Why You Should Relax, Because Most Of Your Whiskey Is Perfectly Safe
By Richard Thomas
The last few weeks have seen a new spate of stories coming from across the mainstream media proclaiming that a “Great American Whiskey Shortage” is just around the corner. The scary headlines conjure time warped images of store shelves as barren as those found in Minsk, circa 1986.
Yet the same media—often the very same media outlets, in fact—predicted this shortage last year, as well as the year before that. After watching reporters cry wolf for three straight years, those with long memories have become skeptical, and it has become fair to ask what, if anything, is behind these whiskey shortage stories.
The Genuine Shortages
Thus far, whiskey drinkers have experienced only one example of a genuine whiskey shortage, this being when the craze for rye whiskey caught the American and Canadian industries off guard and rapidly overwhelmed supply. That saw premium rye whiskey brands wiped off the shelves wholesale, and even standards like Old Overholt were sometimes scarce.
Past that, the facts have pointed to particular hiccups and not widespread unavailability. To relieve supply pressures, many brands in both the U.S. (and Scotland as well) have moved away from aging statements, while Maker’s Mark infamously flirted with cutting the proof of its bourbon to meet demand in 2013.
This year the weather combined with a variety of economic factors to crimp the supply of wood for the new oak barrels so much of the American whiskey industry depends on. Yet as real as the problems with the oak timber supply are for this year and the next, the picture painted by the media was much bleaker than anything the facts could support. Indeed, frightful headlines left largely unsupported by the story beneath are the defining feature of the entire whiskey shortage meme.
No Shortage Of Yellow Journalism
Almost all of this most recent wave of whiskey shortage stories quote only one source, Buffalo Trace. The Frankfort, Kentucky distillery has issued regular statements over the last few years about its supply problems with the intent of keeping their consumers informed, but these press releases seem to have instead become something for the mainstream media to seize upon as the basis for repeated waves of scaremongering.
Buffalo Trace is coming late to expanding their production capacity so as to meet the rising demand, breaking ground on their expansion project only this past April. Similarly, the supply crunch Maker’s Mark found itself in last year was the logical outcome of the long postponement of their second major expansion project.
Maker’s Mark’s and Buffalo Trace’s difficulties do not translate into the wider Kentucky bourbon industry because Jim Beam and Wild Turkey have completed major expansions and report that they are on top of demand, while Heaven Hill is already in the midst of a major expansion. New players such as Willett and Michter’s are either already producing or soon will be, and America’s largest whiskey producer, Jack Daniel’s, is staying on top of the global thirst for its products just fine.
Don’t believe the hype, because it is 100% yellow journalism. Insofar as real scarcity goes, the media actually caused a temporary bourbon shortage all on its own earlier this year, when Esquire‘s Josh Ozersky article about how W.L. Weller 12 Year Old (among others) was a worthy substitute for the elusive Pappy Van Winkle bourbons was picked up, repeated ad nauseam, and caused a run on Weller. The stories of an American whiskey shortage are not just old hat and ill-informed, but also lazy, since most of the recent stories completely overlooked the Maker’s Mark episode, even though it occurred only a year ago.