I recently happened upon a Twitter thread suggesting a sense of apathy is growing in the whiskey community. It seems some longtimers, and possibly some newcomers, are burned out with the surging popularity of American whiskey. I don’t consider myself a burnout, though at one point I found myself pulled in that direction. So what changed my mind? What kept me from becoming a casualty of the bourbon blight? There’s no one answer, but I could probably narrow it down to a few reasons.
Before I dive in, I should mention this isn’t my first post of this nature. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, I wrote “Silver Linings Tasting Book.” When I turned 45, I wrote “The Best Whiskey in the World.” Each of those posts, while largely cathartic, rallied optimism in times of frustration or fatigue. But today’s post is somewhat different. It’s not limited to a specific cause, but rather attempts to address the perceived sense of exhaustion with/within whiskey enthusiasm. I’m no guru and I lack surefire solutions, but I’ll give it my best shot.
The first piece of advice I’d offer to those frustrated by the current state of whiskey – more specifically, bourbon – is to consider taking a brief pause to reflect. What got you started in whiskey as a hobby? Was it the taste, the history, the fellowship? Compare your answer to what drives you now. Are you still in alignment? It’s possible (as this once applied to me) that you’ve fostered unrealistic goals – particularly when it comes to bottle acquisitions. Face it – it’s simply impossible for the grand majority of us to purchase every new release, every limited edition (one-off or annual), and every talked-about private barrel selection.
And it’s not just about money. To acquire a complete or even partial library of these releases would require significant amounts of personal time and energy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t spend hours of my day driving store to store, scouring websites, typing emails that will likely go unanswered, and making phone calls chasing whiskey. Been there, done that. If that’s what motivates you and you have the means to make it work, go for it. But for most of us in the whiskey world, it’s an unhealthy venture fraught with swift defeats and rare victories.
The Premium Myth
There was a time, save for a handful of wildly popular bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle, when a plethora of desirable American whiskeys could be found on retail shelves with minimal effort (location depending). In the case of brands like Wild Turkey, finding limited editions was relatively easy. Those days are no more. But if you look back at reviews from those years (mid-2010’s r/Bourbon is a fun place to browse), you’ll find a healthy dose of criticism – even cynicism. Take Diamond Anniversary, for example. Despite its noteworthy maturity, its low proof (91), high price ($125), and Booker’s like box (at a time when Booker’s was only $50) made it an easy target for disapproving commentary. Now it seems as if every LTO, heritage brand or not, is purchased on sight, with reviews merely helpful to those considering secondary market purchases or trades.
There was also a time when the “premium is best” mantra was met with skepticism in the WhiskeySphere, or at the very least, quickly dispelled for those seeking earnest appraisals. Over the last five years, that inclination has taken a 180-degree turn. We now live in a world where “shiny and new with a hefty price” almost instantly translates to “gotta have it” (reviews be damned). The volume of exclusive expressions has grown substantially, with supply seldom meeting demand. I’d wager many of those purchases are intended for flipping or “up-trading” and have very little to do with the liquid itself. One could argue the same for private selections, which is rapidly becoming an area for artificial ultra-premiumization. Believe it or not, some Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon selections are fetching three or four times their suggested price immediately following their release.
But the fact of the matter is, “premium is best” is a myth and only serves to inspire FOMO. Just because a whiskey commands a high price – be it SRP or completely fabricated by “Joe Bro Bourbon” on Facebook – doesn’t mean it’s worth your hard-earned money, time, or energy. Hell, it may not even be as good as Wild Turkey 101. If there’s one thing you take from this post, it’s recognizing that some of the best whiskeys today are available right now on your local liquor store shelves. If you don’t believe me, set up a blind tasting with some reliable stalwarts – Russell’s Reserve 10-Year, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, etc. You’ll be surprised at how well they perform against bottles twice their price.
I’ll proudly admit, I love social media. I love interacting with individuals far and wide. I love the sharing of information and opinions. The bad thing is, there’s bullshit abound. Thankfully, it seems the whiskey community has wised up on some of the old ploys. I don’t see nearly as many bottle “crotch shots” as I used to. And folks get called out on pictures of full glasses next to sealed bottles routinely. But as annoying and ridiculous as those posts may be, they’re fairly harmless in the grand scheme of things.
What concerns me now are posts and videos drawing focus away from what matters, like the whiskey itself (profile and provenance) and inner-community fellowship, and placing it on the accumulation of sought-after bottles. Take, for example, whiskey “haul” videos and photos. What purpose do these serve? I suppose they’re a brag, or maybe just a proven way to get likes, comments, and follows. Whatever the reason, you’ll have to admit their net return is extremely short term.
A year from now, what value will “haul media” have? Very little (if any). How about ten years from now? None. Absolutely none.
Yet overall, when it comes to whiskey enthusiasm, social media has far more positives to offer than negatives. The key is finding groups, channels, and individuals you can relate to. Just like the real world, attributes like honesty, integrity, and generosity exist in the virtual world, often amplified via social media’s wide reach.
Find circles where you and your opinion, not your whiskey collection or latest score, are welcomed and appreciated. Treasure encouraging content that makes you feel better about your goals and accomplishments – content you’ll remember and revisit. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new platforms. Just as whiskeys differ from one another, the same can be said for social media. If, for example, Facebook brings you more ill than joy, don’t write off social media altogether. Logoff and try something else. There are plenty of quality enthusiasts, creators, and groups to be found elsewhere.
The You Factor
At the end of the day, what you take from whiskey enthusiasm depends entirely on you. Much like the subjectivity that comes with evaluating a glass of bourbon, you have to determine for yourself what you’re sensing and how it strikes you. What works for some won’t always work for others, including you. Don’t be afraid to set the glass down and move on to something else.
Every hobby, sport, or pastime comes with a risk of burnout. It happens. The key is to be honest with yourself. It’s possible a break is warranted, perhaps permanently. But more often than not, it’s a matter of intonation. If you were passionate once, chances are you’ll be passionate again. Eliminate the elements that cause disharmony, and if you can’t, fashion means to ignore them (mute and block options are your friend). Explore new brands. Re-taste the old ones. Hell, visit the nearest distillery. You don’t have to travel to Kentucky. Many states have producers who would welcome your attention.
Regardless of the burnout remedy you choose, please resist the urge to flood the WhiskeySphere with continual negativity. It helps no one. Sure, it might grant you temporary satisfaction or pride, but you’re ultimately serving yourself. And while the occasional well-placed rant can be healthy (we all need a good vent), be mindful of the message you’re sending. The last thing this hobby needs is another Chicken Little.
Cheers and good luck!
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