In 1999, bourbon production was at an all-time low, with a mere 455,000 barrels filled that year—down from well over a million in 1970. Yet there was a cautious optimism that the tide might be turning based on the wild success of bourbon in Japan and, closer to home, the more modest success of small-batch releases like Booker’s. But if bourbon were to rule again in America, distilleries realized they would need to dress it in trendy new clothes. Dusty brands from bourbon history, like Four Roses and Old Forester, began reviving and re-envisioning themselves in a more modern style—higher-proof, higher-priced, and way more scarce. In turn, this strategic rarity created a rabid marketplace of consumers, eager to wheel and deal (and occasionally drink) this new breed of bourbon. By the end of the decade, the hype had been unleashed and it would prove impossible to reign in again.
This is the second in a three-part series exploring the major trends that defined each decade of the bourbon revival, beginning in the 1990s. This edition covers the turn of the 21st century to 2010.
The actual distilling facility itself was nothing new, having operated in Frankfort, Kentucky, since 1792, under names like O.F.C. Distillery and the George T. Stagg Distillery. But in 1992, Sazerac Company purchased the operation and in late 1999 rechristened it Buffalo Trace Distillery, releasing its flagship Buffalo Trace bourbon, a solid shelf brand, at the same time. Two decades later, thanks to the imprimatur of Pappy (whose production Buffalo Trace would take over in 2002), anything coming out of this location is considered bottled gold, and some of the most collectible whiskey on the planet. It’s not just the Van Winkles, either, but also the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Blanton’s, the ever-ballooning Weller line and E.H. Taylor, to name a few.
Similar to Buffalo Trace, the Willett Distillery had been around since 1936, founded by Lambert Willett and his son Thompson on the family farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, just after Prohibition. In 1984, Thompson’s daughter Martha and son-in-law Even Kulsveen assumed control. They slowly began capitalizing on the zeitgeist, releasing their own small-batch products like Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill in the 1990s. Things would radically change, however, when their son Drew joined the family business in 2003. Within two years, he evaluated the company’s stock of glut-era bourbon and rye barrels (sourced from places like Bernheim, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Jim Beam and even Stitzel-Weller) and began releasing well-aged, barrel-proof private and single-barrel bottlings with names like Red Hook Rye, The Bitter Truth, and Doug’s Green Ink. They were like nothing anyone had ever tasted, and would eventually create a cult of avid diehards, eager to collect all the bottlings … if they could ever be found.
The Coronation of Pappy Van Winkle
In the first installment of a three-part series, Aaron Goldfarb examines the 1990s, when “small batch” became synonymous with prestige and the modern bourbon craze began in earnest.
In an attempt to capitalize on the success Jim Beam had found with Booker’s and Knob Creek, just about every distillery released its own “small-batch” bourbons. But in the 2000s, brands doubled down on the rarity play, releasing annual “limited editions” (or “LEs” in devotee lingo) at steep prices in an attempt to echo the growing fervor for Pappy Van Winkle. Buffalo Trace created the Antique Collection in 2000, followed by buzzy bottlings such as W.L. Weller, George T. Stagg and Thomas H. Handy, all named after notable figures in the industry’s history. Old Forester would toss its hat into the ring in 2002 with Birthday Bourbon, Heaven Hill presented Parker’s Heritage Collection in 2007, and Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch arrived in 2008, all typically released in quantities of less than 20,000 bottles. Even today, these expressions remain highly prized by collectors and immediately garner far more than their MSRP.
By the late aughts, the growing world of bourbon collectors had begun using eBay and Craigslist to buy and sell the rare LEs that had just started infiltrating the market. To resell without a license was illegal, and eventually both websites banned the practice. In 2010, however, Facebook introduced a private group setting. This functionality allowed collectors across the country to gather under headings like Strong Water Showcase and BSM (Bourbon Secondary Market) where, seemingly unmonitored, they could illicitly sell LEs. Just like Silk Road, the illegal drug marketplace that was forming on the dark web, Facebook, for the first time, offered unfettered access to Pappy and its ilk. In turn, this generated true market values for long-underpriced bottles and eventually influenced the decisions that bourbon companies themselves would make for the next decade and beyond.