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For the American Whiskey/Bourbon enthusiast, most of us fall into two categories: those who adamantly hate camping out for rare bourbon releases, and those who see it as a chance to “tailgate” with their friends, no different than at a Football game. The two differing camps firmly have their flags in the sand, and rarely do these people stray from their schools of thought, into the other. As a matter of ethics, many people look down on folks who camp out when they cannot; while they have to go to work or stay home with their kids, I imagine there’s jealousy intertwined into this rationale? Personally, I see nothing wrong as long as the line is cordial and human decency prevails, therefore I can’t see anything ETHICALLY wrong with lining up early for a rare bottle of whiskey.
Perhaps these purists want every bottle to be available all the time, to everyone, and only at retail price? I imagine these purists also drive zero emissions vehicles that run off unicorn smiles and have tires fashioned from rainbows and jellybeans? In reality, the ability for someone to camp out in the middle of a work week shouldn’t have any bearing on the traditionalist’s ability to find their desired bottle; it simply means the bottle they want probably won’t be on the shelf by the time they’re able to try to procure one, and that generally makes them irritable; I can understand that wholeheartedly, however it is an emotional position more than a logical one, as there’s always someone who has the jump on someone else, and that’ll never change.
Why would I say that? Well because I try to live in a place called ‘Reality’. Is it pleasant? Not always, however, I have tried to live in ‘Fantasyland’, and I was firmly thwacked in the face by the very 'Reality' I was attempting to avoid shortly after I arrived. Therefore, here’s the Reality of modern-day American Whiskey.
Bourbon has never been more popular, full stop. Both domestically in the United States, and around the globe, bottle production and full-barrel inventory are at all time highs, with U.S. distilleries filling up barrel warehouses as quickly as they can get the lumber. Some distilleries can fill an entirely empty 53,000+ barrel warehouse in as quickly as 4 months, acquiring land to build more of them as fast as they can. People from all walks of life are clamoring for single barrel whiskey, finished whiskey, cask strength unique bottlings, and commemorative releases to line the walls of their home bars at a feverish pace. Prices of bourbon bottles are rising, often without the brand’s track record to justify them, at an alarming pace, too. The average shelf price for a bottle of bourbon has doubled since I got into this hobby in 2012, so demand for quality bourbon at an affordable price is immeasurable these days, as the alternative is “no-name” whiskey at insane prices.
This brings me to Monday morning, 7am, on August 29th, 2022. The month prior, Eastern Kentucky experienced a torrential and catastrophic flood that rivaled the previous cataclysmic event of 1951. Countless homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure were lost and damaged during this event, and funds and supplies were critically requested from the rest of the State to help with the rebuilding of this oft-forgotten part of the Bluegrass State. Besides Federal Funding and the traditional Aid channels, bourbon enthusiasts and distilleries banded together to help raise money to do our part to help our brothers and sisters in Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon…and boy did the Bourbon Community come through!
According to SpiritsBusiness.com, here’s an excerpt from their write up on the charitable efforts, “The Kentucky Distillers’ Association teamed up with the Bourbon Crusaders charitable organization, Bourbon curator Fred Minnick, and Louisville-based Westport Whiskey and Wine to host the 10-day auction. The sale offered rare and signed bottles, alongside private barrel selections. All proceeds will go straight to the state’s official Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund.
Overnight floods impacted Eastern Kentucky on 27 July. A number of companies have made donations towards the relief efforts, totaling more than US$275,000. Brown-Forman donated US$100,000, while Beam Suntory, Four Roses and Campari Group donated US$50,000 each.”
In total, the whiskey community raised $1.4M USD to assist in the cleanup, search and rescue, and rebuilding efforts for Eastern Kentucky. The surge in bourbon production to meet this unprecedented demand wouldn’t be possible without these very citizens of Kentucky, so it’s only natural that the bourbon industry would roll up their sleeves in times of tragedy.
From the above, specifically, Four Roses Distillery announced a one-time limited edition bourbon release of rare and premium single barrels at their two gift shops; these were 16 year 6-month-old bourbon bottles, far older than the typical gift shop releases they’ve done previously, where ALL proceeds went to the aforementioned relief efforts. For the modern enthusiast, few boxes get checked faster than with the phrases “Four Roses” and “Limited Edition.” Annually, their Small Batch Limited Edition blends are coveted worldwide, and single barrel selections by retailers and private clubs rarely last on the shelf longer than a single business day. So, naturally, the industry and hobbyists were abuzz with this news.
For me personally, I am a self-proclaimed Four Roses nerd; I have had the honor of helping select 6 single barrels, I have attended the annual charity Special Operations Xcursions bottle share in Clarksville, TN. 3 times, people send me their Four Roses questions online weekly, and have now officially camped out overnight for a special release bottle. Yep, I admit it proudly, I…CAMPED. I am a camper, I have done the camping (your insults can be sent to my Instagram DM’s where I will read them with glee).
The second I heard the release details, my friends and I knew what we had to do…we had to get one. At 2 bottles allowed per person, and the details of the barrel count sparse and relegated to mostly rumors and heresy, we didn’t want to risk missing out. Not for this. Not for charitable causes, nor for collectability reasons, nor for what was certain to be a phenomenal bourbon. Our plan was solid: get to a private parking lot that we had explicit access to use from the owner, set up camp, and prepare for a night of bottle shares, pizza deliveries, stories, and fellowship. Four Roses did not allow anyone to lineup or camp on their premises the night before, so our plan was foolproof! We had the closest available parking lot that we could legally hang out in, with express written permission from the property owner, what could possibly go wrong??
Ah, naivety…what an innocent thing.
What our friend’s group SEVERLY underestimated, was the professional flippers of Central Ohio, a group that until that evening, I had never met before (and now hope to never meet again). When I say “professional”, I don’t mean with an LLC or an officially sanctioned organization…but dammit did they act like one. Our “crew” of folks were the first 4 cars in the adjacent lot to Four Roses; we had our letter, we had our picnic tables, we had 10-15 bottles of Four Roses, snacks and fans; we might look “professional”, too, but we just prepared due to the hype around this release. When I say “professional” in describing the Central Ohio degenerates, I meant that camping out for whiskey bottles is their Profession.
As in, driving 199.4 miles from Columbus, OH. to Lawrenceburg, KY. with an orchestrated plan to:
Was I personally aware of these tactics prior to that fateful night? No. Were the people I was there with aware? Absolutely. You see, there’s a disgusting, entitled underbelly to any collectable hobby, but I would have thought that charitable nature of this event would garner a pass from the “entrepreneurial” tendencies of these gutter rats. Again…naivety on my part.
My friends knew this playbook of the Columbus Crew (no, not the soccer team); they had seen and heard of their literal exploits from other annual bottle releases around Kentucky/Ohio. They are to blame, as a unit, for the changing of the policies regarding releases at Old Forester in downtown Louisville, KY., at the Kroger Liquors grocery chains in Central Ohio, and at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, KY. They complain, harass, connive, and bend/break the rules of etiquette everywhere they go, just to ensure they leave with their coveted prize.
Are they enthusiasts themselves, simply better at chasing rare bottles better than we are? No. Are they Four Roses, Old Forester, or Heaven Hill snobs, eager to pop that cork and write delicate tasting notes at their next bottle share? No. They are simply paid pawns, acting at the behest of another, eager to spend their take before the transfer paper from the receipt printer is even cooled off. Do I hate “flippers” in general, absolutely not. If someone has the jump on me due to access or relationships, and then flips that bottle for a profit to another, that doesn’t bother me, as someone who lives in Reality. Every hobby, be it watches or shoes or bourbon, has a “gray market” where the ‘haves’ happily find a buyer among the ‘have-nots’…I get it. I begrudgingly acknowledge it as a part of this bourbon life.
What irritated me the most about this release was the methodology, demeanor, tactics, and antics of this group. Were there other folks paid off to wait in line overnight? I’m certain of it. Did those other people drive all over the lot we had permission to use, trash it, drive through the grass, and call the police on us claiming racial and bigoted bias against who could or couldn’t be on this lot? Did anyone else out of the 750+ people camping out over 15+ hours get in my face and scream at me for simply being ahead of them in line?
Them, and they alone, almost ruined this experience for my friends and I. When the Lawrenceburg Police Department arrived, we showed them our proof of permission and they gave us their card to call them back if we needed them (which we didn’t). When Four Roses security came to check on the commotion, they provided empty barrels to use as a blockade so their Ohio friends couldn’t continue pouring into our lot. When the rope was dropped at 7am on the morning of, we spread out shoulder to shoulder to prevent these people from alerting their friends who were down the street sleeping in their cars, from driving around us cutting the line. All of that effort, all of that struggle, all of that animosity…for what? Why? What did they accomplish?
I am trying to look at the entirety of the event from 30,000ft. overhead, and consciously aware I’m not just sounding like a grumpy old man…I’m 33, can we not just agree that Wrong is Wrong, and these actions and perpetrators were flat out going to try to “win” at any cost? At one point, when this toothless man with Ohio plates wouldn’t leave me alone, I asked him to tell me his favorite bourbon he’s ever drank, and I would swap places with him in line if he could answer my simple question.
He had no answer. He’s never tried bourbon in his life, from what I heard. He was there because someone paid him to be there, and he was on a mission to get his bounty. Bourbon is beginning to feel more and more like Pokémon cards and less like America’s unique and cherished native spirit. It’s starting to feel like there’s less and less of a reason to resist these kinds of people, and just stick to drinking bottom shelf whiskey while waving the white flag of defeat to this endless sea of bottom feeders…I know I’ve read articles like the one I’m writing right now back in 2016, and I’m trying my best to paint a distinctly different picture of the bourbon landscape. These folks are more determined to “win” than any other I’ve encountered since being in this hobby.
But they didn’t win this time. We weren’t defeated. We huddled together, formed alliances with strangers, and once we were back in our cars after a SPOTLESS release by the Four Roses staff and team members (kudos!), all of us forgot about the night before. We walked through the giftshop like the first family in line at Disney World. We held our bottles up to each other’s to compare barrel #’s once we got threm, we looked at the proof variations, we discussed tier #’s with friends we saw in line, and even grabbed a drink at the new bar. We had done it, succeeded equitably with nothing to be ashamed of.
If these nematodes made me hate bourbon and the culture around it, then they’d have won. If they got me to never want to camp out again, they’d have won. Did they win just by having me write this article, still stewing over the endeavor one month later?
Nah, I’d do it again tomorrow.
It took me a few hours post-release to remember why I camped out and why my passion for this hobby runs so deep, but that first sip of the Four Roses in my Denver & Liely glass, standing in the rain grinning ear to ear, shook me right back to where I belong…reality.