As we refreshed our Best Bourbon lists this year, we noticed a curious thing: the number of potential bourbons in the $20 range was alarmingly shorter than it’s been in the past. We’ve all experienced the dramatic price increase of limited edition bourbons over the past few years, but silently, and under the radar, bourbon’s whole pricing spectrum is shifting. While this is expected due to inflation and supply and demand issues, the real concerning part is the brands leaving this price range aren’t being replaced by equally good bottles. What was once a sweet spot for quality and value, and the traditional entry point for people getting into bourbon, has now shifted to $30 and higher. Are we witnessing the death of the $20 price range or simply the death of our current definition of it?
For many of us over the last decade, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller 12 Year, Four Roses Small Batch, Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, and Elijah Craig 12 Year defined what it meant to be a solid $20 bourbon. In 2017, each of these brands has either disappeared completely (loss of age statement), become a proverbial ghost, or is at the edge of moving into the $30 range. If they haven’t hit that $30 mark by the end of 2017, there’s a good chance they will in 2018. To put it into perspective: a bottle of Buffalo Trace (if you can even find it) that used to cost about $20 5-6 years ago, now costs close to $30 or more. That’s a 50% increase. Inflation over that time as measured by the Consumer Price Index was roughly 10%.
The truth is, at some point all of these brands were going to move into the $30 range whether we liked it or not. It was inevitable. Does it really matter if it happens in 2017 or 2020? Even if bourbon drinkers are paying a few more dollars sooner than anyone predicted for those aforementioned brands, you’d expect other brands to move into that prime, impulse-buy price point of $20 - $30. But that doesn’t seem to be the case just yet.
Wild Turkey, 1792, and Elijah Craig are doing what they can to hold strong in the $20 category, but how much longer do they have when many of their peers have already experienced increased prices? Despite lowering its age statement over the past few years to maintain its price point and supply, how much longer will Evan Williams keep their Single Barrel bourbon under $30 when most single barrels sell for a lot more? Will Jim Beam Extra-Aged become the new benchmark for what defines the $20 bourbon category? Finally, is it only a matter of time before Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, Very Old Barton, McKenna, Four Roses Yellow, and Jim Beam White Label become the new rat pack of $20 bourbons?
Bourbon drinkers probably complained of the same issue 15-20 years ago when many of these same brands (the ones that existed anyways) costing less than $20, eventually became $20 bourbons. It seems natural that as one pricing tier moves up, the one below it does too. This requires bourbon drinkers to redefine what it means to be a great bourbon in the under $20, $20 range, and $30 range. This is easier said than done. Ask anyone who remembers Weller 12 Year costing under $20 not that long ago and what they think of the brand’s current secondary price. The people that are now buying Weller 12 Year for $100 are most likely bourbon drinkers that became bourbon drinkers only in the last few years. Maybe that isn’t the best example. As Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace slowly creep into the $30 price range in more markets, will consumer's impression of the brands' quality and value change and have an effect on sales?
This topic is becoming a recurring discussion for us here at Breaking Bourbon, as we rate new bourbons in the $20 and $30 ranges. When Jordan reviewed Coopers’ Craft in April, the larger question became, “Is this what passes for a $20 bourbon nowadays?” I personally think NAS I.W. Harper deserves a little more love than what it gets, but how can it when it cost $35+ for what it is? If Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace are having a hard time consistently being found under $30, how much longer do Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, and Henry McKenna Single Barrel have in the $30 range before moving up a rung in the pricing ladder themselves?
There’s the hard economics of what a bottle of bourbon costs to make, and then there’s the companies that seem to be taking the perception of value theory and bourbon’s popularity a bit too far. It seems every brand wants to appear prestigious and command top dollar, but if the majority of the bourbons on the market are striving for the same goal, what does it mean for bourbon’s “good bourbon at a fair value” entry point? Is it a thing of the past?
It’s funny to think that in the future, as the next generation of bourbon drinkers fall in love with the spirit, will they say the same thing about Benchmark Bourbon and Old Crow Bourbon that they've bought for $25 suddenly jumping to $35? You often hear from the previous generation of bourbon drinkers how much better the mainstream brands used to be in the 70’s and 80’s. Is it inevitable that brands will always get more expensive while their quality decreases, or are we in the end all just cranky old men at heart that will forever reminisce about great things use to be.
There will always be brands that fulfill the “best buy” moniker, and it’s probably a good idea for your own personal definitions of brands to remain fluid, as nothing ever stays the same. For now, if you don’t like where bourbon pricing is going you can always result to stockpiling at current prices and making it a point every time you drink with someone younger than you to tell them how great $20 bourbons use to be.