for the store to open … it’s waiting for the hunt. It’s really fun! And if consumers are asking for it, why not bring it?”
And Beatrice notes his core user might buy three of everything — one to drink, one to trade and one to keep. “If it’s a hit, they can recoup by selling one,” he says.
Counterpoint: You can do good with limited editions
Maker’s did rush-release a new edition that coincided with the pandemic, but the reasoning was damn sound: The LEE Initiative CommUNITY Batch bottling is a collaborative limited release bourbon where 100% of proceeds go to supporting the hospitality industry. It’s a blend of 37 Private Selection barrel recipes (“like a Private Selection infinity bottle,” as they note). And they raised over $500K.
Verdict: If you trust a brand, you can handle a busy release schedule. Or just drink what you like.
“We’re experimenting and releasing stuff all the time — that’s what we do,” says Beatrice. With Barrell, the constant innovation might be hard to keep up with, but that idea is literally built into their M.O. So while their just-launched Private Release Bourbon series might give me (and other whiskey fans) a panic attack — it’s micro-blending to the extreme, where a variety of bourbons are spread across five different ages and blended into 48 different recipes and each release is unique — I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need to try them all. Want to? Yes. Need to? No.
As Bowie notes; “Like anything, whiskey can be overwhelming. Find a distillery you love and follow them. Gravitate toward something you know and trust. I personally think it’s an exciting time. People like choice.”
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