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Hunting For Pappy: An Elementary Analysis Of Bourbon Whiskey’s Basic And Controversial Internet Market Dynamics

I recently read this blog post about the secondary bourbon market and the mention of bourbon industry data got me thinking:

What does the whiskey craze look like in terms of the internet?


What role do sites like play in the dynamics of a primary and secondary market boom?

The article focuses on the secondary market where many people trade and sell rare bottles as though it’s some dark and mysterious underworld, and correlates that with fears of rising prices.

The mysterious bourbon flipper is the most hated figure in bourbon today. Can’t find Pappy? Blame the flipper. Store increased their prices? Blame the flipper. Distilleries increasing prices? Blame the flipper. I think of a flipper as someone that doesn’t even drink bourbon and purchases solely for resale.

There’s some truth there but, you see, there’s always been people flipping and trading bottles of whiskey or anything of value for that matter. A quick search on Google turns up many sites that have been around since the dawn of the internet, and auction houses have been around for even longer. The history of the whiskey market itself is full of tales of “legendary” black-market operators, many of which are printed on the labels of products we celebrate today, so what gives?

What I find most intriguing about the quote above is that it’s published on the same site that hosts a state-by-state Pappy release calendar. If anything, the site helps the average person track down the latest releases and arms them to the teeth with information about each one of them. I mean this with absolutely no disrespect, but sites like encourage, enable, and perpetuate the hype around coveted bottles.

Haters Gonna Hate

I fail to understand how the craze for Pappy is any different than the obsession for Beanie Babies, Furbys, or Tickle-Me-Elmos.

Most negative feelings toward the secondary market originate largely from people new to Bourbon. These are the same people who pester retail establishments for Pappy in the middle of the summer after reading a news article. They can’t get their hands on it and feel disgruntled because, as it turns out, many other people share their desire for a limited, luxury product.

They then take to the internet and gripe.

Of course there are those people who have been drinking Pappy off the shelf for years who have been priced out of the market, but many of them have other things to satisfy their thirst. Loyalists to Maker’s Mark make more noise than those in the Pappy fan club.

The truth of the matter is, if you’re not lucky enough to be on a list or have friends in the liquor business, your only option to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy is through the secondary market. You need it, but it doesn’t necessarily need you.

A lot of Pappy bottles exchange hands often behind the scenes, but in many cases they’re used as currency to acquire more exclusive bottles that most actively searching for Pappy don’t even know exist (yet).

A Taste For Charity and Nostalgia

Without the secondary market and people who bunker rare bottles, many of us would never have the opportunity to taste whiskeys that have long been off the market. We’d never know just how good (or bad) things used to be. If whiskey is meant to be immediately opened, it would be immediately lost.

I’m not claiming that the secondary market is always a pleasant place filled with unicorns and good people, but that there are many different angles from which one can view it. For example, while many are spewing hate at mysterious people, recipients of that hate are donating spare bottles of Pappy to be auctioned off for charity in private groups. I don’t hear the public discuss things like that too often.

Supply and Demand and The Big Bucks

The demand for Pappy is a great thing for “flippers” because the collections they’ve been building for years before the general public cared are suddenly worth much more. They’re relevant to a larger pool of potential buyers willing to pay the big bucks for a chance to enjoy a “hard-to-find” whiskey.

This does translate to higher retail prices on the shelf because retailers want to get their hands on a piece of the pie. Often it’s justified but sometimes it’s ridiculous. When you walk into a store and see a 15 year old Pappy priced at $1500 it just makes you laugh.

At the end of the day, retailers are in the market of selling products and if they think they can make more money due to heightened demand, well, that’s capitalism.

A Red Herring Exposed

Is Buffalo Trace leaving money on the table and giving up profits to the secondary market?

With all this talk about Pappy and the subsequent fears of price gouging making it into the retail market, I wanted to explore just how insignificant a rare, luxury product like Pappy is in the grand scheme of the industry as a whole.

Internet search data is a great place to start because it is one of the most accurate measures of the consumer’s actual interest. The chart below shows the Google search trends for queries related to “Pappy Van Winkle” from 2008 to the present in the United States. There are a few things to note:

  • The trend shows minimal interest online until mid-2010.
  • Significant and consistent interest doesn’t take off until 2012.
  • The large spikes in 2013 and 2014 are the result of media coverage of the infamous Pappy heist, which has been a great tragedy because it has brought many into the fold of the craze who otherwise would have remained in the dark in terms of product awareness.
Google Search Demand for "Pappy Van Winkle" Over Time

Google Search Demand for “Pappy Van Winkle” from Jan 2008 – Dec 2014

Even with the large spikes due to media coverage clouding the overall trend, it’s obvious the interest in Pappy has grown, but the next chart illustrates just how minuscule and recent the demand for “Pappy Van Winkle” (Blue line) actually is when examined in the context of demand for queries related to “Bourbon Whiskey” as a whole (Red line).

Google Search Demand for "Bourbon Whiskey" and "Pappy Van Winkle"

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Pappy Van Winkle” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Pappy barely makes a dent, but it’s getting there.

Just how big is Bourbon these days? In the United States it’s taking over Scotch with a significant margin of interest.

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whiskey” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whiskey” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014

Bourbon is catching up worldwide, too.

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whisky” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014 (Worldwide)

Google Search Demand for “Bourbon Whiskey” and “Scotch Whisky” from Jan 2004 – Dec 2014 (Worldwide)

Now translate these trends into terms of actual product supply and demand and Pappy becomes an insignificant player.

If we consider the product portfolio of a distillery like Buffalo Trace, or a large company like Sazerac, products like Pappy, even with their high price tag, are not a significant portion of revenue due to their lack of volume. Raising prices on these products to combat the potential profit loss to the secondary market would not only be a blip on the radar, for big business it would be a blunder.

Van Winkle Market Value

I did some digging to find actual release figures, but settled on the numbers mentioned in the article linked in the stats below because they yielded the highest numbers. I wanted to inflate the significance as much as possible. Keep in mind this is an elementary analysis and isn’t an exact science. I’ve rounded many numbers for ease.

According to one source there are 7,000 Cases / 84,000 Bottles of Van Winkle products released each year.

If the average value of each bottle is ~$100, that’s $8.4M in total revenue.

This doesn’t take into account the expenses to produce and market these products, or the price at which they are sold to distributors, but that’s not relevant here.

If we multiply $8.4M by 10x to match the ~$1000 per bottle generated on the secondary market we get a total potential revenue of $84M.

Both $8.4M and $84M are substantial amounts of money but, compared to the $13.6B Suntory paid to acquire Beam Inc. this year for example, even Pappy’s high end secondary market value of $84M is only 0.6% of the value of a single company.

At that rate, if Beam Inc. relied solely on secondary market revenue generated from the Van Winkle products, it would take 162 years to recoup the company’s purchase price.

How much of the market does this one company own, you ask? About 18%.

Top Spirits Producers

Source: IMPACT Spirits Databank and IRI 52 Weeks Ending December 2, 2012.

This puts the value of the total market at roughly $70 billion in terms of purchase price and market ownership (it’s actually over $400 billion).

Since Pappy is a Sazerac product, and Sazerac occupies approximately 7% of the market according to this data, we can translate that into about $5 billion, meaning the retail value of Pappy is about 0.2% of their overall value.

That’s not even a drop in the bucket.

Will Secondary Market Values Lead To Higher Retail Prices Overall?

Absolutely not. Well, not really.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a single elusive product but for the large companies that run this industry, the revenue potential is relatively insignificant. Where this does come into play is with small operations that have a high secondary market demand, such as Willett, but that’s a topic for another day.

Instead of expanding a luxury product, it’s much easier to manipulate a flagship, and we have seen this happen through minimal and gradual price increases of core products. If Beam Inc. increases the retail price of Jim Beam by just 1% (less than $0.25 per bottle in many cases) that is a massive amount of new revenue when considering the volume at which the product is sold. The impact on the consumer is almost negligible. If you can get away with putting younger whiskey into those bottles, the margin gets even bigger.

Increasing the prices of core premium brands that remain readily available is another strategy we’ve seen evolve recently. Think Eagle Rare or Blanton’s. If you have stockpiles of old whiskey, why sell that for $10 a bottle when you can remove an age statement, put cheaper whiskey in that $10 bottle, and move the aged product into a premium product that sells for $50? That’s a huge amount of new revenue by manipulating supply of your core product range.

Of course, a company must do this without significantly diluting the product’s quality, but as new taste buds move into the market at the exponential pace they currently are, the consumer’s definition of quality evolves as well.

So What Does $8.4-$84M Buy In The Spirits Industry?

A lot of nice fancy things and investments in future business. For example:

  • A new Wild Turkey visitor center for $4M
  • A 125,000 sq. ft. bottling operation at Wild Turkey for $40M
  • Jim Beam’s new American Stillhouse for $30M
  • The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville for $10M

As it turns out, Van Winkle products generate enough cash flow to fund new event spaces and additional production lines that will bottle more bulk product. That’s about it.

Pure Luxury.

Happy hunting!

Whiskey Geekery: Quantifying The Variances of Whiskey Ratings To Find The Most Polarizing Dram

Just like you, I want to try all of the great whiskey I possibly can so I seek out new whiskeys with great reviews. That’s the easy part. I do, however, find it much more fun to enjoy whiskeys that seem to be all over the place in terms of reviews because they typically lead to great conversations and discoveries of variances in palates.

As we all know, whiskey ratings and reviews are a polarizing topic as there are very few whiskeys almost everyone agrees are great. And even in the instance that everyone agrees something is great, there’s always someone who argues in favor of something else they think is greater. Its a vicious cycle of circular subjectivity, and it’s fun.

So where do you find a whiskey to pick a fight with? Right here!

To compile this list, I sorted whiskey reviews by category which also makes for easy browsing. The categories are: Bourbon, Rye, Scotch (Highland / Speyside, Lowland, Islay, Island, Campbelltown), Irish, and Canadian.

I then filtered each list down to whiskeys that had 10 or more reviews to make sure there was no funny stuff. Each whiskey has an average score, a high and low score, and a point differential to show the variance of its highest and lowest score. Each table below is sorted by descending value of variance.

A shout out and thank you goes out to the good people over at reddit for keeping a spreadsheet of all community reviews, which made this post possible.

(Continue scrolling to view all categories and ratings)

Most Polarizing Dram award


Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (67 point variance)

Least polarizing dram award

(Smallest overall score Variance)

bruichladdich port charlotte an turas mor

Bruichladdich Port Charlotte An Turas Mor (6 point variance)

Highest overall single score

High West A Midwinter Night's Dram

High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram (100 points / 93 average)

HIGHEST overall Average score

William Larue Weller

William Larue Weller (96 points)

lowest overall single score

Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (17 points)

LOWEST overall average score

Bowmore Legend

Bowmore Legend (64 points)


Bourbon whiskey

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
W.L. Weller 12 40 62 33 87 95
Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel 10 44 45 81 89
Orphan Barrel Barterhouse 20 13 44 50 84 94
Knob Creek 9 year Small Batch 20 38 53 83 91
Four Roses Yellow Label 11 37 50 73 87
Jim Beam White Label 13 35 50 70 85
Bulleit Bourbon 29 34 59 81 93
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select 23 31 60 82 91
Four Roses Small Batch 32 28 66 86 94
Buffalo Trace 45 24 68 85 92
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 11 23 72 85 95
Jim Beam Black 8 Double Aged 11 22 65 79 87
Maker’s Mark 27 22 69 81 91
Old Grand Dad 114 24 22 72 87 94
Baker’s 107 14 21 69 83 90
Maker’s Mark 46 12 21 70 84 91
Elmer T. Lee 37 21 74 87 95
Old Weller Antique 107 51 21 75 88 96
Evan Williams Black Label 16 20 70 82 90
Old Grand Dad 100 Bottled in Bond 27 20 72 84 92
Elijah Craig 12 35 20 70 84 90
Evan Williams Single Barrel 2003 18 19 75 83 94
Blanton’s Original Single Barrel 29 19 78 88 97
Eagle Rare 10 36 18 75 85 93
Stagg Jr 25 18 76 87 94
Booker’s Bourbon 42 17 79 90 96
Eagle Rare 17 10 17 78 91 95
Wild Turkey Rare Breed 20 16 84 88 100
George T Stagg 2013 11 16 80 89 96
W.L. Weller Special Reserve 16 15 72 80 87
Russell’s Reserve 10 12 15 78 84 93
Evan Williams Single Barrel 2004 11 15 80 86 95
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Lot B 10 15 79 89 94
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 32 15 82 90 97
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel 11 14 77 86 91
Wild Turkey 101 28 14 77 87 91
Larceny Small Batch Bourbon 10 13 73 81 86
Four Roses Single Barrel 38 13 82 89 95
Black Maple Hill 12 12 75 80 87
Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof 14 11 86 92 97
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition, 2013 18 10 88 94 98
Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection (OBSF) 10 9 84 90 93
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 12 9 86 92 95
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15 10 9 90 94 99
Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch 20 8 84 89 92
William Larue Weller 10 7 92 96 99
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Rye whiskey

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Rittenhouse Rye 100 35 23 72 86 95
Sazerac Rye 17 16 75 85 91
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 11 15 85 93 100
Willett 4 Year Rye 23 13 82 89 95
Bulleit Rye 26 12 80 85 92
High West Rendezvous Rye 20 12 83 90 95
Wild Turkey 101 Rye 12 10 80 84 90
High West Double Rye 15 10 82 87 92
Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye 13 10 85 90 95
Thomas H. Handy 10 10 88 94 98
Knob Creek Rye 10 8 80 84 88
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Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Clynelish 14 25 43 49 82 92
Cragganmore 12 31 35 60 80 95
Cardhu 12 20 34 55 76 89
Dalmore 12 26 31 60 78 91
Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask 64 27 69 86 96
Aberlour 10 19 26 60 79 86
Dalmore 15 15 26 64 81 90
Dalwhinnie 15 43 26 65 83 91
Balvenie 15 Single Barrel 44 26 70 88 96
Balvenie 12 Doublewood 73 24 68 82 92
AnCnoc 12 36 24 70 85 94
Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured 34 20 72 84 92
Aberlour A’bunadh batch #39 13 20 74 88 94
Ardmore Traditional Cask Peated 21 19 68 79 87
Aberlour 18 14 19 74 87 93
Balvenie 17 Peated Cask 15 19 79 90 98
Benromach 10 15 18 77 85 95
Balvenie 12 Single Barrel First Fill 11 18 75 86 93
Aberlour 12 Non Chill Filtered 34 18 79 90 97
Aberfeldy 12 14 17 70 79 87
AnCnoc 16 12 17 76 86 93
Balvenie 21 Portwood 23 17 78 89 95
BenRiach 10 Curiositas 13 16 79 87 95
BenRiach 12 11 13 74 82 87
Aberlour 16 18 12 81 87 93
Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #3 11 12 85 91 97
Aberlour A’bunadh 19 11 83 90 94
Aberlour A’bunadh batch #45 11 10 86 91 96
Balvenie 17 Doublewood 12 9 81 87 90
Balvenie 12 Signature 11 7 81 84 88
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Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Glenkinchie 12 19 36 55 79 91
Auchentoshan Valinch 31 34 60 84 94
Auchentoshan 12 25 21 65 79 86
Auchentoshan Three Wood 30 15 76 84 91
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scotch: ISLAY

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Bowmore Legend 16 67 17 64 84
Caol Ila 12 68 63 35 85 98
Ardbeg 10 107 55 40 86 95
Bowmore 12 38 42 48 75 90
Bowmore 15 Darkest 18 32 55 78 87
Bowmore 18 14 32 56 81 88
Bunnahabhain 12 66 32 63 86 95
Ardbeg Alligator 22 21 77 89 98
Ardbeg Galileo 30 19 78 89 97
Kilchoman Machir Bay 41 18 76 87 94
Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten 62 18 75 87 93
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 7 15 18 77 90 95
Ardbeg Uigeadail 99 18 80 93 98
Ardbeg Ardbog 29 16 80 90 96
Bruichladdich Rocks 21 14 75 83 89
Finlaggan Old Reserve 16 13 80 85 93
Ardbeg Corryvreckan 45 13 84 91 97
Bunnahabhain 18 17 12 82 90 94
Bruichladdich Black Art 2 18 11 84 89 95
Kilchoman Loch Gorm 10 9 83 88 92
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 12 8 85 88 93
Bruichladdich Octomore 4.2_167 Comus 10 8 90 93 98
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte An Turas Mor 16 6 82 85 88
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Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Highland Park 12 112 52 42 85 94
Talisker 10 84 51 44 87 95
Jura 10 18 40 54 76 94
Ledaig 10 19 39 55 81 94
Talisker 57° North 18 27 69 86 96
Tobermory 10 18 26 65 81 91
Scapa 16 16 26 67 82 93
Highland Park 18 45 26 74 88 100
Arran 10 18 25 65 84 90
Jura Superstition 24 23 65 79 88
Ledaig 7 peated sherry cask – /r/Scotch Community Cask 11 22 68 81 90
Jura 16 12 21 69 82 90
Talisker Storm 18 21 70 84 91
Tobermory 15 14 20 76 89 96
Highland Park 15 13 18 74 86 92
Arran 14 18 14 76 84 90
Talisker 18 18 14 80 89 94
Talisker Distiller’s Edition 2012 10 13 80 89 93
Highland Park 25 16 12 84 91 96
Talisker 25 10 7 87 91 94
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Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Springbank 10 31 33 60 84 93
Springbank 18 11 23 70 88 93
Springbank 15 23 21 70 86 91
Springbank 12 Cask Strength 23 16 79 89 95
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Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Redbreast 12 13 24 70 85 94
Jameson 14 15 69 76 84
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CANADIAN whisky*

Dram Total Reviews Rating Difference Lowest Rating Average Rating Highest Rating
Crown Royal Special Reserve 6 54 39 67 93
Crown Royal Black 5 30 55 76 85
Forty Creek Barrel Select 9 18 72 79 90
Lot No. 40 8 13 82 87 95
Forty Creek Confederation Oak 5 12 75 83 87
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve 5 12 75 83 87
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 16 12 82 87 94
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* Canadian Whisky data based on 5 or more reviews due to lack of reviews

Michter’s Toasted Barrel Bourbon Whiskey Review

As seems to be the case with almost any whiskey release these days it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s been some controversy over this product, but the Michter’s horse has been beaten so hard (for good reason) that it’s soon to be reincarnated as a whiskey critic, so I’ll leave it at that.

There’s been positive attention for this release also. A lot of it.

Some very positive attention, actually…

These are guys I normally trust, so I had to find out if this amount of hype was valid. One of the best releases of the year? I had high hopes…

The Whiskey

Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon Whiskey

This is Michter’s standard US-1 Bourbon that is aged for an additional “period” in toasted (not charred) barrels constructed from staves that were air-dried for 18 months.

45.7% ABV | 91.4 Proof

Released Fall 2014

Full disclosure, this is the first and only Michter’s product I’ve purchased, so I have absolutely no benchmark for comparison.

Tasting Notes

When I first opened this bottle the nose was heavy on nutty aromas and a bit off-putting, but after about a month resting at the shoulder it has developed into a sweeter more approachable bouquet.

It’s thin with a hint of syrup and honey, followed by big notes of artificial caramel and faint traces of butter. Burnt vanilla hangs out in the background like a wallflower before a reluctant vinyl aroma emerges over time.

Nosing from the side of the glass you get alcohol, but directly from the center it seems watered down, which is interesting. After swirling the whiskey in my glass I notice there are absolutely no legs. I mean none, the glass remains crystal clear. Wait, there they are, one — no — two of them. While I do understand this doesn’t exactly mean much (other than it’s likely been stripped of its manhood?), it does strike me as peculiar.

On the first sip, alcohol rushes out of the glass and shoots straight across the tongue carrying sharp cinnamon and is long gone before I realize it. This is very light overall, but with more alcohol than would be expected at 91.4 proof.

After a few sips, notes of unsalted and otherwise as-neutral-as-possible toasted almonds arrive. The typical ensemble of vanilla & caramel sings a soft tune as though under water. ‘Tis the season.

The finish seems to be in such a hurry it doesn’t exit the train to say hello. It’s just gone, passing straight through the station without so much as a wave goodbye.


I can’t get over how non-existent the finish is. It’s fascinating. If you are one who enjoys your bourbon to disappear like a bandit without a trace, this is the stuff for you.

I will give the nose some credit, it’s good, but the palate is lackluster. This whiskey invites you to what you expect to be a fancy dinner, but brings you to one of those restaurants that dedicates so much attention to the presentation and methodology of the menu that the cuisine ultimately suffers. Yet, overall it remains decent enough to please most through simple sustenance.

You, my friend, get by. 

I’ve heard and read a lot of comments that this is similar to Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, and while there are some similarities, this is MUCH easier drinking and less, um, intimidating. I haven’t compared the two side-by-side, but from memory this is less of an oaky screaming infant and lacks the thick chocolate profile the Woodford throws right at you like a baby playing with their food.

I can certainly understand how this is palatable to some, but it doesn’t do much for me. It’s not off-putting or bad, just light and easy-drinking; a bit boring. If that’s your thing, buy a bottle.

Grade: C+


Willett Exploratory Cask Finish Rye Whiskey Review

After spending a cool April day at Keeneland enjoying the horse races, I woke early the next morning to embark on the hour-long drive from Lexington to Bardstown. It sounds like an epic journey, and it always is.

As I pulled off the Bluegrass parkway, I drove past the towering rick-houses and large-scale bottling operation at Heaven Hill and continued down Loretto Road to Willett Distillery, which is just up over the hill.

A photo posted by Brock™ (@dbrockmanw) on

If you’ve never been to Willett, it’s a strikingly small and charming place in comparison to what’s just down the road. It feels very much like the family operation it is, and that’s because they treat you like you’re one of the family.

  A photo posted by Brock™ (@dbrockmanw) on

When I arrived at the Whiskey Shop I was ahead of my group. While I waited for them to arrive, Drew greeted my small group and invited us upstairs to try something special.

He sat the glass on the table and pulled out a hand-labeled bottle that was almost empty from underneath the bar and explained that it was something new they’ve been working on. The XCF was our first taste of the day at Willett and it was great way to kick things off.

I don’t have any notes from that day because reveling in the experience, during and after, was much more important to me than scribbling something onto a piece of paper, but I do recall that I expected the orange profile to be much more prominent than it actually was at first. While it did contribute to an alluring nose and profile, it wasn’t until comparing with the unfinished rye side-by-side that the complexity arrived in full force.

We didn’t spend too much time with the XCF then, as there were other things on the agenda (read more about that with some beautiful photos of the distillery here), but today I’m extremely happy to be reunited.

Willett XCF Exploratory Cask Finish

Willett-Exploratory Cask Whiskey Hand

The Whiskey

An Indiana-distilled small batch rye whiskey aged in Kentucky for 7 years in American white oak with a #4 char, finished in Grand Marnier casks and bottled at 103.4 Proof (51.7% ABV). A total of 6,912 bottles were produced.

From the label: For this first release of our Exploratory Cask Finish Project, we have taken select barrels of seven-year-old American Rye Whiskey and finished in Curaçao casks sourced from France. Our family hopes you enjoy this rare release whiskey.

About the Finish

Grand-Marnier, originally known as Curaçao Marnier, is a blend of cognac and tropical fruit that derives it’s original name from the Laraha citrus native to Curaçao. A descendent of the Valencia orange transplanted to the island from Spain in the 1500’s, it’s said that goats would rather starve than eat the fruit due to its bitterness. While these are not a delicious, sweet snack, their aromatic peels create a wonderful bitter essence of orange when dried, which is what’s important in this particular case.

Before being blended with cognac to later become Grand Marnier, the bitter orange peel is macerated, distilled, then aged in bourbon barrels for two years. From Sku, “The Willett rye is aged in the bourbon casks that were used to age the orange distillate before sweetening, so it’s not as if the casks has Grand Marnier in them.” Hence the “Finished in Curaçao Casks” on the label, which seems more accurate, but also is could be due to trademark issues preventing the use of the Grand-Marnier name. Don’t take my word for the details on the label it as it’s just speculation.

Wilett XCF Rye Whiskey

Tasting Notes

The nose is very clean and crisp, and lends to the expectation of a light body. It’s sharp, almost like an orange cleaning solvent, if that could be considered a good thing. You can pull characteristics of rye or Curaçao out separately depending on what you’re going for, but the finishing is obvious. The whiskey takes the Curaçao barrel very well.

Big sweet flavors come through the front, especially fruit stripe bubble gum. The nose is complex, and the rye notes are relaxed and deep once the whiskey begins to settle, but it’s still sweet overall.

There’s a beautiful fig brûlée note resting underneath the debut, as well as dried and candied fruit zests in the style of a very tasteful clove and cinnamon potpourri.

My girlfriend, who is more experienced with wine, notes honeysuckle and a blooming cotton field, with a hint of fresh tobacco. The honeysuckle is spot-on, and since I’ve never experienced a blooming cotton field, I’ll take her word for it. 

The front of the palate is very light and sweet, but abruptly turns warm. Not hot, just enough rye heat to loosen the tie. Burnt orange comes through on the palate, and the heat continues to rise, oddly enough only on the middle and back of the palate into the throat.

Swishing this around brings out more fruits, but it dances rather than rests, similar to an intriguingly awkward marriage where the couple’s first dance isn’t technically spectacular, but it entertains just the same.

The darker notes of bitter orange rest on the palate as more rye character creeps forward to dry things out a bit. We’ve gone from fresh fruit to dry essence in exactly the fashion the process intended, or so I’ll claim. There’s a slight bitterness that is slightly off-putting to me, but an explanation of why that isn’t such a big deal are up next in the comments.


Anyone between the ages of 0 and 50 who has lived in or visited Charleston, South Carolina is probably familiar with the nose, warm palate, and bitter finish of Grand-Marnier. This is because it’s been the go-to shot in almost every bar and restaurant for as long as I’ve been around here, which for the record has been about 8 years off-and-on.

I try to avoid shots at all costs, but this town loves them to the point that if you venture out of the house you’ll likely be offered at least one no matter where you go. What I consider to be a dirty trick played on unsuspecting friends, shots of “Grandma” are almost unavoidable. To me, there’s nothing more disgusting than diverting course from a cocktail to down a warm liqueur, but it’s rude not to oblige when offered, right?

Because of this, the thought of Grand Marnier alone leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but in terms of the XCF it’s a nice touch, and likely won’t conjure any bad memories for anyone outside of Charleston.

With a price tag of about $150, I can’t say that this is necessarily a great value, but it is a quality product that isn’t exactly inexpensive to produce.

Overall, this is a bittersweet whiskey that is more fiting as a dessert whiskey or digestif. For my tastes one small glass is about all I want to enjoy in a single sitting, but it is very much a pleasant experience. For that reason, it’s possible to stomach the high price knowing that the bottle will last a little longer on your shelf. Or Will-it?

Grade: B+

Kentucky Owl Bourbon Whiskey Review and Notes On The Absurd

Back in September I posted this…

…and since then Kentucky Owl has largely been left alone as a non-issue not to be taken seriously.

But then to my surprise, who was recently crowned winner of the drinks category in Garden & Gun’s “Made In The South” awards? The Owl, of course. In disbelief I felt the need to give it some attention again, if only to reassure myself that I wasn’t crazy for writing it off.

Kentucky Owl, the myth and the mystery

For starters, most whiskey-related blog posts begin with a charming story about the product and its history, but I won’t discuss any of that here because I can’t put forth the effort to entertain yet another myth involving whiskey and Al-Capone. If you don’t know what I mean and want to read the entire “story”, you’ll need to visit their website.

What is most important is the fact that Kentucky Owl is sourced whiskey that is packaged in a beautiful bottle without any mention of what’s inside. While some enjoy doing detective work, I don’t go down that path until I know that I like something, in order to preemptively justify the time invested.

Regardless, it seems any effort to sleuth out a source would be an exercise in futility anyway, as the brand’s current story dances around the intention to keep the bourbon shrouded in mystery. This makes perfect sense, since bourbon whiskey in general seems to be a mystery to the producers marketers themselves. From

By law, the creation of Kentucky bourbon is not an instant gratification kind of thing. It must contain at least 51 percent corn and age in charred white oak barrels for at least two years before it can earn that distinction.

After four years, it can claim the status of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Beyond that, distillers don’t have to disclose its age, though many do on the notion that older is better.

And here’s a screenshot before they make any edits:

Kentucky Owl

So whats the problem here? This information is flat out wrong.

  • White oak? Nope, just oak.
  • Aged at least two years? Nope, just aged.
  • Four years to become straight bourbon? Strike three, just two years.

…and that’s only two sentences from the website. I don’t feel the need to dissect anything further than that. To be fair, the words were originally authored by a journalist in this article, but that’s no excuse.


This is where the story gets completely out of hand. A bottle of this will run you at least $150 if you’re [un]lucky. Again, that’s over one hundred dollars for a bourbon without a birth certificate.

But wait, there’s more! The producers marketers of this fine product anticipate Kentucky Owl will “move well beyond that price among collectors” in the future, so you better act fast!

Considering the mystery and the misinformation, Kentucky Owl bears a price tag that should make anyone who works for their money (or even steals it) cringe.

…but is it even good? Let’s find out.


The Whiskey

Kentucky Owl Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Batch 1, Bottle 1370 at 59.2% ABV / 118.4 Proof


There’s almost no nose at first. Nothing. If glass had a scent that’s what I’m getting here. “Muted” comes to mind, or flat out “mute”. Heavy notes of mime. Either my glass has holes in it, I’ve lost my sense of smell, or this is the most vacuous bourbon I’ve ever nosed.

To its credit, it does open up and improve over time, but not much. Dry oak notes come through on the nose, similar to those noted in my review of Wild Turkey Diamond, but while I managed to pull some pleasant nostalgia out of that whiskey, the note in Kentucky Owl is a bit obtuse (can I say that?) and less complex.

As even more time passes the bouquet becomes sweeter with a hint of candied ginger that evolves into parlance with cedar. It’s a funky cedar, like grandma’s cedar chest that remains without breath until opened when an extra quilt is required on a cold night. Cue dust.

Trying to pull deeper brings out the alcohol.

It’s very hot on the front of the palate. Of course, this is a cask-strength whiskey so the heat is to be expected, but the first sips drink much hotter than they should.

Forecast calls for a temperature of 118 proof, but feels like a rough 130.

After being bombarded with an unusual bitterness that numbs the tip of the tongue rendering it useless, the attack moves quickly to the sides of the tongue before relaxing. There’s nothing across the middle as the palate follows suit behind the nose with notes of wet, oiled leather from a musty saddle.

The finish seems to have a mind of it’s own as it dissipates unevenly with a hot exit, and lingers.


After trying this bourbon on multiple occasions, in different settings, via various types of glassware, solitary and alongside comparable barrel-proof bourbons at similar proof, I’m not impressed.

I tasted this particular glass alongside Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and a barrel-strength OBSV at 118 proof. Between those, Kentucky Owl is closer to an off Wild Turkey barrel than anything else I can immediately think of. In the lineup shown in the photo at the beginning of this post it was far and beyond earthy in comparison.

I can’t find much I really enjoy about this bourbon and will add that I’m surprised others have rated it so well. I’ve seen this as high as a 90, which roughly translates to an A- on my scale. Absolutely not. There must be some handshakes happening that I’m not a part of, and that’s a shame.

Because it wasn’t purely offensive and did have some interesting notes and flavors as it opened over time, I won’t give it a D. If it were less than $35 a bottle I’d give it a C. Factoring in the price (which actually is offensive) and giving it the benefit of the doubt that someone, somewhere might enjoy it, and I wouldn’t immediately turn my nose up to it if offered another pour for free, I’ll leave it at..

Grade: C-

When you consider this retails north of $150 you either have to be rich and hate keeping money in your pocket, or flat-out crazy to buy this in earnest.

Remember, they don’t tell you where it comes from. I can imagine a scenario where a source must remain shrouded in secrecy in order to protect its creators from becoming bombarded with whiskey geeks keen on hauling barrels out of warehouses under the cover of night, but this just ain’t that good and that scenario just ain’t plausible.

Instead of this, buy almost any other barrel-proof bourbon on the market. While completely different, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof are MUCH better buys in the genre, about 1/3 the price, and you know who makes them. One even carries an age statement. Stellar.

If funky, musty notes tickle your fancy try Old Grand Dad 114.

If you absolutely must purchase a “mystery” bourbon, reach for Johnny Drum Private Stock or splurge on Noah’s Mill at 114 proof and take someone out to dinner with the money you saved.