Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Booker's Rye: Is Whiskey Over?

Last week, Beam Suntory hosted a group of some of the highest profile whiskey bloggers and journalists at the Jim Beam Distillery for a tasting of Booker's Rye. Needless to say, I wasn't invited, but you can read about it on Chuck Cowdery's blog or Bourbonr.

The news that emerged from this press junket was that the new Booker's Rye will be a cask strength, 13 year old rye using a higher rye mashbill than Beam's other ryes and that it will retail for $300. Now, the bloggers who Beam hosted seemed to think this was a great rye, and I have no reason to doubt that (well, except...Beam), but $300 is a lot of money.

American whiskey prices have been heading in this direction for a while now. Wild Turkey, Michter's and Willett have all been pushing the envelope on prices, but $300 for a 13 year old rye is pretty extreme. In addition, the fact that this is Beam is important because they are the biggest game in town and have the power to set the standard for things like this. That being said, I'm not here to argue whether it's a fair price or not; those arguments have been made ad nauseam on numerous blogs and forums. Yes, the whiskey market is hot right now, yes there is a dearth of aged rye on the market, yes if it was reasonably priced it would just get bought up by flippers and resold for even more.

What saddens me is how out of reach these whiskeys have become for the average drinker. Sure, there are still plenty of decent, affordable, everyday whiskeys out there, but it used to be that someone could get really into American whiskey and taste some of the special stuff without shelling out three figures. Those days are clearly on their way out.

I never set out to write a blog about hard-to-get luxury items. While I've tasted and reviewed rare and expensive whiskey, the bulk of what I've written about has always been stuff that I think most of my readers could buy without breaking the bank. I don't have the stomach or the wallet for a world where $300 rye is the norm.

For my blog, this is an existential question. Should I still be blogging about whiskey at all or is it now akin to blogging about beluga caviar, yachts or Lamborghinis?  As I said, there are decent, affordable whiskeys out there, but I've already written about most of those, and how many blog posts do you need about Four Roses Single Barrel? After nine years of blogging, maybe I should just go ahead and call it a night before I hit the double digits...or transition into Sku's Recent Brandy.

So, I have some questions for you. What does the $300 Booker's Rye mean for American whiskey? Is it a big deal or am I overstating it? Is there anything in the whiskey world worth discussing or reading about anymore or should this be the end (at least for me)?  I eagerly await your responses.


Anonymous said...

Just another premium release at a wildly inaccessible price. Even at $300 the flippers will buy all of it and resell it. Michter's 20 flies off the shelf in a day at $500 a bottle. It will easily hit $500 on secondary, if not more. As long as it gets good reviews, people will chase it.

To answer your question, please keep reviewing brandy and other spirits (including whiskey).

Klievhelm said...

I, and presumably others, value your voice more than the particular item being reviewed. Move on to what interests you.

Prince Valiant said...

I'm over the chase. Will continue to purchase my fav bottles and get a special release IF the opportunity presents itself at a reasonable price. It's hard to justify over $100 for anything

EH said...

This just means people like me need to hear even more about which low priced bottle is also worth my money. I can taste through them and decide for myself, but having guidance from those that have been there before is a great benefit. I follow your new posts, but do you have a list somewhere in the history of your favorite "cheap" offerings? Maybe that's the best response to the $300 rye.

Rhett Morgan said...

Do you love bourbon?

That's the question. Do you? I love scotch even though a majority of the scotch world is way out of my affordability range. I hunt rare pours from time to time, at bars, at bottle shares. Not every bottle is meant to be accessible. Inaccessible products help flesh out the bourbon market. The only reason you're posting this question now is because Buffalo Trace refuses to price their bottles to market demand.

Jeff Mitchell said...

It is not a forgone conclusion this will sell. KC2001 isn't doing well so far. WTMK still sits on shelves. WT Diamond still sits on shelves. This could be a slow mover and could still be on shelves in Fall.

This is the highest priced American Whiskey to ever be released all things considered. Which is more ironic and disturbing considering how pedestrian Beam is.

Matt said...

There are good, not-whisky distilled spirits out there. I'm not aware of anything like straightbourbon.com for brandy and although there are decent rum resources out there, they're not fully developed yet and they seem to focus on European releases. There is a demand for quality non whiskey distilled spirit opinions, and you fill that niche. Your online contributions have made yourself somewhat redundant in whisky (especially whiskey), but there are still niche spirits, like apple brandy, that need to be further explored and I for one really appreciate someone like yourself to tell me about them.

Brian Bolter said...

Sku ... You bring a valuable voice, pun intended, to a whiskey scene that's still just reaching its stride again with consumers. Push back by influencers like you does make a difference with the brands. Your thoughtful analysis isn't so much a review of luxury goods as it is a defacto advocate for consumers. Hope you'll keep at it. The whiskey world needs voices and palates of reason now more than ever. That said, the price vs. value needle is getting pushed which is uncomfortable for long timers. Ironically, much more by the craft distillers than the recent big brand releases.

Steffen Bräuner said...

Move over to beer (Before that is too late)


Anonymous said...

I agree with Brian - you are one of the most thoughtful, rational voices on what is happening in the Whiskey industry and we appreciate your insights. I for one would value your opinions on all things affordable and expensive.

If however you are looking to rename the blog, 'recent drinks' seems somewhat more appropriate than recent eats, given that 99% of your posts are about beverages.

Anonymous said...


I have been having similar existential conversations with some of the LA crew about this very phenomenon. Dusties are dead around LA, apart from the occasional AA sighting. BTAC isn't worth the hunt. Pappy is insane...and now along comes $300 Beam Rye, which is a joke, plain and simple. You can't sell $12 rye alongside $300 rye, with nothing in the middle at all and expect it to be worthwhile, it's a blind cash grab and it's ugly to see. There is no $60ish cask strength Beam rye with decent age on it, so how do you make the leap that by calling it Booker's it's now magically a 3 digit bottle? It's not.

I think the time may have come to focus on the craft aspect of liquor blogging - mezcal (tahonas pulled by mules!) is incredibly well made, by hand, and is $35-50 a bottle from Alipus. Brandy is an insane bargain. Armagnac is the new bourbon for several of us already, Pellehaut in particular. Perhaps instead of focusing on the bourbon industry, your blog could be a "Great Booze I found" blog, regardless of category? Hell, I would love to hear your thoughts on some decent tequila, for example, as I know very little.

Whatever you do, don't stop writing, we love your literary voice and honest reflections.


Mark said...

As a quasi-outsider (more of a beer guy, though I enjoy whiskey), I don't know that I'm qualified to answer, but I definitely value this blog and your voice. I've found it interesting to dig back into the archives, and appreciate when you branch out from whiskey as well. Nothing wrong with brandy or even those chocolate posts recently. Also, as a beer dork, I really appreciate when you highlight the intersection between beer and spirits, etc...

Mark said...

"Move over to beer (Before that is too late)"

Hahaha, kinda too late there too. Struggling with the same stuff (overly limited releases, growing pricepoints, flippers, etc...). While a $60 impossible to find release like BCBS Rare isn't near $300, a bottle of that won't last like a bottle of whiskey... To be sure, there's a lot of stuff that remains cheap and available, but a lot of other things are impossible to land and getting harder...

Edward said...

I'm not one to argue with a free market, but this is too rich for my blood. I have no inclination to pay $300 for 13-year barrel-strength rye when I already think that Lock Stock & Barrel and WhistlePig Boss Hog (both 13-year barrel strength) are too expensive at $120 and $180, respectively. Oh, but Booker himself laid this down? Sorry, don’t care.

I think Jeff’s point above is interesting. Not all of these mega-premium whiskeys are selling well, and it may be that only the limited number of secondary market participants (many of whom presumably make money off of flipping) are willing to pay this much for a bottle of American whiskey. It will be interesting to watch how pricing plays out.

billyhacker said...

With the dramatic capacity expansions at the traditional stills and the all the new production from new stills that we won't see for another four+ years, I can't help but think this is a brief window in wacky pricing. Right now there isn't enough bourbon for this new market, because it takes so long to make the whisky, but the producers see the expanding market, money is cheap, and new stills, cooperages, and warehouses are going up all over the place.

Supposedly Scotland exported around 80 million cases of whisky in 2015 (and probably produced 100m). The US produced only about 37 million cases last year. While it might take a while, I have no doubt that supply will eventually catch up to Scotland's and that will eventually break these price increases. A point against me is that Scotch has maintained prices despite the production increases. I would argue that non-Kentucky whisky will make that kind of price management harder in the US.

Also, if the bourbon market can get to the point where $45-60 is a normal price for a good bottle of bourbon, it will finally make good economic sense to be a micro-distillery in the same way that micro-breweries didn't make sense until good beer was worth $2+ a bottle.

Sku, a new golden era of whisky is just ahead and we need you to captain us through this short interval of foolishness. Plus, armagnac, and even calvados, is, in my opinion, more expensive than whisky for a similar quality.

Anonymous said...

Fuck Beam! And whiskey too. That delusional snaggledorf scene is crumbling.

Write about whatever you want.

Funky Tape said...

No, it's not over as far as the market is concerned. There will be tears in the end, but this really is the 'new norm' despite the usual whining. Suntory paid an ass-load for Beam so it needs to recoup its investment one bottle at a time.

Yes, SKU's Recent Brandies along with Recent Rum and Recent Agave should be considered. I'm all for it! Bourbon is dumb and its stupidness has taken rye with it.

sku said...

Thanks to everyone for the feedback (and support). I don't intend to stop blogging altogether, but I may change focus. I'm starting to feel like the Don Quixote of whiskey.

Nino said...

There will always be a need to have many voices in the conversation about whiskey, no matter what highs or lows or craziness the industry does with some of its bottlings. There's so much good stuff to talk about in whiskey these days (trust me, I know) that you should definitely stay to writing about the topic. Yours is a very respected voice in the whiskey writing community.

Anonymous said...

Sku, I don't think the common man is getting priced out of whiskey. I just think that the extraordinary demand of the last 5 years or so has skewed (not sku'd) the market. Unfortunately, the stocks of whiskey that helped drive the current boom are either no longer available or in short supply so market forces will drive the price up. However, there have been several exceptional whiskeys released to the market over the last few years that are readily accessible to the common man (e.g., Pikesville 6-Yr Rye, Larceny, ECBP, CEHT). There are also several new producer distillers coming on line with great products that will only continue to get better with age (e.g., Smooth Ambler, Few, Dad's Hat, Tom Foolery). Even MGP is adding new mashbills that broaden the whiskey horizon. Please write about whatever interests you. I just hope you will continue to find whiskey interesting.

Steve said...

Much like real estate has countless times, the market will eventually correct itself. In the end, the price bar will likely be raised a notch. Consumerism is driving the American whiskey market hard but consumers have short focus. Eventually the next shiny object will come along (like vodka and rum did previously) and consumers will storm it with the true connoisseurs staying behind.

I think with a $300 price point for a 13yr rye is going to be hard to catch fire unless it's super limited. As a bourbon/rye drinker that mainly sticks to value pours, I certainly won't buy it. I would buy the new 1792 cask strength you tweeted about though. Thanks for keeping the lot of us informed. I've enjoyed your recommendations for both food and drink for almost a decade.

Anonymous said...


Write about all drinks, but accessible ones, beers, brandy, rum, tequila etc. Let us whisky geeks know what we're missing and maybe we'll broaden our own horizons while you broaden yours.

Anonymous said...

Your contributions to whisky blogging are valuable but there are a lot of people doing it. There is no one really doing what you are doing with brandy and that makes you a powerful and welcome voice in that area. You've helped me learn about brandy both through your blog and email conversations. These days I buy more Armagnac than whisky and you were a big part of my education and growth. I hope you continue to give brandy more focus and more exposure, the world will only benefit.

t ball said...

I'd say bloggers like you are more valuable now than ever, especially if you help point out whiskeys that are both good and affordable.

Anonymous said...

I think, in this day and age of ever decreasing barrel aging times, disappearing age statements, and label double-talk, it's important for you to continue offering your changing opinions on reasonably priced bourbons. I believe re-visiting your past reviews and comparing them to the current product would be an interesting and valuable thing IMHO.

People like me enjoy reading reviews before we buy, but many of the reviews out there are for bottles that no longer contain the same bourbon they used to.

For example, Ancient Ancient Age 10 Star, until recently, was aged approximately six years - and most of the reviews out there for it are for that version of it. However, I noticed recently on a neck wrap the statement "Aged at least 36 months"! Meaning, it isn't even 4 years old now. Obviously, reviews of the 6 year AAA10* are no longer useful to potential buyers of the newer brew.

It seems to me that bourbon reviews need to be updated to keep up with the ever changing labels on these tried and true bourbons. Otherwise, the original reviews are really obsolete.

Does that make any sense?

kallaskander said...

Hi Sku,

as a European from Germany I can well understand your acute doubts about whisky blogging.

If you go on and whereto is your decision - it's your show after all.

What I as a whisky lover can very well understand is the frustration about the way things go whisky wise. A 13yo rye for $300 is bait. If you you take it you will never be able to get the worms back into the can.

In 2005 over here first the independent bottlers and then the drinks giants, too started to bait us with Scotch single malt whiskies aged 25+ years first as single cask bottlings by the independents and then regular OB offerings for what seemed steep mountain-like prices that in hindsight appear as lovely mellow hillocks.

We took the bait. In 2005 a OB Port Ellen Annual or Special Release as the last ones were called was below 200 €. The last one of 2015 was 3500.- € a bottle.
Prices for standard OBs 10-12yo are in a range starting from about 30-33.- €. In 2005 they were somewhere between 21-25.- €. Does not sound over much but I wish my income would raise at the same speed.
18-20yo single malts are somewhere between 60-70.- € if you can get them for a reasonable price many companies think they can ask 120.- € ++ for a 18-20yo.

I am sure you have seen the same in the US. Not only with Scotch.

Not only did Suntory pay a princely sum for Beam. They aquired managers with the deal that saw what is possible on the European Scotch market. The curse of premiumisation e.g. asking premium prices for standard whisky offerings has worked for the drinks companies. In a way.
Scotch exports in bottles shipped fell while value increased for the last three years.

From where I watch things it does seem that the whisky industry is pricing more and more customers out of the market. Nip them in the bud!

That is why I think that the Beam rye is bait. If the market takes it more of the same will follow.

Personally I would miss your independent thoughts on whisky.


M Olson said...

There is value in revisiting bourbons previously reviewed because of the decline in quality of standard expressions. Take Elmer T Lee for example, five years ago it was outstanding juice, today it's no better than Old Charter. So please revisit some of the standards as these expressions have declined significantly in quality.

My Annoying Opinions said...

Hi Sku,

I feel your pain. I've asked the whisky/whiskey community to join me in helping figure out what you should do next: https://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/05/18/what-should-sku-blog-about-next/

I'm hopeful we'll have some good ideas for you soon!


Eric said...

It could be worse. At least you aren't a printer ink reviewer. That said, Davin de Kergommeaux is probably having a good laugh about the state of the non Canadian whiskey world right about now.

It seems to me that Beam has almost always charged dumbass prices for their special releases. They were pretty reasonable with the Booker's 25th, but that was before their marketing mavens got high on their own farts amidst the genius of their plan to give Booker's cute names instead of batch numbers. Unfortunately, the history of this batch of rye makes it interesting enough to sell well. About the only thing I can think of to do about it is ignore it and hope that it goes away.

Failing that, brandy and rum are still really inexpensive.

Agent SJ said...

Three bills for a bottle of rye. Classic BMW consumerism, if it's expensive, it must be good.

I'm new to the bourbon game, but back in the 90s my best friend comped me on a series of high end scotch tasting events in Philadelphia. My conclusion at the time was some of the best stuff on earth was less than $50 a bottle. An inflation calculator calls that $78.50 today.

By the way who paid for Chuck's travel, food and lodging expenses? Is his blog a paid marketing. I don't see any negative comments on anything there.

Cheers, Michael

JD said...

There are many Micro-Distilleries popping up these days.

Some produce whiskey that is quite good, some produce paint stripper.

It would be nice to know what was what, if you're up to the challenge.

Just sayin'.

Agent SJ said...

Here is the story about the Frank Bacons of the automotive blogging world.


Curt said...

Many good comments here. Shows how much of a following you have. I too check your blog often. I would never have tried Armagnac without reading your opinions. One way to make a stand and sleep peacefully at night would be to refuse to engage in tastings and or reviews of anything beyond a set price point. Other than the vintage offerings that are no longer available anyway. That would seem an honorable compromise that would allow you to continue to inform us while fighting back against obvious exploitation in the industry.

Florin said...

Sku, this is nothing that a stiff drink and a good cry can't fix. Feel better soon!

Anonymous said...

You should review Minnesota-area Indian restaurants. A lot.

(If you make the same joke on two different blogs, is it really a repeat?)

Jay Andrew said...

Here's one issue with those other premiums mentioned...they are not Bookers. I have passed over Lock Stock & Boss Hog more times than I can remember. But even at $300 I would probably take a glance at Bookers Rye. I don't want to...but the name and the hype might just be enough to sway me in the right moment.
John Fitz, Russell's 1998 and countless Willetts have had no trouble disappearing at north of $250. Beam was smart to lure those writers (and bribe them) to create just enough hype.

Vik W said...

Please please don't stop blogging. You are an honest voice in the eats and drinks world, and quite candidly, a voice that doesn't profess as much, but rather informs, acclimatizes and points out hidden value gems to readers.

Whether it your review of K&L Single Barrel 24 Year Glenfarclas, or your recent post on Calvados, I have enjoyed both learning from and enjoying your "hidden gem" recommendations. The craft whiskey/spirits world, new global spirits, and even older but smaller distillers, beg for an honest/unbiased evaluation of their products, and the consumer needs more sane voices that review and recommend solid $/pour or $/bite finds. Then, there are other broader content themes that could lend themselves a more exploratory flavor, as in, if you enjoyed x, then you might want to try y.

I hope you ultimately blog about what you enjoy the most! Thanks for all the diligence and candor you put into your posts every week, and thanks for teaching all your readers a thing or two along the way.


ChuckVT83 said...

I'll second all the comments that love your blog. Please don't shut it down. Yours is the blog I like best - well, honestly, it's a tie between you and that other Chuck. ;-)

What about teaching newcomers about all the bottles on the shelf less than $50? Back in my day, we spent a lot of time trying different inexpensive bottles to develop our palette and learn what appealed to us.

Too many of today's newbies just don't care about learning. They are poisoned with the thought that "best" is something that exists and that they must have it. It really is sad to watch them think their life is not complete with . Actually, it's quite laughable at times. :-)

ChuckVT83 said...

That was supposed to be "not complete with insert-whiskey-here"

tms said...


Your questioning the whole whiskey biz, crazy prices, and inaccessibility of new/ interesting blog-able material is the natural process that is just running its course. Its completely rational for you to wish to write about other things (other aged distillates are an obvious choice, given your expertise and current audience), and I would support you doing so by continuing to read. I have confidence that this whiskey fad will start to blow over in the next few years, as volume and prices go up, while quality invariably begins to slip (eh, no age statements? see its already started)- then the sheople will move on to other pastures, so to speak.

I suppose now is an opportunity for the rest of us to diversify, explore other booze, drinks or food related obsessions in general, and see if whiskey was all that fabulous and worth coming back to if/when things get back on track. My current solution to the situation is to explore blending some of the whiskeys I've bought over the years but don't enjoy enough to drink regularly on their own. Disparate flavor profiles can become surprisingly complimentary in a blend. I've also found some inspiration from the old rectifier recipes, working with extracts (homemade so I know what's in it) to enhance flavor profiles of the stuff I can't find a "straight" way to fix and drink.

I and obviously others, greatly appreciate your voice on whatever it is you choose to write about. Over the years it has amused, educated and oriented me considerably with regard to the spirits I enjoy drinking. I still stand in amazement (and in paralysis) in front of the K&L Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac and Brandy sections, - one of these days soon I'll get started. In the mean time, take a hiatus, road-trip, or even an "Archer-esque" (legendary booze aficionado)break from reality, to figure out what's the next thing you want to expend creative effort on. We'll be here, sipping on whatever swill doesn't cost us 300$ or get marketed with a mythical backstory.


IndianaMark said...

Sku, please don't leave the blogsphere. Your voice is rational, earthy and very funny at times.I found myself walking away from many special releases last fall and gave found a new fun. I like to buy barrel selections from a few of my trusted retailors.I find it fun to compare with the standard release and also to blend my own , like the 10 Four Roses mashbills.
Your insight helped my move away from obsessing about the chase and start just enjoying more.
Please find a new norm that keeps you happy and help us all learn with you.
I have turned my back on anything over $150 and never did nor never will buy from a flipper.
Peace brother

Anonymous said...

I think this is not such a bad thing. By the established brands setting such high price points, it leaves the middle wide open for the new independent guys. A new independent can make good money and grow selling $60 bourbon and rye. You can argue this boutique juice is overpriced for what it is, but in the long run, the quality of available good product will rise. This is what I really care about.

Unknown said...

Thank you for asking the question. The short answer is yes, bourbon is over. I can no longer rationalize spending more money on ever younger bourbon. The sweet spot for me is a 6-12 year bourbon, which there used to be plenty of at reasonable prices. Now when I go into the liquor store I quickly walk through the bourbon aisle to see if there are any sales, and then go see what 12 year old rums and decent scotch blends are there and more often then not that is what I'm leaving with. I grew up in Kentucky and have been drinking bourbon for awhile now (I'm 40) and I can't believe that i only use bourbons in cocktails now. I'm so fed up with what they did to my favorite bottles that I don't even get mad any more, I'm just done with them.

Anonymous said...

"...Beam Suntory hosted a group of some of the highest profile whiskey bloggers." THIS is the worst problem. Even worse than ryeholing customers for $300. Because you know many readers of these blogs (and we all know exactly which bloggers participated) mistake the softball-recitations of Beam's Willy Wonkaesque sales pitch, along with glowing comments and reviews, for objective information. But they assure us it's good Rye, so lazy-assed panacea acommplished... right??

Anonymous said...

Forget the 300 beam, SKU.

Don't lose heart, there's always something interesting distilling in the bourbon/rye world!

I mean, there's this:


Anonymous said...

Hey, I just wanted to drop in and say "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?"

This post from the same guy who JUST reviewed 30 year old Calvados?

you know, like an average joe?

remember the "Only VERY OLD FITZGERALD Night" at the LA Whiskey Society? drinking, secondary market at the time, multiple 2000$ bottles of whiskey?

you know, like the college students do?

I like your blog, sku, but your grasp of what is a luxury good is off...


MasMex said...


You're outta you're bleeping mind. You're getting emotional. This is an HOMAGE TRIBUTE paying RESPECTS to the Booker's -- I, II, and III - and a so called "limited edition". This is not setting a precedent for all future 13 y/o Ryes. Come on, man.

Sam Komlenic said...

Those here who have "given up" on bourbon have way too tight a focus on the issue, in my humble opinion. There is still plenty of good whiskey out there waiting for you to get out of your high-end comfort zone.

Look below the top shelf and find brands like Old Ezra, proudly 7 years old, very tasty, and less than twenty bucks. Evan Williams 1783, while no longer 10 years old, still contains older whiskey and is still priced right (thanks, Heaven Hill!)

Eagle Rare, still 10 years old and under $30. Smooth Ambler, High West, Wild Turkey...I could go on. No way is bourbon over, in fact it's just getting its legs underneath it after the recent rush of popularity.

Cry all you want about high prices, but you don't have to pay them to enjoy quality whiskey. We're still in way better shape than the single malt crowd.

Me? I'll just sit back with some ice in a glass, covered with the best affordable whiskey I can find, and I can find plenty!

Anonymous said...

Please ignore the whiskies and henceforth review the liquid's mythical narratives, custom vessels/stoppers, label designs, and sacred handcrafted rememberance packaging. And please drop more hard-hitting exposes on us. Such as, Portable Communion Packaging: Are Distillers Doing Enough?

Anonymous said...

Please don't quit blogging about whiskey. I know it's a grind to produce new writing that isn't negative on a consistent basis, when the industry is in the middle of an overwhelmingly foolish period of hype, but I think your voice and your experience are so helpful to ordinary people.

I have been reading your blog on and off for a few years and it really helped me navigate my way through the world of whiskey. It gave me a lot of valuable information and perspective.

Maybe the thing to do is step back, reassess, and try to look at this differently.
Blog about whatever you like, but don't let this great resource die.