A few Sundays back, I reached the final pour of Barrels & Brews’ “Haters Gonna Hate,” a delicious 2018 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon from rickhouse H. It was a nice walk down memory lane, though I’ll have to admit, it left me somewhat bewildered. Why in hell are folks paying hundreds of dollars for this bottle on the secondary? Is the desire based on taste, reputation, or the cute unicorn sticker?
Before you think I’m turning yet another post into a secondary market rant, I should clarify. That’s not the point of today’s post. That said, I think it’s important we all refresh our perspective on what it is we’re actually seeking. It should also be noted that Barrels & Brews and those who participated in Haters Gonna Hate’s selection aren’t the focus of this discussion. It’s a fantastic bourbon with a tongue-in-cheek sticker that ironically found its way into secondary infamy.
For the record, I’ve had my own jousts with secondary shenanigans. Some might recall “One & A Century.” Coincidentally, I was reminded that when stickers were discussed on Bourbon Community Roundtable #26, I asserted Haters Gonna Hate as a stronger barrel than One & A Century. While I doubt my influence bears much weight on secondary valuations, if I contributed to the problem, my sincerest apologies.
Moving along …
If you’re one of those folks who buy bottles of bourbon and never drink them, this entry won’t appeal to you. You’re a collector of sticker-covered glass filled with cornwater. If that’s what floats your boat, sail on. If, however, you’re like most of us in whiskey enthusiasm, you’re searching for bottles based on flavor profile. You’re my people, and I think you might just appreciate and relate to what I have to say. Oh, and there will be a review to unscientifically prove my point.
Back to that Sunday evening … as I sat sipping the last of Haters Gonna Hate, I thought about another fourth floor rickhouse H Russell’s Reserve, Jax’s #17-996. With roughly an ounce left of my Jax selection sample, it only seemed appropriate to compare the two bourbons. Give or take some minor note variance, they were ultimately similar in profile. In fact, I found it difficult to rank one over the other. This experiment only intensified my confusion over recently reported secondary prices.
Who knows? Maybe that Jax selection, one I believe to be credited to Short Barrel Whiskey of Atlanta, carries an equivalent premium. If flavor profile is a justifier, that rationale might make sense (not the valuation, but its determinant). I don’t think it’s that simple, though.
Some barrels simply receive more attention than others. And as silly as this may sound, having a well-designed sticker helps. At the very least you stand out visually, not to mention grabbing the interest of individuals unfamiliar with a particular brand. I’m not saying people are willing to pay $600 for a bourbon based only on its sticker, but then again, maybe they are.
As for Wild Turkey, some rickhouses yield less private selections than others, and some are downright rare (such as C and W). But rickhouse H? It’s far from rare. You can find Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon and/or Kentucky Spirit private selections bottled every year from 2015 to 2018. That’s right – four years of rickhouse H bourbon. Granted some barrels are better than others, but overall it’s viral marketing and social media hype creating a bulk of the secondary market attention.
Thanks to the generosity of a friend (appreciate it, Aaron), I have another rickhouse H Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel to explore, Liquor Locker’s #17-994. Interestingly, its barrel number is only two digits from the previously mentioned Jax selection. I’d imagine its profile is similar, and as such, similar to the secondary behemoth, Haters Gonna Hate. Thankfully, Liquor Locker’s H is far more reasonably priced.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (barrel #17-994, rickhouse H, floor 4) – selected by Liquor Locker, Evansville, IN – 110-proof, non-chill filtered KSBW – distilled and bottled by the Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, KY
Tasted neat in a Glencairn after a few minutes rest …
Nose: orange creamsicle, buttercream frosting, honey-glazed apples, sweet tea, warm herbal spice, lemon squares, faint medicinal cherry
Taste: (creamy mouthfeel) butter toffee, caramel, baked apple-cinnamon, maple-esque charred oak, syrupy citrus, brown sugar, lightly toasted honey
Finish: medium-long, full-bodied – singed orange peel, vanilla bean, sweet oak, nutmeg, holiday citrus, hints of white pepper & ginger
Overall: Just as excellent as every other 2017-2018 Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel from rickhouse H that I’ve tasted – that includes Haters Gonna Hate. No sticker. No hype. Liquor Locker’s selection showcases exactly what I expect it to – possibly more. There’s warm vanilla, caramel, butter toffee, layers of sweet & creamy orange, and a notably syrupy texture, contrasted by various herbal notes, dry spice, and subtle white pepper. A rock solid Russell’s Reserve – worth every penny of its retail price (arguably a few dollars more), but certainly not some arbitrary triple-digit secondary markup.
Rating: 4/5 🦃
You know, I keep thinking we as consumers will get smarter as this bourbon craze trucks along. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case. I promised I wouldn’t let this turn into another rant on the state of the bourbon secondary, so I’ll stand by my word. That said, you’d think that we’d know better than to let prices climb the way they have. I’m not talking about vintage bottles. Those are genuinely rare and akin to antiques (so prepare for those values to increase). I’m talking about modern-day limited editions, especially the “same ol’ same ol’” annual releases, and dime-a-dozen private barrel selections.
There’s so many online resources out there – considerably more since I stepped foot in this hobby. There’s greater transparency from producers. For the ones that aren’t transparent, there’s plenty of writers and content creators calling them out and pinning them down. There’s more books and magazines about bourbon – on whiskey in general – than ever before. There’s quality YouTube channels, podcasts, and blogs, that repeatedly implore you to avoid the hype and bullshit. Yet, here we are. It seems the more knowledge is dispensed, the more people ignore it. Oblivion? Not quite. Let’s hope it never gets there. Insensibility? Surely.
I’ll close with this: I can’t speak for every producer out there, though it’s likely true for most based on bourbon’s present state of popularity, but I can say that for Wild Turkey, more barrels are racked each year. Their private barrel program is only growing. Why spend $600 on a single few-years-bottled expression (one that shares a similar profile to others) when you can spend the same amount on ten bottles of the same expression at standard retail price? If it’s the sticker you must have, make your own. When you find a bottle you like, slap your personal sticker of approval on it. No one’s stopping you. Hell, wax it up and sprinkle some rainbow glitter on it.
But seriously, there’s plenty of well-researched knowledge (and affordable whiskey) to help you avoid the pitfalls of FOMO. Take a deep breath, do your homework, and spend wisely. Money doesn’t grow on trees but opinions do. If you’re not finding the guidance you need, you’re not looking high enough.
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