Dr. Bourbonlove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scotch and Irish

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for 2019 Tribeca Film Festival)
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for 2019 Tribeca Film Festival) /

I’m tired.  If you’ve been into bourbon for more than a few months, I’d wager you’re tired too.

One could argue that today’s bourbon market is the best or the worst it has ever been for consumers.  On the one hand, distilleries are producing more bourbon than they ever have.  New distilleries are popping up all over the place.  Old favorites are releasing new, exciting core lineup products and are releasing limited editions at record pace.  The bourbon world is ablaze with hype and interest from all over, newcomers to the world of bourbon now have more choices than ever before and there’s something for everyone out there.

However, on the other hand, with hype and interest comes competition.  Not on the production side, but on the consumer side.  Remember the days (not too long ago, mind you) when you could walk into your favorite store, grab your bottle of Eagle Rare or Weller Special Reserve, your “daily drinkers”, and walk out with a couple of bottles of stuff that you enjoyed on the regular?  Not anymore.

These offerings weren’t even “chase” bottles.  They were just solid, every day offerings that were good for the price.  Now, they’ve reached allocated status and stores are being forced to buy package deals just to get what used to be bottom-shelf bourbon.  Weller Special Reserve used to retail for $13, you know?

Forget about walking in and finding a limited release just sitting on the shelf unless it’s priced so high above retail that no one in their right mind would ever buy it.  This is the new bourbon hell-scape that has come to be accepted as “the new norm”.

Where people will actually walk into a store and BUY, not laugh at, a bottle of Blanton’s for $200 because they’ve never seen one “in the wild” and want to try it.  Where a $69 bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle, the lowest offering in the Van Winkle line-up of products now commands a whopping $700 going rate online simply because of its namesake.

Where in order to actually get a rare bottle for a good price, you need to have years worth of good will earned at a particular store (assuming they even get what you want from the distributors that make them play ludicrous games to even qualify for a handful of desirable bottles), win a local raffle/lottery to GAIN THE RIGHT TO PURCHASE said rare bottle, or live in a control state that regulates prices of bottles.

I, for one, am growing increasingly tired of it all.

Maybe I’ve just been doing this long enough to become jaded, or maybe it really is just as nightmarish as I’m describing it to be, but I don’t enjoy the hunt anymore.  I hate drastically overpaying for a bottle and rarely do so.  I’ve walked away many times when a store offers me a $39 retail bottle from behind the counter for $150 when I barely agreed to buy the single one he got 6 months ago for $59.  I’ve watched one store raise their price of Blanton’s over the last year from $69 to $99 to $119 to $149 to $199.  It’s absurd and what’s even more absurd is that people are paying it.  It’s borderline predatory.

That’s why I’ve been branching out lately.  I’ve discovered a whole new world of Scotch and Irish that I had only previously scratched the surface of.  I had dabbled in both categories in the past, but never really began to explore either in depth.  I owned several bottles from distillery’s core lineups, but had not explored the rest of their catalogues, or perhaps would have their most iconic bottle, but none of their other offerings.

I figured, if I was going to spend large amounts of money on overpriced, overhyped bourbon, buying more expensive offerings of Scotch and Irish whiskey would be a savings in the long run, or at the very least, I would feel like I was at least getting what I paid for.  It was much easier to justify in my mind spending $350 on a 25 year old Laphroaig Cask Strength that came in a nice wooden box with brass clasps instead of paying close to the same for a bottle of Elmer T. Lee with a MSRP of $39.

I think I made the right choice.  I’ve had the absolute pleasure of tasting high end offerings from notable Scotch and Irish brands such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Balvenie, Bruichladdich, Midleton, Redbreast, Mitchell and Son’s Spot series to name a few.  Some of these bottles have become all-time favorite whiskies for me and I probably never would have tried many of them if the bourbon market had not gotten so out of hand.

The ability to walk into a large store and easily be able to find most bottles that you’re looking for is a breath of fresh air when juxtaposed with searching for bourbon, usually striking out and leaving empty-handed or with an empty wallet.  Even limited releases will sometimes sit on shelves for years, not because they were mass produced, not because they aren’t delicious, but because most people are overlooking them due to bourbon being in vogue at the moment.

Over the last year, I’ve introduced many people to the wonders of Redbreast and Midleton, with some saying it’s the best whiskey they have ever had.  Others who were very hesitant to even try Scotch are some of the biggest peat-heads that I know now. There’s an entire world of wonderful whiskey out there that most people that are currently obsessed with bourbon are overlooking entirely, which is great for those of us who are sick of the current bourbon scene.

If you’re starting to feel like I do, maybe now’s the time to put bourbon to the side for the moment and start looking at the broader whiskey world.  There are an amazing number of distilleries out there and I guarantee that there is something that suits your palate just fine.

So if you would like to branch out a bit and. see what the world has to offer, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Each region of Scotch is wildly different from the others and if you don’t like a particular offering, try something from another region.  I’d recommend starting with a Speyside if you’re unfamiliar with the different regions and want a nice jumping off point.  Look for Balvenie 12 Doublewood as a starting bottle.
  • Scotch from the Islay region is probably the most polarizing, so I wouldn’t start there unless you’re very daring.  While off-putting for some, the region holds some of Scotch’s greatest treasures.  Ardbeg 10 year is a great core offering that should be available at most stores.
  • Irish is typically very sweet and pleasant, with notes of fruit and honey.  This is a great place to start if you’re beginning to dabble outside of bourbon.  Look for Redbreast 12 and Green Spot, then branch out from there.  Thank me later.
  • Don’t forget other regions.  Japan makes excellent whiskey, but it’s typically more expensive, even for their base products.  Suntory Toki is meant to be used to make Highball cocktails, so I wouldn’t recommend it to try neat even though the pricing may be enticing.  Try to find a Nikka Whisky from the Barrel.

With all of that said, I won’t stop asking for special bourbon releases when I go to my local stores, I just don’t feel the desire anymore to actively hunt for special releases or worry that my favorite “daily drinker” is now behind lock and key in the back.  There are plenty of other whiskies out there that I had ignored for far too long that I have now decided to explore. I still love bourbon, I just don’t feel like I’m in love with bourbon anymore…at least for now.