Bourbon Hunting: Pandemics Are Funny That Way, Huh?

It was only just a moment ago when the complaints were abundant, and opinions varied on the best way for retailers to release their allocated whiskeys. Everyone was an expert and no matter who you spoke with, raffles were the devil’s work; and first come, first served releases were the only way to be fair. On the other hand, retailers who saved their elusive bottles for their most loyal customers, or their friends, were only considered slightly better than those retailers who offered bottles at the ridiculously low price of twenty-percent over the secondary market. Then there are those retailers who post bottles for sale online within the secondary market without admitting they just bought the bottles in their store at wholesale cost. Admittedly, no solution works perfectly for everyone, but one thing we can all agree upon, we miss getting together with our friends, the comradery, sharing of pours, and sharing of stories from our scores from long ago. Those were good days. Although those days were just five months ago, they almost seem like a distant memory today.

Pandemics are funny that way, huh?

No one knows how long this global pandemic will last, however, besides death and taxes, there is one certainty, what we considered “normal” life has changed, potentially forever. This also includes bourbon hunting. Everyone has an opinion, and not everyone will agree with mine, dare I say, if there is one positive from this pandemic and social distancing, bourbon hunting is evolving, perhaps for the best? For many years, the debate of raffles versus camping out for a first come, first served release divided many within the bourbon community. Look across social media following either of these types of releases and impassioned arguments for and against both can be found everywhere. Like it or not, the nature of bourbon releases has been forced to change. Then again, will it change that much or just evolve with technology? 

So, what does the future hold for allocated bourbon and how will releases from retailers and distilleries be handled in the future? Watching how retailers and distilleries have been reacting to the pandemic over the past couple months provides some insight into how these might continue to be handled and how bourbon hunters can prepare for this evolution. Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. App/Point-based loyalty and rewards– The pandemic has pushed more customers to ordering online through web sites and mobile applications which in turn has forced retailers to improve their internal technologies and ordering capabilities. Mostly leveraged by larger retailers, the use of data mining allows retailers to identify their more loyal and profitable customers. To be clear, customers need to understand, those who only purchase allocated items do not represent loyalty or profitability for retailers. They are going to sell regardless so do not think you’re doing the retailer a favor by sending your hard-earned money on what they already know will sell. It’s through the sale of non-allocated products where retailers derive most of their profit. Moving forward, retailers who leverage their data will reward their loyal and profitable customers with the opportunity to purchase more desirable allocated products. In my opinion, it is unlikely that all allocated products will be handled in this way, however much of the higher-end products most likely will be sold to loyal customers by these technology-forward retailers.      
  2. In-Store/Relationship-based loyalty and rewards– Pandemic or not, now, more than ever, personal relationships with the ownership and staff at retailers are important to acquire desirable bourbons. The development of these relationships has often been rewarded with the opportunity to purchase allocated products a customer is hoping to find. Unlike many of the large retailers, the ownership and key staff of smaller retailers are much more accessible and developing friendships with regular customers is not uncommon. Much like with larger retailers, it is always important to remember that just purchasing allocated products from smaller retailers does not define loyalty. Again, customers must realize, allocated products will sell regardless of who purchases them, it is through the sale of other, non-allocated goods, which will help these small businesses survive. The store owners and management know this and are usually eager to help their loyal customers find special products they really want, especially if those customers are regularly purchasing more profitable products. 
  3. Micro-releases promoted by same day social media announcements– Loyalty programs are great but neither large nor small retailers are going to handle all their allocated products through their loyalty programs. Releasing allocated products to the public does provide the opportunity for retailers to potentially sell other products but, more importantly, potentially encourage new customers to begin developing long-term relationships with the retailer. Unfortunately, due to social distancing, the idea of raffles, camp outs, or large lines isn’t safe and isn’t a responsible practice for retailers. Instead, be sure to sign up for e-blasts from the retailers and follow them across all their social media platforms. If you have developed friendships with the owners or staff, follow them on social media too. More and more retailers are offering micro-releases, releases of 10-30 allocated bottles, and announcing them over e-blasts or social media posts. Often these social media posts are made as soon as the products are placed on the sales counter, providing customers with a short window of time before they are gone. Once you see the social media post, start your engines and hurry to the store as the products will not last long. I should note, many smaller retailers started this approach before the onset of the pandemic. It’s a great way to reward their loyal following on social media and give equal change to those who can leave their jobs and get to the store. Now, don’t get your panties all worked up, no one will ever agree what time of the day is best because, let’s be honest, you only care about what time is best for you. For the retailer, it is usually good for them to handle their micro releases during slower times during the day. It’s better for them and increases social distancing. Also, whatever you do, do not, I repeat, DO NOT call the retail location to find out what they still have on the counter. Most locations have this other modern technology known as Caller-ID and you do not want to become that person who is always calling. I promise, they will remember, and you will never find anything special at those stores.
  4. Online ordering with curbside pickup– Like or not, we have all become highly proficient at ordering online during this pandemic and it has become the natural evolution of first come, first served bottle releases without camping out. The retailer or distillery will send out an e-blast or social media post once the release is available and now you just have minutes to get to the online store, add the product to your basket, and checkout. Recently, Old Forester announced the release of their first barrel strength Old Forester single barrel selection. The barrel pick was only available for purchase on the Old Forester web site and within seventeen minutes after the social media post, all the inventory was sold out. Think this is crazy, the following week, the release of the second Old Forester barrel strength single barrel selection sold out online even faster. Although these are purchased online, customers must pick up their orders the following week at the curbside pickup location outside the distillery during a predetermined time. If you miss your pickup window, your order is refunded, and bottles are sold to someone else. This process reduces contact between people and helps keep the sales process safe for everyone. Now there are plenty of downsides to this process. Yes, you must be able to pick-up the order during the curbside delivery window. This makes it beneficial to those within driving distance. They check ID’s so don’t think about having someone else pick up for you. If you miss out on the email blast or social media post, you’ll problem miss your opportunity, these sales go quickly. Internet bandwidth, internet connection speed, performance of the e-commerce platform, and your personal ability to rage click, enter your personal information, provide payment details, and checkout before the inventory is sold out will all impact your chances. Personally, I thought the Old Forester e-commerce process was streamlined and responsive. Also, I keep all my ordering information saved on my phone for faster checkout. More and more retailers and distilleries are beginning to offer this type of ordering for specialty releases, unfortunately, we can only spend so much time on social media and keep our day jobs.
  5. Online raffles– Recently I was discussing the idea of online raffles with a friend and I was told this was crazy and would never happen. The idea that individuals would sign up in advance for an opportunity to attend an event or purchase from a selection of allocated products seemed ridiculous. It’s important to remember this type of raffle could happen at a retailer but also at a distillery for their special releases. Ideally, the selection would be random and give everyone who signed up in advance an equal chance to purchase, much like receiving a numbered bracelet and having numbers randomly called from a bucket. I suspect these online raffle opportunities will increasingly become part of more specialty releases as customers complain about how quickly the online first come, first served approaches sell out. If you are a member of the Four Roses Mellow Moments Club, then you already know this is how their events and bottle releases have been handled for several years. Sure, not everyone is going to be happy, especially those who are not selected, but it’s equal and it seems fair. It also safely reduces the number of people together at one time waiting to have their number drawn. Oh, if you are not familiar with it or a member of the Four Roses Mellow Moments Club, look it up! Be sure to sign up for e-blasts and follow your favorite retailers or distilleries on social media, this is most likely where these raffles will be announced. 

No matter whether you agree or disagree, I believe we all can agree that we long for the day when we can gather safely with our family and friends, open our favorite bottles, and share a dram.
 
Until next month, Ciao and CHEERS!

This article was originally published in The Bourbon Zeppelin, the Bourbon magazine of the ABV Network. For more from The Bourbon Zeppelin click here.