With limited releases harder and harder to come by, we get a lot of requests asking for tips on how to find those bourbons at (or near) retail.
The fact is, if you want to get your hands on a bottle of George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle, the time to start hunting is NOW.
No, you’re probably not going to find anything sitting on the shelves in the middle of the year, but unless you live in a control state or bourbon desert U.S.A., there’s a chance your nearest metropolitan area will get an allocation in the fall and some of it will sell at or near retail. To increase your odds at scoring a bottle or two, you need to start laying the groundwork well ahead of time. Imagine how you might react if you were a retailer and a random customer showed up asking for Pappy in October, coincidentally right when you got your allocation…sorry buddy, take a hike!
While there are no guarantees and opportunities will vary geographically, there are some things you can do to better your chances. While this isn’t meant to be comprehensive, here’s a quick hit list of steps you can take right now:
- Analyze your local stores to figure out who gets the limited releases and who might give you a chance at one. This is pretty simple, but will take a little work on your part. Basically if you’re after limited releases you’ll want to find out which, if any, of your local stores get an allocation and how they’re probably going to deal with those bottles. Talk to them. Don’t call, go there in person and have a real conversation. There’s no harm in asking politely.
- Once you’ve figured out which stores might get allocations and might actually deal with them fairly, get to know them personally. Visit periodically. Strike up conversations that don’t have anything to do with Pappy, BTAC, or whatever other limited release you’re after. Chances are there’s at least one person at each store that’s as interested in bourbon as you are. You might even make a few friends while you’re at it!
- Get on the lists. A lot of stores deal with allocations via a list of some kind, so ask if they keep lists and get yourself on them. Find out how they communicate limited release opportunities so you know what to watch for when bourbon season rolls around. Add their telephone number and email address to your contacts so you don’t ignore the call or let the email go to your junk folder. Nothing is worse than ignoring a call only to later find out you missed out on a bottle of Sazerac 18 Year… and yes, that is speaking from experience!
- Follow your local stores on social media. More and more retailers are using social media to communicate and deal with their allocations, so follow them and stay tuned when it gets close to release time in your area.
- Attend retailer-sponsored tastings and events... and most importantly, shop there, for Pete’s sake! As consumers, we often gripe about the retailers who overcharge for limited releases. The fact is, retailers realize a relatively small profit margin on a per bottle basis at MSRP. Show your support to those who honor retail prices by shopping there and attending sponsored events, which are often free.
Remember retailers might have hundreds or even thousands of people after the same limited releases you are, so at the end of the day it’s a numbers game. And despite a storefront inventory, retailers are just organized groups of people. Treat retailers how you’d like to be treated: If you go out of your way to patron a retailer who you’ve gotten to know and trust, there’s a better chance they might go out of their way to get a bottle of something special in your hands come release time.
Also, whatever you do, don’t overpay. Few, if any, of the limited releases are worth much more than their MSRP from a drinking standpoint, let alone multiples of MSRP. There are plenty of great bourbons out there that don’t require you to fork over what you paid for your first car. It’s a tough reality to face if you’ve built up a good relationship with a store and shop there often, yet they still try to overcharge you for a limited release. If it happens, make sure you let them know you’re displeased and start the cycle all over again by taking your business elsewhere.
For current limited releases, here are a few more tips to help you score your favorite bottles at local retailers:
- Track release dates in your state. Not all stores keep a list of customers looking for limited releases, keep track of customers very well, or even really care about the few limited release bottles they might receive. This is especially true for smaller stores who don’t have a specific interest in bourbon, though this group seems to be shrinking. While your established liquor store contact might call you before any online resource clues you in, it’s also very likely that they have to inventory and carefully divvy up their own allocation when they receive it, which doesn’t usually happen overnight. This means there’s a good chance there will be limited release bottles available for purchase at stores that don’t keep close track of allocations before you get a call from those that do. To that end, having a way to track when allocations might be hitting your state can be helpful if you have the ability to get around to retailers quickly. Knowing a distributor or liquor store contact is ideal, but not always feasible. Online tools you can use to track when releases hit your state include bourbonr.com’s Pappy and BTAC release trackers, bourbonseason.com’s posts, bourbon focused Facebook groups, and our own Bourbon Release Calendar that will give you a good idea when the bottles first begin to hit the market.
- Reconnect with retailers a few weeks after initial release. Often times retailers, especially the larger ones, go through their allocation lists giving customers a window of time to retrieve their bottles. As many customers will be on multiple lists and limited releases have become increasingly expensive, it’s not unheard of to find a number of bottles go unclaimed. Retailers will deal with this in different ways, but the point is it usually results in a second wave of opportunity. Locally we’ve seen retailers send out a blast email with leftover availability (you better get there quickly!) as well as just place the bottles on the shelf for lucky customers to stumble upon. **A side tip: If you do sign up for a list for a specific bottle and the retailer offers at/near MSRP, buy it. Don’t be the person who says they’ll take it then never shows up unless you’d like to be removed from their future call list.**
- Hunting is never really over. As retailers are becoming more interested and savvy with respect to the current bourbon market trends, allocation strategies continue to evolve. More and more retailers have been holding back inventory to divvy out throughout the year using various promotional strategies, a practice that can drive business for the retailer through deeper customer engagement and make for fun hunting beyond the initial release time period. Additionally if the distributor held back bottles for whatever reason, you might experience a small wave of opportunity well after the initial release date.
Bourbon hunting goes beyond current limited releases though. How great would it be to find an old bottle of Wild Turkey? For most, finding a rare dusty might be a once in a lifetime occurrence, but even though odds are quite slim there are ways to increase your chances.
- Visit retailers off the beaten path. You’re not going to have much luck finding older bottles at the local retailers with heavy foot traffic and good inventory management. However, there are those retailers that don’t get a lot of foot traffic and generally aren’t large enough to warrant anything other than local business, often found in more rural areas. You’ll have to go out of your way to find them and you’ll want to search deep and ask if there are any old bottles “in the back” that are not on display, but you might just find something special.
- Ask your family and friends. How old is the oldest bottle of liquor in your cabinet? If you’re anything like us, you’ve got some really old bottles of liquor that have been collecting dust for quite a while. Since liquor generally doesn’t go bad, it seems to be something most people just keep around until it’s consumed. To that end, you might have some luck finding older bottles this way that would have otherwise been forgotten.
- Visit Estate sales. This can be like finding a needle in a haystack, but it can be fun and you might come across some other interesting stuff while you’re at it. No different than your family and friends might keep dusty bottles of booze around, Estate sales can be treasure troves for dusties.
Do you have any other hunting tips? Success stories? We’d love to hear about them! Post in the comments below.
Stay up to date with all of the limited releases by visiting our Bourbon Release Calendar.
Nick, Eric & jordan
Breaking Bourbon Team
A modified version of this article was originally shared with our Newsletter subscribers via a series of newsletters this past year. Since we receive many bourbon hunting inquiries we’ve decided to make the full article available to all of our readers, though with our Newsletter content this is rarely the case. Be sure to sign up for our Newsletter here: