By Richard Thomas
The most frequent and common complaint found in American whiskey circles today is how certain brands have become almost impossible to obtain. Although these “chimeras” often retain approachable official pricing, they are said to be unavailable at those official two and three digit price points. According to such conventional complaints, the only way to acquire an Elijah Craig 23 Year Old or a W.L. Weller 12 Year Old is to cultivate insider connections or else go to an unscrupulous retailer or the shady secondary market, where the laws of supply and demand have multiplied the official asking price several times over.
Insofar as being able to buy a bottle of certain hotly desired brands on demand is concerned, this bleak scenario is basically sound, and it’s not even that new of a phenomenon. The days when you could go into a liquor store and put your name on a waiting list for Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old passed by several years ago, and when it was just sitting on a store shelf waiting for someone to come and get it years before that.
However, it is not quite true that the only way to get a rare bottle of American whiskey is to know somebody or to have few thousand dollars to burn. What has gone unsaid amid all the croaking is that many retailers want to take care of their customers, and have instituted rare bottle lotteries to do so. I’d even venture to say why rare bottle lotteries don’t get more attention on Bourbon forums is the people doing most of the complaining probably don’t want anyone else to know about their local lotteries!
Liquor Store Raffles
When I moved back to My Old Kentucky Home last year in the wake of my divorce, I hadn’t been back in the Bluegrass for four days when I tripped right over a lottery for Pappy Van Winkle being held by none other than Kroger, the Mid-Western and Southern supermarket chain. Later than month I came across a series of weekly raffles for hard to get bottles from the annual Autumnal Bourbon Release Season at Frankfort, Kentucky’s Capital Cellars.
The concept here is as simple as it is fair: you enter a free drawing for an opportunity to purchase a rare bottle of whiskey at its recommended retail price. While it might not offer a certain path to acquiring some George T. Stagg, such lotteries at least offer a path to spending $90 instead of $900 for the bottle.
These lotteries are more common than conventional wisdom would lead most Bourbon fans to believe. I found several examples, such as the one held by Lukas Wine And Spirits in Missouri, after spending only a few minutes on Yahoo! Rare bottles don’t necessarily go to every state in the Union, but if you are in a state that does get a decent allocation of hard to acquire whiskey, odds are there is at least one retailer in reasonable driving distance holding a lottery.
Control States, or states where the retail sale of alcoholic beverages is a state monopoly and conducted through state-owned stores, are a mixed bag. Some, like New Hampshire, have a stellar reputation. Others, such as Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia, are the object of widespread scorn among whiskey fans for one reason or another. However, one thing the 17 Control States have going for them that regular states do not is the potential to hold a pretty substantial rare bottle lottery, and many already are.
The much-maligned Pennsylvania, for example, put 1,601 bottles of Van Winkle Bourbons and Ryes up for lottery distribution last year. Just this month they put 258 mixed rare bottles into a lottery, including Four Roses Small Batch LE 2016 and Parker’s Heritage 2016. The state-run liquor companies of Vermont and Virginia also run well-advertised, rare bottle lotteries.
Whatever the other deficits of living in a Control State might be, many of them at least offer a path to purchasing a rare bottle at a reasonable price, and compared to other states that path is quite convenient. As opposed to having to scrounge around for a liquor store holding a lottery of one or two dozen rare bottles, in a Control State that lottery is run through your neighborhood liquor store and will consist of hundreds or thousands of scarce bottles.
Some Chance Is Better Than Nothing
The croaker response to all of this is that the odds of winning such a lottery are slim, so it’s not the solution they want. My rebuttal to them is that their response is just as pointless arguing with the tornado that is blowing your house down. I’ll state it again: the days when you could get on a waiting list to buy this stuff are gone, and the days when they were available on demand are even more gone.
So get out there and find the rare bottle lotteries nearest you. They aren’t a certain path to picking up a rare bottle, but they are almost invariably free to enter, so the worst thing that can happen is your name never gets drawn. In that case, you are in exactly the same place as you are now, so you have nothing to lose.