Somm Talk

So You Want to Get into Whiskey? Here's How

Sommelier and beverage expert Justin Vann helps get you into the rare bottle game.

By Justin Vann

The American whiskey market has been growing steadily by about 1.5 percent annually since 2015, arriving at a $4 billion industry value in 2020. This is remarkable under the specter of China’s retaliatory tariffs against American products and, of course, Covid-19. According to Research and Markets in the summary of its 2019 American whiskey market report, the domestic whiskey market is expected to grow to around $16.8 billion by 2025.

The summary also confirms that the highest-end premium American bourbons and ryes have played a part in the domestic whiskey market’s growth. There is never enough to go around of these top-tier bottles, and they’re metered out in accordance with general support of the brand, or “allocated” to retailers, restaurants, and bars accordingly. Thus, the hunt for allocated bottles has reached a fever pitch. It is a thrilling chase, but it requires some methodology and a lot empathy.

In short, whiskey drinkers who build relationships with small, independent liquor stores can obtain an advantage in the chase for rare bottles.

It needs to be said that the worst way to go about seeking rare whiskey is to walk into a shop you’ve never set foot in and immediately ask if it has anything rare or allocated. The first step in the right direction is to form a relationship with a smaller, independent store that doesn't sell to restaurants or bars.

"Spend your monthly budget in booze at these places and don’t ask (for rare bottles) until you have made it a regular haunt," says Kristopher Hart, a forum moderator and a founding member of The Houston Bourbon Society. "Participating in raffles also helps." Raffles for rare bottles occur at smaller stores with so many devoted regulars that randomized offerings are the only way to keep it fair.

Todd Grube, another moderator for the HBS, says when becoming a regular, friendliness can get you ahead of a queue packed with bourbon hype chasers.

“There are lots of ‘hunters’ out there chasing specific bottles and buying nothing else, and it can get tiring for the stores,” says Grube. Thus, seek to buy products on the shelf both to support shops and because savvy liquor store operators are founts of knowledge about new products that might be outside your radar. Alex Le of Nasa Liquor, just minutes from NASA, implores shoppers to use them as a resource.

“Let us nurture you and spread our knowledge to you,” says Le. “It’s our passion and we hope that it’s yours as well.”

Conveniently, the HBS also maintains a map of liquor stores that receive allocations of sought-after whiskey. It also catalogs and broadcasts upcoming barrel picks. These are single barrels bottled for a specific store, often adorned with custom stickers to commemorate the pick, and often hotly anticipated by collectors. All barrel picks are not created equal, but it pays to check them out.

The following is a list of suggestions for commonly available whiskies that you can buy to build up goodwill with your neighborhood booze merchant. To be called bourbon it must be made from 51-percent corn, but what you do with the other 49 percent has a big impact on the flavor. Other variables matter, but this is a big one.

Classic bourbons

Less than 20-percent rye, and both spicier and fruitier

  • Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon and 101 Bourbon
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
  • Knob Creek Small Batch 9-year Bourbon
  • Old Forester 1920 and 1910 Bourbon
  • Early Times Bonded Bourbon
  • Jack Daniel’s barrel Proof Tennessee Whiskey

High-rye bourbons

More than 20-percent rye

  • Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
  • Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon and OGD 114 Bourbon

Wheated bourbons

10–20-percent wheat, low to no rye, and soft, with more vanilla and caramel notes

  • Maker’s Mark classic and Cask Strength Bourbon
  • Weller Special Reserve Bourbon (a likely candidate to become allocated soon, the 12-year and 107 proof are already quite scarce)
  • Larceny Small Batch Bourbon

High-corn rye

Only 51-percent rye

  • Pikesville Rye
  • Wild Turkey Rare breed Rye and 101 Rye
  • Sazerac Rye

High rye 

75-percent rye or higher

  • Whistlepig 10-year Rye

Variety is the spice of life, and if you want to live very spicily, try mixing up your whiskey habit with other oak-aged spirits.

American brandy

Some see American oak with vastly fewer style constraints as French brandy.

  • Copper and Kings
  • Sacred Bond
  • Osocalis
  • Bertoux
  • Neversink

French brandy is an older and more diverse category. Do what we do in the wine world, and shop by importer. PM Spirits and Charles Neal Selections are great spirit collections. Armagnac should be of particular interest to a bourbon drinker in need of a change of scenery.

Aged rum also contains an incredible breadth of sipping spirits. Foursquare from Barbados is a good starting point, and for more adventurous options, branch out to funkier styles like Jamaican single rum from Hampden Estate or Chairman’s Reserve 1931 from St. Lucia. Lei Low in the Heights is a valuable resource on sipping rum.

Tequila isn’t my first suggestion for American whiskey analogues, but Añejo tequilas see at least a year of barrel age. I would encourage you to be especially picky—Fortaleza Anejo and Tequila Ocho Anejo are great for bourbon and rye drinkers respectively. Consult The Pastry War’s online agave list for more homework.

Justin Vann is a sommelier who’s the owner and beverage director for Public Services Wine & Whisky. He also serves as wine buyer for Theodore RexMala Sichuan Bistro, and Okra Charity Saloon. His message to you: It has never been more urgent to give support to bars, restaurants, and wine shops as the food-and-beverage industry is being crushed by Covid-19. Your dollars going toward a local, independently owned business in lieu of a national chain can be the difference between life and death for that business.

Show Comments