Home Articles I Didn’t Shop in a Liquor Store in 2023

I Didn’t Shop in a Liquor Store in 2023

by Chris Perugini

Whiskey hunting has been a part of most of my adult life. If you’re relatively new to the scene, let me be the first to tell you that you’re jumping in at an absolutely crazy time.

Compared to today, the early days of hunting were downright exhilarating and luckily, they happened to intersect with a younger, responsibility-free era in my life. I would spend hours driving to every liquor store in an area to see what long-forgotten treasures were available on shelves. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, there was almost never a cache of whiskey “in the back” or “behind the counter.” The shelves truly bared all back then. Because the market boom of today was still in its infancy, there were almost no competing hunters out there and there was certainly no incentive for stores to hide their limited edition bottles. Back then, I was usually the only one inside a liquor store at 10:30 am on a Tuesday morning (unless it was a particularly shady area). The shop owners were friendly and most of them asked if I needed help. I told them I was just looking around—which in those days was met with confusion—then I moved on to my next target. I found A LOT of bottles back then and many of the so-called “dusties” I scooped up were quite literally covered in dust. I can still remember one store owner taking down a super old bottle of Balvenie off a top shelf and using a feather duster to clean it off before ringing me out.

Once upon a time, literally covered in dust…

The whiskey hunting world of today is oversaturated, cut-throat, and quite frankly, not fun at all. The entire retail layer is fully aware of the market dynamic these days, which evens the playing field. Stopping into 25 stores in a day will probably give you the opportunity to purchase plenty of limited edition bottles…if you’d like to pay significantly inflated pricing over MSRP. The few stores left that honor the value of their customer relationships are fewer and farther between and there are a lot more people willing to spend good money at those stores to become one of the “good” customers. Bourbon and Japanese dusties were all but gone by the end of the 2010s. Scotch took a little longer to thin out and while I’m sure there are still some interesting Scotch bottles out there, they are much, much harder to find. By the time we reached the early 2020s, things had changed so significantly that the excitement of the early days of hunting was all but replaced by a fairly predictable outcome: stores with either no limited editions at all or tons of limited bottles with exorbitant markups.

A few months into 2023, I realized that I had not yet set foot into a liquor store specifically to shop for whiskey. I decided that I was going to try and make it the entire calendar year without purposely shopping for whiskey at a brick and mortar location. To my surprise, it was a lot easier than I expected and even more surprising was that my whiskey acquisition rate in 2023 didn’t drop at all compared to 2022.

How did my whiskey stash continue to grow and evolve in 2023? Here are 6 ways, sorted by how frequently I utilized each method.

1. Online Retailers and DTC Orders

The spirits industry in the US is slowly but surely chipping away at legal restrictions that made it impossible to get whiskey shipped directly to your door 10 years ago. ReserveBar and and Drizzly got the process started by bringing a user’s local inventory into a web-based interface, but large chain stores that support e-commerce and “online only” stores like Seelbachs blew the doors wide open by navigating complex federal and state laws to allow for alcohol shipments to most states in the country. Both interstate and intrastate alcohol shipping regulations were eased across the country during COVID, and we all know what happens when you let the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag. Companies like Big Thirst Marketing and Speakeasy Co. started partnering with distilleries and online retailers during this time to facilitate the shipment of alcohol to almost every state in the US while still remaining three-tier compliant.

Thanks to these ever-evolving online shipping laws, I was able to get a some great single barrel selections while sitting at my computer or phone.

“But what if I live in a control state?”

Shh…don’t tell your local state agency, but many web-based retailers will ship to states that don’t explicitly allow the direct shipment of spirts to consumers. It’s an ebb and flow though, and there have been plenty of cases over the years where states will eventually intervene and shut down shipping from larger retailers. If you’re feeling lucky, though, you can always browse around and ask an online retailer if they’ll ship to you. Other direct shipment options are on the table depending on your location. For example, if you live in the state of Virginia, you can have spirits legally shipped to your door straight from any VA-based distillery. Other states like CA and NY allow the direct shipment of spirits from a retailer that is located in the same state.

Check your local laws to see what options are available in your area.

I can’t attend Fèis Ìle, but I can get their exclusive bottles.

2. Auction Houses

I’ve been active on whisky auction websites for a long time. Note that I deliberately used the spelling “whisky” in this case because I have yet to find a US-based auction house that offers a good enough “per-bottle value” experience. The big auction players in the US (you probably already know the biggest one) are full of high fees, high reserves, high taxes, and shockingly exorbitant shipping costs. The main benefit to domestic auctioneers is that it’s much easier to sell items and the amount of American whiskey offered at US-based auctions is significantly higher than on international sites.

Despite the inconvenience factor, I find that most European auction houses are still a better and more affordable option for the varied styles of whisk(e)y that I’m into. I was able to find “distillery only” Scotch expressions, unusual Japanese/world whiskies, and a few interesting bourbons in 2023 from three different auction sites based in the UK and EU. Even with international shipping, I still got some really great deals. If you’re more of a bourbon-only consumer, free free to browse the many US-based auction sites out there, but keep in mind that the final hammer price is far from the total cost of the bottle. Happy bidding!

Larger private clubs have leverage to source great barrels.

3. Private Whiskey Clubs

This mostly applies to American whiskey and for people living in the US, but I was able to get some great single barrel selections of bourbon and rye from a few different local and regional groups that I’m a part of. If you aren’t involved in your local whiskey scene, you might be surprised by how many active groups and enthusiasts are in your area. A quick search on social media should be able to connect you with the right people. Local groups that are doing it right will travel to distilleries in KY and elsewhere to hand select barrels for their group. Many of these clubs are well-established, are partnered with trusted retailers, and churn out great single barrels all year long. Best of all, if they are local enough, you don’t have to worry about shipping costs.

The acquisition logistics for these groups sometimes involves a few inconvenient steps such as pre-paying with Venmo and arranging local meetups for the bottle handoff. However, if your local group leadership has the palates and the connections to get truly great single barrels, it can be worth the extra effort.

“Hard to find” AND “priced appropriately” is an exceedingly rare combo these days.

4. Connections and “Holds”

After many years of being in the whiskey hunting game, I’m amazed at how low this method is ranked based on frequency and I’m worried that it’ll drop off the list entirely in a few years. Legacy liquor store owners (i.e., from before the whiskey boom made alcohol a collectable) are a dying breed nationwide. Most store owners these days are new to the space and are in it to make money off of luxury and limited edition items. They know what’s hot and what’s not and have no problem displaying their allocated inventory with price tags that are exactly in line with secondary pricing. In other words, they know exactly how to play the game.

With that said, there are a small number of legacy retailers in my area that I’m still close with that will sometimes hold an item for me or take the occasional special request. I understand and respect the fact that I’m not their only customer and I don’t call in favors often so when I do, they’re usually granted. With this method, I was able to get my hands on 4 or 5 hard to find bottles with a quick phone call or text.

I’d call this acquisition just plain lucky.

5. Raffles and Lotteries

One way that liquor stores and control states choose to address the obvious supply and demand issue for whiskey comes in the form of raffles or lotteries. In this scenario, consumers can enter a raffle that gives them access to highly desirable expressions. If your ticket number is drawn, you have the option to purchase the allocated bottle, usually priced at or close to MRSP. Depending on the retailer, raffle entry methods can vary significantly. I’ve seen entry methods ranging from scanning a QR code or sign-up sheet in-store, to purchasing a store’s single barrel selection, to making a charity donation, to entering online.

I entered a few charity raffles last year and while I didn’t win any of them, knowing that my donation went to a good cause certainly eased the blow of not winning. I also entered a “free entry” raffle last year and a few weeks later, was shocked to learn that I had a winning ticket. You can’t win if you don’t play!

6. Distillery Exclusives

Sometimes, the most meaningful whiskey pickups happen at the distillery itself. There’s nothing like the feeling of capping off a distillery tour and tasting with a “distillery only” exclusive. Say what you will about these bottles, but there’s something about being “where the magic happens” that makes these expressions more meaningful to me.

I didn’t visit many distilleries in 2023 but when I did, I never walked away empty handed.

These were the main ways that I increased my whiskey supply in 2023? What methods did you use?

Regarding Media Samples

I would be remiss not to address the fact that I am a part of the whiskey media. As such, I am fortunate enough to have whiskey samples sent to me for evaluation and review. As the Single Malt Savvy brand grows, I’m sure the frequency of those opportunities will only increase over time. “Samples” from distilleries often arrive in the form of full bottles. As a whiskey photographer, I appreciate that full bottles are significantly better photo subjects and always perform better on social media, but considering how much whiskey I already have, I’d happily accept 2-oz samples over full bottles these days. No matter the size of the sample, I remain grateful to the brands that allow me access to many wonderful expressions in a variety of styles. Many of my reviews wouldn’t be possible without them.

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