Bourbon: Finding the Good Stuff

© 2016 Kindred Cocktails.

This is the seventh in a series on Bourbon by Zach Pearson. Read the first six: Bourbon, Bourbon After the Act, Bourbon: What it is ... and isn't, Making Bourbon, Who Makes My Bourbon, and Producer Capsules.

So look… this doesn't work in Oregon. The best thing to do here is to keep an eye on the Next Month Price Change list, and find things that you want that are going way down in price. Most recently, this was the infamous Laphroaig 10 for $20.25, but about a year ago, A. de Fussigny Tres Vielle Cognac dropped from $220 to $100 a bottle, and if you know that it’s a 50 year old Cognac that hasn’t been made in 10-15 years… well, let’s just say it was worth the drive to Eugene to pick up two bottles.

It also doesn’t work in Washington, which is too new at the private liquor sales game to have dusty old bottles lying around. There’s a lot of clean, bright new liquor stores and some helpful people, but taxes being what they are up there… I’d just avoid wasting a lot of time looking in Washington for liquor.

In other states, going hunting for dusty bottles can be a lot of fun. Now, a lot of this information is applicable to all sorts of liquor, but there are a few hints and tips specifically for Bourbon as well. It mainly comes down to preparation and planning, then having good luck finding these hidden stores and scoring older bottles.

Hunting for Bourbon is more difficult than hunting for other things. Bourbon producers (or bottlers) really don’t want to tell you where their product is made, how it’s made, or what it’s made from. Some of this information has been pried out of the heads of distillery tour guides or collated from offhand comments from Master Distillers. There’s a lot of information out there about the specifics of Bourbon, but none of it’s easy to find.

First and foremost, arm yourself with knowledge. Knowing what old bottles of your favorite Bourbon look like can help you spot them on store shelves – for example Weller transitioned from paper labels to clear plastic ones in 2009. Large brands tend to make this information disappear down the memory hole – they’d rather you not know they’ve changed the packaging on their spirit because some times with a packaging change comes a reformulation, which is what happened to Campari in 2006 when they redesigned the label and quietly dropped the Carmine coloring out of the stuff to please vegans. Is that all the changed about Campari? It’s impossible to tell. But my old bottles have a 2:1 ratio of Campari to soda and the newer ones reverse the recipe. And they don’t taste the same. Google Image Search is very helpful here – searching for pictures of old bottles can sometimes pull up tastings that identify different years of production or bottles that are no longer made.

It’s also important to know when bottles look out of place. Start walking through liquor stores just to get a feel for common shelf stock, so that when you see faded labels or dusty bottles, you’ll pay attention to them. A good clearinghouse for older labels of classic whiskey brands with date ranges and other helpful information, like UPC codes for now-defunct producers, is here.

Other handy information that can help date bottles quickly and fairly precisely include UPC codes (typically phased in during the late 70s), metric sizing ( on bottles after 12/31/79) or the ever-present government warning about the hazards of alcohol (after 1989).

When it comes to Bourbon, knowing DSP codes (on bottles of Bonded whiskey) can be very helpful, at least to trace who made your whiskey. The holy grail of DSP’s is #16, which is Stitzel-Weller, a legendary distillery started in 1935 and closed 57 years later. They made some delicious Bourbon, of which some barrels were pulled out of their rickhouses to make Pappy 23 for a while. And as a general guide, a lot of Bourbon bottles have a two digit year code stamped into the bottom of the glass (Weller does not – at least current bottlings) that can help gauge the era of not only that bottling, but other things in the same store.

The next bit of knowledge is about pricing. I love stores with poor inventory control and sticker gun price tags on the bottles. Winesearcher is incredibly helpful here, but wandering around a store on your phone can draw unwanted attention. But I’ve pulled 1964 vintage Madeira out of liquor stores for $40, walked out to the car, discovered they’re $300 a bottle, then walked back in to pick up a few more bottles “as a gift” for someone.

Now let’s discuss the stores themselves. The key to finding a great secret liquor store is patience. Remember… all the things you usually want in a retailer: clean, organized stock, helpful staff, modern, up to date pricing do not apply to secret liquor stores. You want something that could be on the TV show Hoarders. As a matter of fact, the best places to find these gems is in sketchy neighborhoods – go in the daytime, or with a group of people though. I personally look for bars on windows and places in strip centers. If helps if these neighborhood stores are in once-affluent parts of town that are now not so nice.

Once you’re inside, check for the following things. Clean, neat stores are usually a no-go. If you see lots of inventory stacked in aisles or moody, sullen clerks who are more interested in being on the phone or eating lunch, that’s usually a good sign. A bit of mis-direction can help as well. Over Christmas, I found a little liquor store in Houston near our lunch destination. I’d never been in before, but the outside looked promising. Once I walked in the door, the Indian couple who evidently owned the place were sitting in chairs in the middle of the sales floor eating lunch. I got the feeling from some of their inventory that this place had a lot of early-90’s things in it, and I found a bottle of 1989 vintage Baker’s 7 year/107 proof (at least 89 was the stamp on the bottom of the bottle – evidently this wasn’t in the market until 1992) and 1991 vintage Old Grand Dad 114 sitting on the shelves. There was also some liqueurs that I passed on, and some Tiffon VSOP  and XO Cognac I probably shouldn’t have. And two handles (1.75 liter) of Weller Special Reserve distilled in 1985 from the Stitzel-Weller distillery that I missed. I saw them and sort of connected the dots, but realized it’d be impossible to get the stuff back to Oregon so I didn’t pursue it further.

This leads me to another important point. You want to make friends with the people working there. You’re not responsible for their lack of inventory control or weird pricing, but not only is it good karma to be friendly with the staff of these out of the way liquor stores, but sometimes it means rewards. I once drove to Sweet Home to buy two bottles of Germain-Robin brandy that the OLCC had discounted. I got there and only one was on the shelf. I talked to the guy behind the counter, and it turned out he had three bottles that he was happy to sell me because I’d come such a long way to get them.

At the same time, you should never completely nuke a secret liquor store. A lot of these people have back rooms or move stock around so that it’s a bit of a hunt each time, but this is a lot like mushroom hunting, and the same tenets apply. Be quiet about your spots unless there’s a good reason, don’t take everything at once, and know what you’re looking for before you stumble upon it.

Next time: Mashbills, Geeking Information, and Resources