There was once a time when a man would find a bourbon he liked and stick with it. Today, that is no longer sufficient. To enjoy bourbon, one must dive into the depths of bourbon hunting, scouring liquor stores for hard-to-come-by bottles, making friends with the staff so they’ll pull out one of the bottles from the secret stash and joining various social media groups in which fellow members share their tips and finds.
My passion for actual bottle-hunting was short-lived, however. It takes too much time and effort and when opportunity costs are factored in, I’d rather pay a little over store price to those who are willing to go stand in line at 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning waiting on the store’s latest shipment.
This frenetic state of affairs in the House of Bourbon has caused some blindness to quality. Perfectly acceptable, if not award-winning, whiskeys become objects of desire as the hunters jump on the latest craze, buying up the supply and creating a bit of unearned mystery.
I appreciate their passion and dedication of those with more free time to finding new things to try, and their occasional willingness to sell me a $29 bottle of Weller for $35. This isn’t to say that I didn’t temporarily get into the hype, though my willingness to drop enormous sums of money on a bottle of booze limited my participation.
In 2020, when we moved to a house with a bar, I stocked it. I jumped on some of the bottles that had people talking, particularly as it was too difficult to find the first truly nice bourbon I’d bought for myself, the nowadays less buzzworthy yet still incredibly difficult to find Blanton’s. I did score both the Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel and the Barrel Proof, which have become staples.
Unlike the liquor inside the barrel, though, it did not take many years for my interest to mellow. I bought a fifth of Blanton’s on the secondary market. I found more Elijah Craig. I happened into an Eagle Rare and a Jack Daniels Single Barrel, Barrel Proof store pick, which are both delicious and generally obtainable. I discovered that Early Times Bottled in Bond and Old Grandpa 114 are solid, affordable picks that are generally available. Naturally, I make sure to keep bottles of Woodford and Buffalo Trace around.
Which is all to say, when the work is done and I find myself in the mood for a dram, maybe even a vertical sampler, I’ve got a decent selection, even if I don’t possess a George T. Stagg or a Stagg Jr. The ever-elusive Pappy remains out of reach, unless I win the lottery and lose all sense of proportion.
It’s fun, so far as hobbies go. Also, though, it’s starting to remind me of the vodka craze. Now, before you start sharpening your pitchforks, I know bourbon and vodka are in no way similar. But working in the service industry in the early 2000s, when vodka was king, was an annoying time. People simply had to have Grey Goose, no Belvedere, no whatever P. Diddy was marketing, in their “martinis,” which were often shooters in a fancier glass.
I respected those who drank straight-up vodka but called it a martini. There’s something special about a desire to get ready for a big steak by first quaffing a giant glass of vodka — when most people say dry, they mean no vermouth — garnished with a few olives. Those who wanted a Cape Codder, but in Cosmopolitan form, were usually higher maintenance, not to mention that carrying a tray of those through a crowded restaurant is a pain in the ass.
Nevertheless, bourbon isn’t that much different, particularly when you go into a tasting blind, or in my case, when you forget what it is you poured.
It was the end of a long day, and I was taking my time with my Glencairn of something brown while listening to music. It was delicious, with notes of caramel, mahogany, and leatherbound books. And despite pouring it just an hour earlier, I had absolutely no recollection of what it was. After a trip to the bar to jog my memory, I determined it was not the Eagle Rare I’d considered, nor was it the Jack Daniels. It had to be one of my centerpiece bottles. It was too good not to be.
No, in fact it was the Early Times Bottled in Bond, purchased for about $17 a liter, which provided me with this boozy epiphany.
The hunt for bourbon, like more traditional forms of hunting, isn’t so much about what you bring home as it is the thrill of the chase. The spoils can become secondary and cloud the judgment, based on the difficulty of bagging them, even before the first sip is taken. So I am giving serious consideration to finding a bourbon and just sticking with it. It’s likely, though, that it will be whatever I pour on any given evening, whether or not I remember what it is.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.