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Busting Booker’s: Why The Big Price Increase Isn’t A Cool Move

I get asked about good value in whiskey a lot. I’ve always got a few tips for people, the bottles that may not be pricey but really deliver. The list is dwindling, though, and one of the heavy hitters just fell off late last week.

Booker’s Bourbon, the unfiltered, uncut, and unapologetically massive bottling originally developed by Booker Noe, the revered former master distiller at Jim Beam, is surging in price and simultaneously shrinking in yearly allocation. Let me be equally unapologetic in saying that this is bad news for bourbon drinkers.

Booker’s Bourbon Bluegill Creek
image via Whitney Harrod Morris

Beam has confirmed that the suggested retail price of Booker’s will approximately double, from about $50 to $100, and that production would be scaled back by about a third, from six releases of 350 barrels a year to only four. This combination almost guarantees that the $100 suggested retail price is going to be a lot more firm than the former suggested price. Booker’s was often seen on sale for as low as $40 a bottle. That’s not going to happen anymore. You’ll probably see it for over $100, maybe as part of the same store lotteries that feature Van Winkle, Antique Collection, and Willett bottlings.

Beam whiskey, on allocation. It boggles the mind. Beam had been out ahead of this, with only the minor hiccup on Knob Creek availability a few years ago. They had plenty of stock, they told us, nothing to worry about. Then there was the Maker’s proof-lowering-oops-we’re-not-lowering-it bobble, followed by the 8 year old statement disappearing from Jim Beam Black (which was one of my top three value whiskeys), and then recently the 9 year old statement slipping off Knob Creek.

And now Booker’s. I hope you were lucky enough to be prepared for this. I was, kind of: I have four bottles of Booker’s stashed, not because I saw this coming, though I should have, after the changes noted above. I had them because I like it. I have four bottles of Baker’s stashed too, and now I’m thinking about getting more, even though I’m just not a whiskey hoarding kind of guy.

In a market like this, selling whiskey for less than you can get for it is kind of crazy. But damn, man: double? And a third less bottles out there?

How did we come to this? Simple: more and more of us began drinking whiskey, and the newer drinkers did not have the same idea of what was “normal” for prices. As they came into the market, they read the magazines and websites, and talked to the folks who’d been drinking whiskey, and the first question they asked was a simple one: “What’s the best bourbon?” And the answers they got drove the top end of the market, because we told them that the allocated bottles were the best.

That top end inflammation is just like a crown fire in a forest; it gets the fire moving terrifically fast. I’ve seen what happens in Scotch whisky; you could have seen it happen again recently, at an insanely accelerated pace, in Japanese whisky. The rare and the old whiskies get in a spiral of rising auction prices, and it creates a firestorm effect that pulls up the prices of everything on the lower shelves.

Why do the prices of the “regular” whiskeys go up? It’s a combination of factors. Distillers see those rare whiskeys going for much higher prices, and realize that what’s true up top probably works down low. They see their whiskey being flipped on the secondary market for double the list price, so they double the list price. They see that selling their juice at 15 years old might make a lot, but selling more of it pre-evaporation at 6, 7, or 8 years gets them even more. They see that not putting an age statement on frees up more stock to go into bottles with brands that established their reputation with the age statement. And the demand stays the same…or increases.

Booker’s, of course, never had an age statement to lose. It was simply what it was: uncut, unfiltered, from the floors that Booker liked the best. It was, and is, simply a very good whiskey. That won’t change. But Beam apparently couldn’t afford to sell it at $50 anymore, they were leaving too much money on the table.

I get that. In a market like this, selling whiskey for less than you can get for it is kind of crazy. But damn, man: double? And a third less bottles out there? Booker’s going to $100 a bottle would hurt a lot less if you’d gone to $65 three years ago, and $85 last year, and if we had better hope of even finding a bottle.

At $100 a bottle, a lot fewer people are going to be buying Booker’s. There will be more people looking further down the price listings for something good. And there are going to be more people thinking about aged rum, and brandy.

We always said, bourbon just has to hang on until supply catches up with the demand, and hope people don’t walk away in the meantime. Things like this are what make people walk away, and that’s another thing people ask me a lot: what’s the next big thing after bourbon? I’m not sure, but we may be about to find out.

Lew Bryson

Lew Bryson has been writing about beer and spirits full-time since 1995. He was the managing editor of Whisky Advocate from 1996 through 2015, writing a regular column on American whiskey, reviewing craft, Canadian, and American whiskeys, and a frequent feature writer. Bryson is the author of Tasting Whiskey (Storey Publishing, 2014), a broad survey of the whiskeys of the world, their history and manufacture. He lives north of Philadelphia with his wife and two Welsh Corgis.

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