Over the past two weeks I’ve noticed a swell of doomsday whiskey talk, particularly on social media and YouTube. Okay, less of a swell, more of a grumbling. Will the bourbon bubble burst in 2020? Will craft whiskey overrun the major producers (or at least stand toe to toe)? Will custom stickers ruin popular single barrel programs? I can’t answer these with any valid degree of logic or science, but I’ll gladly make an attempt: No, no, and no.
But I’m not here to talk about those things. This is a Wild Turkey blog. Unfortunately, Turkey appears to be caught up in the 2020 “bourbon apocalypse” madness itself. So yes, I’m here to talk about those things.
Let’s start with the new, proposed Wild Turkey 101 label which appeared on the TTB COLA registry last week. First off, while it’s not blowing me away with next-level aesthetics, I’ll withhold judgement until I see an actual bottle for myself. Trust me – if I don’t like it, you’ll hear about it. 🙂 But why another change (the third 101 label redesign since 2011) and what does it mean for 101’s price and availability?
Change is inevitable. Does it need to happen as often as it does in whiskey marketing? Probably not. But then, this is the world of instant media. Today’s news is old news after three clicks or swipes. People have an insatiable need for constant stimulation. They want it new, they want it different, and they want it now.
I think it’s fair to say that Wild Turkey 101 is performing exceptionally well. Not just in whiskey reviews or social media coverage, but in sales. Money talks, and Campari, like any successful business, exists by paying attention when it speaks. You can’t fault Campari for wanting to maximize on Wild Turkey 101’s recent surge of attention. One could argue they’d be foolish not to, but (this is where things get tricky) there’s a fine line between marketing to meet demand and keeping your core consumers happy.
It’s only a label change, right? Maybe, but I’m thinking not. If you look at the filing carefully, the redesigned label doesn’t appear to fit the existing bottle we know and love. Interestingly, many enthusiasts I’ve talked with think it looks similar to Bulleit 10-Year. Does that mean the glass itself will look similar to Bulleit? Possibly, but I’m thinking Campari is leaning more towards Longbranch’s appearance (which one could argue is Bulleit-esque as well). We’ll see. Regardless, I think we know where this is likely going … (you guessed it) a price increase.
Now, before you start freaking out and posting memes on social media channels (adding to the whiskey doomsday grumbling) I need to make this perfectly clear: I’m not saying there will be a price increase, I’m just saying it’s probable. (I’m also not a representative of Wild Turkey or Campari, just a dedicated fan and tough-loving critic.)
Okay … deep breath. Price increases aren’t necessarily things to panic about. Inflation is life. Milk, bread, butter, etc. – prices for consumable products increase seemingly every year. I don’t see people on social media trashing Borden or Sunbeam. At the same time, price increases as simple market adjustments are one thing – taking advantage of consumers to ride the waves of a tsunami-like trend is another. Remember the six-year-old Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond? It was $15 (or less) and found all over Kentucky. Now it’s seven years old, in a redesigned bottle 😉 , and retails for $40 (or more) in select states (not Kentucky). If this new Wild Turkey 101 TTB filing means Campari is waxing their surfboard, I’m far from thrilled. A small price increase to meet demand and improve your product is understandable – acceptable even; a 266% price increase is highway robbery.
At this point I think you know where I stand, but just to clarify I’ll wrap up this topic with my thoughts from July 2, 2019:
Since 1942, Wild Turkey has maintained its everyman status. Let’s cross our fingers that despite questionable pricing by its competitors, Wild Turkey stays true to its loyal fans. If you think about it, that’s what pulled Wild Turkey through the Glut Era. Jimmy Russell kept doing what he’d always been doing – no compromising, no cutting corners, and never forgetting the customers that kept the lights on at the distillery. After all, it’s the hard-working men and women that regularly purchase Wild Turkey Bourbon and Wild Turkey 101 that mean the most. Not the whiskey enthusiasts, not the bourbon geeks, but the Janes and Joes busting their asses everyday (the very folks Heaven Hill is now sending Wild Turkey’s way).
Hold the line, Campari. It’ll pay off. I promise.
Now, let’s talk about Wild Turkey’s private barrel selection program. Saying it’s suddenly popular is arguably an understatement. I remember when Four Roses private selects were viewed as virtual rarities, while Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Kentucky Spirit selections collected dust. Now I’d say they’re near equivalent in desirability. (I see neither sitting around for long, if that’s any indicator.) But how did we get from there to here?
It’s important to state there’s no one answer. Wild Turkey’s single barrel program’s popularity is the result of many factors: passionate enthusiasts, brand-loyal patrons, writers, Redditors, YouTubers, and of course, the bourbon boom itself. Certainly quality is principal. Without it, there would be little success for a single barrel program. Eddie Russell deserves credit for that, as does every single person that works in distillation, maturation, and quality control in Lawrenceburg, KY. Anyone else claiming they’re due a share of that credit needs to stop and reflect.
Which brings me to retailers and whiskey clubs that feel they’re entitled to Wild Turkey private selections (henceforth and forever for all time, I suppose) simply because they purchased barrels before they were popular. As you’re probably aware, allocations for the single barrel program were recently revised, leaving many retailers and clubs with little or no selections this year. It’s unfortunate, but somewhat expected based on the current state of things.
I’ll start by addressing retailers. However many barrels you sold in 2015, 2016, or 2017 means very little in 2020. It’s like the Janet Jackson song says, “What have you done for me lately?” But before you get angry or feel insulted, consider this. If Tom Smith walked into your store countless times in 2016 and spent thousands of dollars on whiskey, you might’ve helped him out come November of that year when he asked about Pappy, right? If not, you should’ve. But what if after you sold him that Pappy bottle, Tom didn’t come around as often – didn’t purchase near as much as your newest reliable customer in 2019, John Doe. Maybe Tom asked about special editions, but passed on everything else. When the Pappy comes in, who deserves it more? Tom or John? I think you know the answer and I’ve heard liquor store managers and owners say it repeatedly – if you’re not buying the daily stuff regularly, you’re not getting special treatment when allocated whiskeys come in. It’s only logical; it’s business.
Now, take that same business logic and apply it to barrel selections. If you’re not continually selling Wild Turkey 81, 101, or American Honey, why would you expect Campari to drop allocated private barrels into your lap? Because you sold a lot of them back in 2016? You wouldn’t sell Pappy to Tom over John in 2019. Why expect Campari to act any differently in 2020?
Of course, there’s a practical solution to this situation. If your store is cut from Wild Turkey private selection allocations, there’s other distilleries out there happy to accept your business. I hate to even type those words, but it’s true. If you wholeheartedly believe your store has something greater to offer enthusiasts, don’t let a potential corporate oversight keep you from finding outstanding barrels to share with your customers. Adapt, thrive, and show Campari that your store matters. Whether they see it or not, you succeed either way.
Moving along …
Ah, yes – whiskey clubs. This may surprise some, but I actually have sympathy for certain whiskey clubs and societies that have fallen victim to shortages in allocations. Note I said “certain” clubs (the devil’s always in the details). Why so? Well, there are groups that strive for a greater purpose in regard to American whiskey – particularly bourbon. To those, it’s not about likes, follows, or premiums. It’s about discovering and sharing the best this hobby has to offer – the passion, the art and heritage. I’m not saying all of those groups have been affected by Campari’s reallocations, but I know of at least one that has.
Folks, these aren’t ladies and gents looking to “flip a pick” – choosing any old barrel, slapping a sticker on the bottle, dipping it in wax, and selling it for insane premiums on social media. Yes, there are groups out there that do that. Many of those couldn’t tell you Wild Turkey’s bourbon mash bill or how long Jimmy Russell’s been making whiskey. They could care less about the brand or its history. They just want the attention, and in some unfortunate cases, the money. I don’t care how many barrels groups like that have selected. In my opinion, they don’t deserve a single damn one.
The groups I have sympathy for take the high road. They’re well established, seek no profit, meet regularly, enact rules, respect one another, shun secondary shenanigans, and employ professionalism. These are the types of groups Wild Turkey and Campari should aim to partner with. Having top-notch whiskey clubs selecting barrels from your distillery is a good thing – a fantastic thing. It’s brand ambassadorship at its finest (and free at that).
But then, the great dilemma: due to our antiquated three-tier system, whiskey clubs require licensed retailers to purchase barrels for them. If a respectable club is aligned with a store suffering from limited, or worse, no allocations, that’s a problem. Sure, whiskey clubs have the ability to find other retailers in such events, but convincing an unfamiliar store that your group has value over their store’s own branding is no easy task.
Which brings me to my final (most important) topic, communication.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw
This month I’ve heard from vendors and clubs for which recent changes in Wild Turkey private barrel allocations arrived as a complete shock. They’re frustrated and upset – some more tactfully than others, though the sentiment is the same. There was supposedly no early communication, no fair warning, no discussion whatsoever prior to the announcement (and in some cases, no communication afterwards) from Campari. Is this how you encourage future sales? Is this ideal optimization? I’d argue it’s not.
Look, I’m a southerner. I’m often misunderstood – even falling victim to the unfortunate stereotype every now and again. But here in the south (at least in my neck of the woods), you communicate with one another. It’s common courtesy. If you’re going to inconvenience your neighbor, you tell them in advance. Not only do you tell them – you explain why, how long, and how you think it might be remedied. It doesn’t always end well, but you said your piece. Whatever happens afterwards is often dependent on that careful exchange – many times for the better.
So here’s how I’ll wrap up this long, highly opinionated, Turkey-fueled rambling …
If you’re going to raise the price of core Wild Turkey products like Wild Turkey 101, consider letting us know in advance. Tell us how much, why, and when it might be implemented. Give us time to adjust, discuss, vent, and settle in. As for private barrel allocations, please talk to your vendors directly and openly. Explain why things are the way they are. Offer a clear path to future barrel allocations; specifically, what needs to be sold and when it must be sold by. Cultivate motivation; avoid discouragement. And finally, get more familiar with whiskey clubs that appreciate and add value to the Wild Turkey brand. This will take boots on the ground and a little extra time, but the investment should be well worth it.
Above all else, communicate. Don’t assume your customers (both retail and wholesale) understand your plans. If you do, you’re banking on an illusion – building your house on invisible sand. Remember the lessons learned in the Glut Era and stay close to your neighbors. You might just need their help one day.
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