Whisky, the secondary market and auction sites – how to fix a broken system

Words by @The_Bourbonator

[This blog post represents the views of @The_Bourbonator and not necessarily those of the British Bourbon Society]

Ten years ago, I watched a television program about how eBay enabled you to sell anything. The presenter proved his point by flogging a piece of old blue fishing rope he had found on a beach in Truro to a man in Croydon who needed something to tie up his tools. Fantastic I thought at the time: online auctions connect people and their needs, whatever and wherever they may be. Fast forward to 2017 and online auction sites have become a trusted method of buying and selling all manner of things, including whisky. Indeed, in the past couple of years, a whole load of online auction sites have sprung up specifically catering for whisky. Is this a good thing for whisky drinkers?

If you're looking for 'dusties', categorically yes. I recently purchased a Wild Turkey 1997 release from an online whisky auction site. Being an old release, finding it on the shelf at a reasonable price was impossible so auction was the only way to go. The price was good, the service was slick and the bottle arrived a few days later. There was also the reassurance that someone at the auction site, who hopefully knew what they were doing, had checked over the bottle to make sure it wasn't fake. No complaints there. 

Where it all starts to get a bit grey is when bottles that have only just been released are instantly resold online for many multiples of the RRP (or MSRRP if you’re American) on the secondary market. Now, I fully accept it's a free market: a seller can sell their property for as much as the market will bear, a buyer is free to pay as much as they want and, of course, the auction house will take a cut of the sale proceeds so everyone benefits? Taking this all at face value, yes but this doesn't mean the current system is good for whisky drinkers. The ability to quickly and efficiently re-sell bottles online using auction sites has undoubtedly contributed, at least in part, to the sad rise of ‘flipping'. Rather than bottles being bought to drink, flippers will clear the shelves of interesting releases with the aim of immediately on-selling for a quick buck. This creates artificial supply shortfalls and means whisky drinkers end up having to chalk up far more if they want to drink limited releases. This doesn’t sit right with me.

A secondary market will always exist as long as demand outstrips supply, which for the foreseeable future will always be the case for limited edition bottlings but should it be as easy as it is now to flip new releases? What I find difficult to stomach is seeing bottles of the 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection continuously appearing on auction websites for many multiples of their retail value. Flipping means that limited edition bottles are increasingly only available to those with very deep pockets.

Should our beloved spirit be associated with this type of practice? If you agree with me that it shouldn't, what can we all do to stop bottles being flipped as short term investments? Here are a few practical suggestions for consumers, retailers and whisky auction sites that would make things fairer.

1. Consumers: don't buy new releases at secondary prices! If you get hold of a limited edition bottle from a store, share it with your mates. If the demand isn't there, flipping will go away.

2. Retailers: implement clear and transparent stockholding policies on how limited releases will be sold. These could include limiting sales of limited releases to one bottle per customer and immediately releasing stock rather than bunkering it only to release at a later date with a significant price hike over the RRP/MSRRP. Master of Malt has previously been complimented on this blog precisely for having such a policy, which is described on their website here and here. MOM's creative way of selling limited releases, by the dram, raffles and auctioning them for charity, isn't to everyone's taste but it does disrupt flipping. Royal Mile's recent decision to clarify their stockholding policy is another step in the right direction. A clear stockholding policy is particularly important when a retailer and whisky auction site are owned by the same company, given the obvious risk of bottles bypassing the store and being sent straight to auction.  

3. Online auction sites: auction sites voluntarily implementing a policy of not selling new releases for at least 12 months is perhaps wishful thinking but at least such a step would force flippers to take a longer term financial risk than they do today.

To sum up, auction sites are great to find dusties and other bottles that are not available to purchase through normal channels, but seeing newly released bottles being flipped just makes me despair. American whiskey, once thought of as a drink of the layman, is now increasingly likely to be found in a lawyer’s office in a crystal decanter. I can’t imagine Harvey Spector doing the Kentucky Chew with Fred Noe!

BBS vs Smooth Ambler. And BBQ. So much BBQ.

Article by WhiskyPilgrim for BBS

Well, September has drawn to a close, and with it a month of quite stupendous British Bourbon Society Tastings. We began in rare style; rating the full Van Winkle range blind after two courses of lobster. Then to our subterranean assault on the Michter’s flight, unicorns and all, in the storied Vaults beneath Milroy’s of Soho. And now, at the time of writing, it is less than twelve hours since our last September hurrah, as a motley crew of Society faithful huddled in an alcove of Bodean’s in Tower Hill, devouring barbecued delicacies by the plateful and turning our attention to Smooth Ambler.

Much like Michter’s, Smooth Ambler is a brand you usually discover once your first steps into American whiskey have already been taken. It’s a West Virginia success story, less than a decade old as a brand, but whose cupboards already groan beneath the weight of accrued silverware, and whose fans – on both side of the pond – are as fervent as any supporters of companies longer in the tooth. I should know – I’m one of them.

I arrived at Bodean’s about half an hour early, to discover that many of those invited had already arrived. Which, in itself, speaks volumes! As with the Michter’s tasting we were thrilled to be joined by one of the wizards behind the whiskey – in this case Master Distiller John Little.

A few words about the brand before we begin. Whilst the Smooth Ambler Distillery itself is pretty much still in short trousers, John and his partners have been releasing whiskey sourced from other distilleries under the name ‘Smooth Ambler Old Scout.’ What’s wonderfully refreshing is that they make no attempt whatsoever to imply through marketing that the whiskey has been made by them. Indeed they’ve made a virtue of the art of independent bottling, long practiced by whiskey companies on both sides of the pond. John also compared it to the wine industry’s négociant business – but for the time being let’s stick to grains!

An aspect of the tasting to which we were all looking forward was the opportunity to try whiskey distilled by Smooth Ambler beside that which they’ve snapped up on their ‘scouting’ trips. We kicked off with their most recognisable product to date; the Old Scout seven year old bourbon, passing it around the table as plates loaded with ribs were plonked down in front of us. To this drinker, at least, the Old Scout seven is one of the best American whiskeys you’ll find in the UK for south of £50. It’s very classic in style, and has amongst the most unctuous, mouth-coating palates you’ll come across for the money.

That richness of palate is partially due to John’s commendable insistence on bottling his whiskeys without chill-filtration. The ins and outs of this process are a science lesson for another day; essentially chill-filtration removes several fatty proteins from a whiskey to prevent it from going cloudy in bottle. The actual cloudiness in no way affects the taste, but uninitiated consumers might be put off by it. Don’t be. Those proteins add layers of velvet texture to your whiskey and therefore are a wonderful, wonderful thing which ought to be left in the bottle at all times. Smooth Ambler do, and it shows in the tasting.

Next up was the Smooth Ambler ‘Yearling.’ I was particularly looking forward to this, as it’s whiskey they’ve distilled themselves. It’s still very young, of course – a wheated bourbon of three years and six months – but there’s already a huge amount going on. John anticipates it being ‘ready’ after about six summers, but is releasing the Yearling so that fans of the distillery can track its progress. Scotch drinkers may know that Glengyle distillery in Campbeltown have been doing the same thing with their whisky for the last few years – and look how well that’s turned out. Safe to say, the BBS will be following the Yearling with no small amount of interest.

As platters of dangerously moreish burnt ends and beef ribs the size of house-bricks materialised in our alcove we moved on to the Old Scout ten year old single barrel bourbon. Which I have to say was my whiskey of the evening. What’s great about the Smooth Ambler range is that its viscosity and depth of flavour mean that the alcohol never gets too hot or unbalanced – and that was never better demonstrated than with the ten. Tasted blind you’d never put it at 55%; layers and layers of flavour coupled with that gorgeous mouthfeel keep the heat perfectly in check. In short – it’s a cracker.

Things got a little bit experimental after that, as John produced a bottle you won’t find on the market (at the moment!) A young blend of wheat and rye, this was one of the most unusual whiskeys any of us had ever tasted, boasting flavours I’d never encountered on a whiskey before in my life. Fascinating stuff – and whilst I can envisage it being a little polarising, it’s one to seek out if and when it’s released, because it really is unique.

As plates of food continued to swoop in our direction I looked at my watch and realised that I’d need to make an early exit if I was to get back to Reading at anywhere close to a reasonable hour. But I’m not an animal – there were two whiskies left in the lineup, and what sort of person would leave them unaccounted for? I nipped to the end of the table for a quick chat with James, from Maverick Drinks, explained the situation and had my glasses charged. The Old Scout American Whiskey is an intriguing blend of juice from Indiana and from Tennessee, whilst the nine year old single barrel rye vied with the ten year old bourbon for my pick of the night. It’s rye on steroids, sourced from a distillery who handles that wonderful grain as well as anyone, and clearly housed in an absolutely tip-top cask.    

I was gutted to be leaving early, of course, missing out on the last course of barbecue, as well as John’s presentation of the rye and the American Whiskey. My own fault for not being a native Londoner I guess. But I was so glad I was able to make it to what was a real highlight of the month, and a flight of whiskies from a company I have come to absolutely love.

I thought about the evening, as I always do, on the long series of tubes and trains and taxis home. They’re rich, fulsome whiskies, are the Smooth Amblers – particularly the Old Scout bourbons, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the Smooth Ambler juice itself stacks up when John deems it to have finally come of age. Expectations, as I say, are high. But in honesty, my contemplations were mostly focussed on the evening itself.

You’d not often go to a flight-tasting of Scotch with a Master Distiller in which fully-loaded plates of ribs and pulled pork (or the Scottish equivalent) were handed round with the bottles. Certainly not when it comes to bottles of the quality we enjoyed last night. That’s not a sneer at Scotland – I drink as much of their kit as I do American, and of course there’s a time and place for taking a nosing glass of whisk(e)y and quietly soaking up every last nuance.

But what’s wonderful about bourbon – about all American whiskey – is that you can have evenings such as that the BBS enjoyed last night. Tasting evenings where there’s no worrying about whether or not you’re capturing every aroma and no arrogant one-upsmanship on the tasting note front. Where there’s no call for forensic dissection, and crucially, no suggestion that the whiskey is the only thing that matters. Last night was about the culture surrounding bourbon as much as it was about the bourbon itself. Lose that, and you gut the drink of so much that is important. Which is why the British Bourbon Society embraces that culture. And will continue to do so.

Many thanks to Bodean’s, Maverick Drinks and particularly Smooth Ambler and John for a fantastic evening. 

BBS does London Cocktail Week

By @LondonLiquor

London Cocktail Week will be running from 3 - 9 October 2016 this year with over 250 bars taking part. Each bar will be offering a £5 signature drink for those wearing a LCW wristband (£10). We've listed below a few of the events that British Bourbon Society will be going out of its way to attend: 

(1)    Buffalo Trace Bourbon Empire (Hackney House, Shoreditch):  Buffalo Trace is back with another great pop-up from Monday to Friday. BBS members only need to know one thing: the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases will be available behind the bar. There's also a whole load of cocktail and bourbon masterclasses going on throughout the week. Check out the website here [www.buffalotrace.co.uk/bourbonempire]

(2)    Woodford Alliance (various locations): Woodford Reserve are putting on ‘The Woodford Alliance’ from Tuesday to Thursday, which brings together six of the world’s best bars from London, Stockholm, New York & Amsterdam. Masterclasses are being held at each event demonstrating how to make a classic serve: the Old Fashioned (a key cocktail in every BBS members arsenal). Masterclass tickets are £15, which includes two drinks & a gift. Find out all the details here [https://drinkup.london/cocktailweek/events/10437/the-woodford-alliance/].

(3)    Milroy's of Soho & The Vault (Greek St):  BBS' unofficial clubhouse will be mixing up two special drinks for the duration of London Cocktail Week. We'll be drinking the Hebrides & Ivory (Kilchoman Machir Bay Scotch whisky, Couer de Genepi, St Germain elderflower liqueur and hopped grapefruit bitters) in Milroy's upstairs and the Liquid Dream (Home made rosemary infused Buffalo Trace bourbon with fresh pear, honey and lemon zest) in The Vault downstairs.

If we've missed any epic bourbon bars or events out, let us know on Twitter or the BBS Facebook group!

Full details are on LCW's website: [https://drinkup.london/cocktailweek/]

BBS meets the Pappy Van Winkle family, blind

Get a bunch of bourbon nuts together and the conversation will inevitably head one way: Pappy Van Winkle … “Pappy 23 is the world’s finest bourbon”, “Van Winkle 13 is the perfect rye whisky”, “Old Rip Van Winkle 10 beats its older brothers”. Even in its post-Stitzel Weller days, the five wheated bourbons and single rye that proudly carry the Van Winkle name but actually emanate from Buffalo Trace’s distillery (except the rye but that’s a story for another day) are the rock stars of American whisk(e)y; every bit as hyped as the Karuizawas and Port Ellens of Japan and Scotland.

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BBS Tasting Night @ All Star Lanes Manchester

“I don’t have to sell my soul” said the Stone Roses in the halcyon days of Manchester’s legendary music scene. Fast forward 20 years and there are some bottles of American whiskey where only a deal with the crown prince of darkness himself would grant the opportunity to try. Of course, Ian Brown was most certainly not referring to high end booze, (he’s tee-total on last check) though I’m sure he’d be no less aghast at the fact that All Star Lanes, Manchester has a bourbon so rare, it’s referred to as a ‘unicorn’. 

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BBS Tasting Night @ JW Steakhouse

There aren’t many bourbon joints that have a bellhop to greet you but then again JW Steakhouse isn't your typical bourbon joint given its huge collection of ultra-rare American whiskies (Pre-Prohibition anyone?). Overlooking Hyde Park, nestled inside the Marriott Hotel, Park Lane, JW Steakhouse is perhaps more typically frequented by the type of oligarch and business elite that can afford to pour Bittertruth 24 Year Old Rye whiskey over their cereal as opposed to a group of bourbon fanatics whose enthusiasm far exceeds their bank balance!

Karina Elias, the beverage manager for JW Steakhouse, nevertheless kindly invited BBS to sample their recently liberated Jim Beam Single Barrel pick and we were immediately put at ease. Karina is well known in the industry for her enthusiasm and knowledge of America’s finest spirit, which has led to regular television appearances. After enjoying a pour or two of Jim Beam, the exuberant bar manager proceeded to lead BBS through a blind tasting of interesting American whiskies that none of those in attendance had tried before. Needless to say, a memorable night was had by all and the British Bourbon Society looks forward to returning to JW Steakhouse.

BBS Tasting Night @ Barbecoa

Unbeknownst to many bourbon lovers, St Paul's Cathedral in London forms the backdrop to a carefully concealed caged wall of whiskey fit for a Bluegrass King! How such an incredible collection of American, Scotch and Japanese whisky had managed to fly under the radar for so long is a mystery worthy of its own Dan Brown novel but that all changed once the British Bourbon Society got on the scene for their inaugural tasting event! Barbecoa is rightly known as a top-notch BBQ eatery but, ever since the British Bourbon Society got their grubby mitts on their heavy set whiskey tumblers, Barbecoa is finally getting recognition for its mind-blowing inventory of liquid gold!

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