I feel a bit like Kevin Bacon today, folks.
There is a sudden surge of panic stricken articles and posts out there proclaiming the “Whiskey Apocalypse“, and that the world is on “the Brink of a Whiskey Crisis“. No less luminary a publication than Esquire suggests you start hoarding.
Everybody freak out! Run in a panicked mob down the street to the nearest taverns and drink all the brown grain liquor before someone else does! Just let me get out of the way first, since I don’t want to be crushed flat like a cartoonish Chip Diller.
All clear? Good, for those of you still here, instead of lying face-down on a bar top, clutching the last empty of Jim Beam in your desperate fingers, let’s calm down. Yes, there is a whiskey shortage. It has been going on for some time. It is only going to get worse for years to come. This is not news.
As near as I can tell, the latest round of hand-wringing over how you won’t even be able to buy a Manhattan in a few weeks stems from this press release by Buffalo Trace, a company which has recently become the indisputable king of marketing by media hype. It is entitled “BUFFALO TRACE DISTILLERY UPDATES BOURBON INVENTORY SHORTAGES”, and every article written recently about the coming Bourbon Dust Bowl seems to lead back to it. The writer should get a raise. There is precisely one item of news in the seven paragraphs, and that is that Buffalo Trace has hired a new distribution guy… OK, a new “full-time barrel allocation manager”, a move that is apparently part of their already existing business plan, not some Hail Mary pass to preserve the Republic.
What is going on with Bourbon, and other premium American whiskeys, is called Capitalism and Market Forces, and everything is going to be all right. Can we please get straight what is going on? Several things that are commonly being freaked out about in the stuff being written in this latest wave of bourbon hysteria are either incomplete, or misunderstood.
First off, there is the question of what is causing the shortage. Most people realize there are two sides to this, the supply of the product and the thirst for it. The proximate cause for the “crisis” comes from the demand axis of the graph. There has been, and will absolutely continue to be, a huge increase in the numbers of in the numbers of bourbon drinkers, and how much they drink. But it isn’t because of this guy:
It’s because of these guys:
“Yeah, we just finished building another empty city
that even we
don’t have any people to put in. Fly us in another eight cases of Willet for the ribbon cutting.”
If it was just the current Cocktail Renaissance fueling whiskey demand, the demand spike would be much smaller, probably already peaking, and possibly a bigger problem for the industry. But half the world’s population is only now having its first taste of bourbon, and at the same time it is gaining access to the means to buy its subsequent tastes. It is a reasonable bet that foreign desire for American whiskey is going to continue to drive up demand. I suspect that this is actually a good thing. Human industry handles long-term growth in demand very well over the long haul, thank you. Look it up. (Kids, that’s a turn of phrase people used before “Google It” came into vogue. To “look something up” you bike down to a storefront search engine called a “library”. Be sure to stop off at the malt shop on your way down.)
Demand spikes, as we would be looking at if this were really a hipster led issue, lead to bubbles. Bubbles lead to crashes. Crashes lead to economic dislocations and bankruptcies. Bankruptcies in the whiskey business lead to orphaned barrels of good stuff being sold off at fire sales and being diluted with water and caramel coloring and put in Early Times bottles. No one wants that.
The challenge for the distillers is going to be balancing pricing with the new demand, not getting too far out in front of the price wave and getting a reputation for being over-priced or gougers, nor too far behind and becoming competitively disadvantaged because of all the money left on the table. Most of these guys are damn sharp businesspeople. So be happy that the economic health of the people who make the good stuff is largely assured, as long as they manage their businesses well and don’t bollix up a good thing. If they do, screw ‘em, it’ll be because they deserve it for being bad at capitalism.
So no, demand pressure is not a new thing. Nor is it a bad thing. Yes, bourbons are going to get a bit more pricey in the next few years. And yes, when Buffalo Trace’s new full-time barrel allocation manager or one of his colleagues at other distilleries mess up, you may find your favorite bottle is not available during all given runs to the package store. But prices for bourbon will not get out of control, and supplies will not run out. Why? Because this exists. And so does this. And many others.
In the long run, demand for bourbon will in fact be easily satisfied. Why? Because, Malthusians (Motto: Being utterly wrong about our core beliefs since 1798!) aside, the world is not running out of corn.
Most people understand this last fact at a deep core level, so this current mini-hysteria wave has felt the need to discover two new, completely unheard of things that will not ever let bourbon production catch up to demand. Barrels and angels.
Yes, not only are there ravening hordes of hipsters, roaming Williamsburg and guzzling Knob Creek like there is no tomorrow, but also God has sent a horde of Angels to punish us for our wicked ways by stealing half of all bourbon made from inside sealed barrels before it can be bottled! To hear all these writers go on about the Angel’s Share, you would think this was something new that presents some sort of barrier to increased whiskey production.
You might equivalently say that we will have difficulty producing more milk in the future because we have to pump it out of cows. We have always had to pump milk out of cows, and always will. Likewise, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and the rest of the gang have been swilling barrel-strength Jack Daniels since the day Jack first put his whiskey in wood. Transpiration losses are simply a part of how whiskey is made. They are known and expected and nothing out of the ordinary, and they don’t make it take any longer to make a good whiskey.
If you are wondering how this sudden rash of heavenly drunkeness became a concern to anyone, may I suggest you check a certain press release mentioned above?
Nearly the same goes for barrels. Yes, American cooperage operations are stretched tight right now, but in truth, they have been for a long time. Overall, cooperages are getting bigger, at a responsible rate in reaction to demand. We are not running out of white oak for making them either. (One of the ways that the US does a far better job of decreasing net carbon dioxide emissions than any other industrialized nation on Earth is our aggressive program of re-forestation. That’s right, folks! Drink more whiskey and you can help stop Global Warming!) Distill all you want, the coopers will manage to make more barrels.
Again, yes, increasing demand for barrels and for corn will put pressure on prices as well. It doesn’t help that the government keeps spending our money on turning good corn into bad fuel, but again, not enough to really matter in this situation.
So what is a drinker to do?
First, do not follow the recommendation of Esquire. Don’t rush out and put all your ready cash into cases of booze. That is a bad idea for the market and everybody else around you. When consumers start to hoard en masse, they end up causing the very circumstances they wanted to hoard to avoid. You get a huge spike in demand, which causes outrageous prices and shortages all over the place. So don’t hoard, or my whiskey drinking self will end up like Kevin Bacon—squashed under your spooked feet.
And in case your response is, “Hey bub! Every man for himself,” don’t hoard because it is stupid for the hoarder, too. A stock of booze, while it doesn’t go bad, is a non-productive asset. It is not going to appreciate faster than the market. It does not improve with age. And the money you spent on it, you could have saved or spent on something you use to make yourself more productive, either of which would give you more money to spend on the same booze when it is more expensive later. In the mean time, your spouse will be yelling at your during the intervening years to give them back their storage space.
If you are going to hoard some whiskey, lay down something like Jim Beam or Jack. Should the apocalypse come, that shade tree mechanic you need to fix your car so you can get out of town in front of the zombie horde will just as happily take a bottle of that as he will a bottle of Angel’s Envy Rye.
Second, there is lots that drinkers and bartenders can and will do to alleviate the issue. Look into rum… and gin… and brandy… and so on. Lotsa good stuff to drink out there besides American whiskey, people. That’s called responding to a market signal. It fixes things. And in the process, tunnel-visioned whiskey aficionados may remember the rest of the world of fabulous spirits. Try coming up with some uses for less popular spirits. Convince the hipsters that Seagram’s VO is the PBR of whiskey, and the ironic lifestyle requires consuming nothing else in their (not your or my) Old Fashioneds. Do all that, and the industry will be healthy, your bank account will be healthy, everything will work itself out in a few years, and I can still buy Bourbon without a bank loan I can’t get anyway.