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Everyone Needs to Stop Freaking Out About the Impending Whiskey Shortage

The news you've heard is true—we're suffering from a whiskey shortage. But there's no reason to freak out about it. It's not going anywhere.
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Let's face it: When the August suns are shining, and the breath of the south winds are upon you, there's nothing you want more than whiskey—bourbon whiskey. Or something like that. Those lines aren't mine, but the sentiment is certainly is.

The lines, taken from American journalist J. Soule Smith's 1890s ode to mint juleps (bourbon, mint, sugar, ice), never ring truer than in julep season, which is nigh upon us. But this season, proper observance might prove tough since the whiskey supplies are running out. Or, at least, that's the story that's been dominating the booze news for the better part of last month. Like in some horrible dream, it seems that we're drinking whiskey, especially bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, faster than distillers can produce it. That's especially true given that what we're swilling today was put into barrels years ago.


The reasons behind the shortage were predictably all over the board. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation blamed "hipsters" for making whiskey trendy, while Fox News' own reporting hawk Shepard Smith interrupted the CEO of Buffalo Trace Distillery mid-sentence to ask if it was a marketing ploy. But what nobody seems to understand is just how this shortage—there really is one—is going to translate into the real world.

Back in the 80s, when lighter colored liquors began growing in popularity, the whiskey market suffered a collapse. That crash put distillers on the defensive, scaling back production and forecasting conservatively. Of course, this compounded the already difficult (read: impossible) and expensive task of trying to predict what the market will be like for a product that will sell years, sometimes decades, down the line. Remember: Good whiskey is often old whiskey.

Sometime around 2000, the spirit's popularity was revived, and it began to enjoy a renaissance, becoming less of a dad gift and more of a household item for anybody worth anything. Since 2000, whiskey's market share has grown steadily, placing it with a 34.7 percent share of today's beverage alcohol market. In 2013 alone, whiskey sales in the domestic market were up 10.1 percent, or $643 million, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

And thanks to opening markets abroad, American whiskey has seen a large increase in exports. From 2012 to 2013, exported whiskey sales went up approximately $50 million, according to the DSCUS.


But as the spirit's popularity continues to grow, some suppliers are scrambling to meet the demand. The sudden boom caught distilleries like Buffalo Trace—which manages brands like Buffalo Trace, Sazerac, Eagle Rare, and Blanton's—off guard. "Do you know of any other industry that had made today everything it's going to sell for the next 23 years?!" Buffalo Trace representative Amy Preske said in an email. "We are now sending allocations monthly, so theoretically most markets shouldn't go longer than a month [without having a product in stock]."

Anyone can see that this is a problem: If demand keeps growing like it has been, or even if it plateaus at its current state, how will distillers be able to meet it when there simply isn't enough whiskey to go around? "It's not like you can ramp up production today and have that whiskey on the market tomorrow," Tenn South Distillery's chief distiller Clayton Cutler told the Tennessean. Add the talk of a white oak barrel shortage—the kind needed for aging whiskey—and there seems to be a even bigger issue.

Whiskey has a history of making big media splashes when it's running low. And companies often profit when news of a shortage surfaces. After all, "the industry, like any business, likes talk of any kind," said Chuck Cowdery, author of Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey.

If demand keeps growing like it has been, or even if it plateaus at its current state, how will distillers be able to meet it when there simply isn't enough whiskey to go around?


In a story from October of last year that was almost comic in its widespread coverage, 222 bottles of one of the most sought-after and expensive bourbons on the market, Pappy Van Winkle, disappeared from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The cases of the mythical Pappy were valued at $26,000, and the local sheriff's department, in a quaint move, offered a $10,000 reward. Many suspected an inside job and even some dirty marketing tricks. But either way, the brand's success was fueled, as it tends to operate on its lore and relative unavailability—even without a couple hundred bottles missing.

"They try to maintain a certain level of unmet demand, and even at the current high level of unmet demand, they have no intention of increasing production significantly," Cowdery observed.

Coverage of the current looming shortage bears some real similarities to the frenzy that surrounded "Pappygate." And with warnings coming from within, there are some of the same inherent legitimacy suspicions. "The main reason it may seem over-hyped," said Nima Ansari, wine and spirit consultant for Manhattan's Astor Wines and Spirits, "is perhaps because most of the talk is coming from producers and suppliers."

For some, industry-generated hype automatically trips a bullshit alarm. But for others, it offers an opportunity to look at how these warnings have been interpreted by the drinking public—perhaps misguidedly.


I poured myself a glass of bourbon and phoned up some whiskey and spirits experts I thought might have some answers. The few I spoke to suggested that the shortage is neither as devastating as the coverage suggests, nor is it simply clever marketing.

"Nobody's out of whiskey," said Cowdery. "If by a whiskey shortage, you mean that I could walk out my door today […] and not be able to find any whiskey, that isn't what's happened. I think that needs to be said."

There's a good chance that the coverage of this shortage has been over-the-top, if not downright hyperbolic. "I think that there is definitely an element of hair-on-fire to the 'shortage,'" said David Wondrich, the preeminent cocktail historian and Esquire drinks correspondent. "Brands are growing faster than their owners predicted a few years ago, and that means that some single-brand drinkers in some markets are going to end up without whiskey."

"I don't think they planned it or wouldn't prefer to have the stocks—the marketing talk seems to me to be less clever ploy than making the most of a bad (or bad-ish) situation," Wondrich added.

And as for the barrel shortage? Well, for one, cooperages these days basically have one aged, brown, and intoxicating clientele, making supply spread thin to begin with. Apart from that, "the two things have nothing to do with each other," Cowdery said. "A whiskey shortage would be what's in the stores—or not in the stores—now and the barrel situation impacts what happens five, ten years from now."


Contrary to what many of the articles are advising, we don't need to run to the liquor store to stock up, either. As David Wondrich points out, "single-brand drinkers" might face a shelf without a product, but that may be for only a month, according to Amy Preske from Buffalo Trace.

What we are faced with, then? A lot of awesome choices from smaller distilleries around the country that have experienced steady, healthy growth periods, and who continue to produce good whiskey. "We've got plenty of whiskey that we're putting up and plenty of whiskey to sell," said Gable Erenzo, a marketing and sales representative for Hudson Whiskey, a small-batch New York distillery.

"There's still plenty of whiskey, and over the next few years some of the new microdistilleries will finally be able to release a fully-aged product, some percentage of which will be good—even very, very good," continued Wondrich. "Right now is the end-times of the old 20th-century, hyper-consolidated American whiskey business, I think."

The takeaway from all of this is to swallow the shortage stories with a grain of salt, or a shot of bourbon, or both. Like a big, boozy snowball, what in the worst case scenario amounts to a month or so without your favorite bourbon, the Impending Whiskey Shortage has grown to a dry, dystopic prediction of the future.

With Julep season upon us, it's especially important not get caught up in the current coverage. The final lines of Smith's julep musings seem to paint a more accurate picture of what the next months might have in store for whiskey drinkers. Or, at least what they should.