Dusty bourbon is overrated.
That’s how this post started. As it turns out, my problem isn’t with dusty bourbon itself. Granted, I’m somewhat fatigued with the general dusty profile. While vintage pours can be incredibly tasty – more often than not, eye-opening – the longer you’re in whiskey enthusiasm, the more you realize it’s just a flavor category (an inconsistent one at that). Besides, just because a bourbon is vintage, doesn’t mean it’s good. I’ve had mediocre Stitzel-Weller Old Fitz, 80-proof Wild Turkey releases ranging from half-decent to borderline drain pours, among other notable highs and lows (and don’t get me started on decanters).
Nevertheless, the prices for dusty bourbon have reached heights I never imagined. While I believe well-preserved vintage whiskey warrants a premium, in the end its existence is bound to consumption. It’s booze – antique booze – but still very much booze. While that may be an oversimplification (it is), it’s the truth. These bottles, just like today’s bottles, were made to be opened – the contents poured, sipped, mixed, shot, whatever your fancy. Yet, here we are.
Want a Wild Turkey Cuvee Lafayette? No problem. An easy $3,000 will get you a (hopefully not too evaporated) 750ml bottle – possibly a musty box to go with it. Old Fashioned, anyone?
Is a 1980’s-1990’s twelve-year, 101-proof bourbon worth $3k? I guess to some it is. To me, it’s not. I’d much rather take a vacation with my family and hit up the out-of-town liquor stores in search of private barrel selections or forgotten Master’s Keep releases. I might even luck upon – you got it – dusties. But, I’d be paying retail prices, eventually drinking them, or sharing pours with friends.
The purpose of this post isn’t to tell you how to spend your money. If you have it to blow, by all means blow it however you please. If you want to dig into your retirement, charge up your credit card, mortgage your house, sell a kidney, that’s your prerogative. But, before you do, I don’t think it unwise to ask yourself why you’re spending the money in the first place. What’s your goal? Can it be reached without significant sacrifice or regret? Are there risks? If so, are they worth the perceived reward?
If you’ve never had dusty bourbon before, please (and I can’t stress this enough) try before you buy. You’re going to read a lot of glorious praise about vintage whiskey – this blog is loaded with it – but it’s just a flavor. It may be a flavor that fails to impress you. Chances are it will impress, but until you try you never know. As for finding the means to taste dusty bourbon, get involved with local or regional whiskey clubs. You can also seek out establishments that offer on-premise samples, like Justins’ House of Bourbon in Kentucky.
If you’ve recently tasted dusty bourbon, the bug has likely bitten you and you’re hot on the trail of a dusty bottle or three. My next piece of advice is: know with whom you are dealing. There are scammers everywhere, and with prices steadily on the rise, there will be more in the blink of an eye. Outside of the legal obstacles of the secondary whiskey marketplace, buying expensive bottles of hooch from internet strangers is not advised. Hell, what you receive, if you receive anything at all, may be counterfeit. Again, I’ll have to recommend Justins’ House of Bourbon. They verify what they sell, sell it legally, and back it with their reputation. It may not be cheap, but you have assurance and recourse if necessary.
If you’re a veteran whiskey enthusiast, you’ve probably tasted your share of dusty bourbon. Some of you reading will never back away from the dusty bourbon precipice. You’ll spend or trade until you can spend or trade no more. Others may be frustrated – discouraged by the skyrocketing secondary prices and inability to restock on past favorites. No matter which camp you fall into, know there are alternatives. You don’t have to sip vintage whiskey to appreciate an extraordinary spirit. You don’t even have to sip whiskey.
For what it’s worth, I’m broadening my palate. Like many enthusiasts, I’ve ventured into rum and brandy. I’ve found that select bottlings carry similar profile traits to dusty bourbon and rye. And those that don’t, provided they’re quality distillations, showcase uniquely amazing flavors all their own. With an initial investment far less than most dusty bottles, an exploratory purchase after some research and due diligence can go a long way.
I recently participated in a Cognac cask selection with the help of Bourbon Pursuit, The Mash & Drum, The Bourbon Finder, and Jay West of the Aficionados Group. It was a revealing experience, one I had the pleasure of sharing with my Patreon community (now available to the general public via Seelbach’s). What I took from it is that 25 years in oak, be it distilled beer or distilled wine, can do wondrous things. In this case, the right brandy can blow your mind as much as a sought-after vintage whiskey. You just need an open mind or adventurous palate.
For those uncomfortable stepping out of the bourbon and rye ballpark, I’d recommend exploring light and straight whiskey blends, finished whiskeys, and last but certainly not least, single-barrel private selections. Chances are you’ve already “been there, done that,” but how far have you ventured? Have you invested as much time and money into exploring what’s readily available over what’s markedly expensive and (here goes) overrated? Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, but with newer producers finally bottling aged expressions, I’d argue you’ve just scratched the surface. I know I barely have.
Wrapping this all up, I hope this post has been helpful. Truth be told, I trashed my initial draft. Posts like this are difficult. You feel a certain way – expressing that in writing without watering it down or sounding like a meandering, hypocritical cynic is challenging to say the least. Please don’t get me wrong. I love a dusty pour every now and again. There was a time when I’d drink dusty Turkey all day every day if I could. But now, it’s something I seldom reach for. Frankly, I get more excited opening a new Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selection than I do a vintage bottle of whiskey.
The future of bourbon is equally as fascinating as its storied past, but as Carlos Santana once said, “the present is where everything begins.” While you’re certainly welcome to drop three grand on a bottle of Bush-era Kentucky corn water, it might be prudent to stroll a less-traveled road first.
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I feel this so much. I used to be all about the hunt, but the cost to value ratio is so screwed, and it won’t get better any time soon.
I’m fine with handles of 101 and some Russell’s Reserve SiB. Less stress, fewer dollars, and I still get what I need.
Amen, Scott. Prices are way out of focus and quickly moving beyond fellowship range. Smoke if you got ‘em. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. Cheers!
In the mid-nineties before many of yall were bourbon chasers, I happened upon a few cases of some dusty Pensylvania Whiskey at a flea market, of all places. I bought a few bottles for the heck of it. One was called Three Feathers and it was bottled in the 50s, the other was called Gibsons and this particular bottle was distilled around 1942. Well, me and a buddy tried em both, rotgut is the term we used I believe. I laugh to this day just thinking and imagining the fervor these whiskey fanatics would have over these horrid bottles if they ran across them today. Old, vintage, sealed, for sure. But terrible, oh yeah. Take it from me, old doesn’t always equal quality. Im assuming these were likely bottom shelf swill in their day.
Great story! Very true. Old whiskey isn’t always good whiskey.
Got a 1970 4/5 quart bottle of Austin Nichols New York Wild Turkey 101 8 year from my father-in-law this past weekend. It had been opened but not reopened since. About 1/3rd was gone and the original cork had broken off into it. We opened, strained and removed the original cork. Still very tasty. Bottle and label are in great shape and a keeper!
Glad to hear. Enjoy every sip, Gregory! 🥃 🦃