Whiskey Wednesday: Unicorns, Whales, and Narwhales

Unicorns are all around. You can see them prancing through the Instagram forest, taunting you with delicious rivulets running down the sides of a glistening Glencairn glass yet the moment you emerge into the fields of the liquor stores they become a distant fable. What happened to these legendary bottles?

The short answer is: they became legendary. As humans we often seem driven to obtain the unobtainable. We strive to climb the highest mountain, to put a man on Mars, and to score a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for our home bar. Pappy might not be as lofty a goal as the first manned mission to Mars but the spirit is the same. This mentality to obtain the best doesn’t just drive the whiskey market either.

In the world of craft beer the legendary brews are known as ‘whales’ and if you ever wanted to see a brewmaster roll their eyes and grit their teeth ask them

When everyone wants a unicorn what happens to all the workhorses?

about the notorious ‘Whale Hunters.’ These Sudsy Ahabs sail the special event scene, spear the rarest beer on tap, drain the keg and disappear, often without supporting the breweries core beer and usually never to be seen again. They don’t add value to the bar, or even necessarily to the brand, they’re just looking to score something that they feel only they can appreciate before anyone else can be exposed to it.

While the Unicorn and Whale market have certainly spurred growth, especially in the craft scenes, and have been some of the biggest drivers of the infamous Booze Black Market they have an unseen downside. When everyone wants a unicorn what happens to all the workhorses?

Unicorn bottles like the Pappy’s, or the Parker’s Heritage, or the Old Forester

The current whiskey boom has created a feedback loop where what were once reliable bottles are becoming, maybe not unicorns but certainly narwhales.

Birthday Bourbons are great special occasion bottles but they can’t support a distillery on their own. You need good product, at a good price, that people want to drink frequently yet responsibly. The current whiskey boom has created a feedback loop where what were once reliable bottles are becoming, maybe not unicorns but certainly narwhales.

Take the W.L. Weller line up. Created by William Larue Weller the brand has existed since the 1840’s and enjoyed great popularity at the time. Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle joined the Weller Company as a salesman in 1893 and after W.L. Weller passed away in 1899 Pappy and Alex T. Farnsley purchased the company in 1908. A. Ph. Stitzel had been under contract to produce whisky for the Weller Company and after a merger in 1933 the infamous Stitzel-Weller Distillery opened in 1935. The distillery made W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald and many other whiskies (but no Pappy Van Winkle) until it shut down in 1992. The Weller brand was than purchased by Buffalo Trace in 1999 where it is currently made along side it more famous Van Winkle cousins.

A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Special Reserve

At face value this story is similar to many other whiskey brands that existed before and after Prohibition. It enjoyed early success, sluggish sales in the middle of the century and has been enjoying rising tides with the rest of the Bourbon industry. But between Stitzel-Weller’s closing in 1992 and today we’ve been struck full force with the Bourbon Boom and Pappy Mania. And once the word got out that Weller was just “young, cheaper Pappy” stocks began to get bought up, and people saw a chance to raise prices.

What was once a great everyday workhorse is slowly becoming something pricy and privileged rather than welcoming and friendly. And I say this as a spoiled man who just received a House Single Barrel of Weller Antique 107. This is going to be an everyday whiskey for myself and for the bar at Faith and Flower but we almost didn’t end up with it because of its Narwhale reputation.

Due to a snafu in the warehouses people who were not myself, or my bar, were able to order cases of our current barrel. And the entire barrel blew out of stock in less than 24 hours. And I first found out about this situation by being linked to a post of someone selling bottles of it on the Secondary Market for $70!

While all the one hand it’s flattering that someone would want to pay so much for a barrel I’ve picked out, it’s also infuriating not only because it feels like someone stole one of my favorite toys but because that’s highway robbery on the price. They weren’t just stealing from me, they’re stealing from the people they’re selling it to as well.

Thankfully we were able to retrieve all of the cases (minus a few missing bottles) and I can continue to wage my war against it becoming a true unicorn by making Old Fashioned Cocktails with it. But where does this unicorn hunt leave us?

Let’s look at the craft beer world again. For the first time in nearly two decades beer growth and consumption is down, not slowing. A gentle decline has emerged. Many analysts point to breweries being bought out by massive conglomerates and to choice fatigue, there are just so many damn options that its exhausting. But they also point out that people aren’t drinking less they’re just moving to other drinks. Like whiskey.

Hibiki 17

What if these craft beer drinkers became exhausted not by choice but by the hassle and work needed to get they’re favorite brew, or were so discouraged by never being able to get a thimble of Pliny the Younger that they tried something else, say a workhorse Bourbon. Turns out they liked it and moved into a new category of drinking. What happens when these same problems invade the Whiskey World? How long can we maintain growth in an industry when the goalposts keep moving?

On the other hand, while my philosophy has always been education and approachability, I have felt the sting of working an entire year to craft a bar program that delivers everyday excellence, to then earn that one shinning Unicorn of a bottle and priced it in a way to reward thirsty travelers in their search only to have that one Unicorn Hunter swoop in an annihilate the bottle. It’s a balancing act that we’re all going to have to get better at if we want to keep this Whiskey Boom from going belly up.

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