Hunting for rare but enormously undervalued bottles of premium whiskey was once a thrilling, cloak-and-dagger pursuit for a select breed of connoisseur. Then the rest of the world got in on the secret.
Bill Thomas and Jared Hyman used to be hunters. They didn’t hunt buck or have wooden bird calls, and they weren’t Russian aristocrats paying huge sums to take down an endangered tiger. Their quarry was whiskey. They’d spend entire days poring over the racks at as many liquor stores as they could drive to, looking for rare finds, vintage bottles or deals on fine whiskies that only those with esoteric knowledge of the spirit, in that pre-smartphone era, would have the eye to spot.
The two spent years hunting together with a unified purpose: to keep available a staggering stockpile of whiskies to sell at Bill’s world-renowned bar, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, in Washington, D.C.’s hip Adams Morgan neighborhood. Before they teamed up, though, they were both fat cats of D.C.-area whiskey hunting, buying up bottles, sometimes cases at a time, of whatever their insider knowledge clued them into. To hear Bill talk, Jared was his competitor, a new young man in town stalking what was previously Bill’s turf. As Jared told it, he was just taking what was out there for him.
They met over poker, an ongoing meetup of industry types. Bill already owned bars and was focusing his attention on expanding D.C.’s access to fine and rare whiskies. He’d been inspired during a trip to Kentucky, where he discovered just how meager his options were back home. Jared was hunting whiskey for sport, hoping to open his own bar someday and bartending his way through the portion of his expenses that weren’t covered by his American University wrestling scholarship. When Bill brought Jared onboard to help him hunt for Jack Rose, he knew he had recruited a real killer.
(Courtesy of Emilio Pabon)
The term is apt: When Bill and Jared talk about their liquor-store trips in the early aughts, they invariably mention their “kills,” a whiskey hunter’s term for snatching up a rare or sought-after bottle in the wild, typically at a bargain price in the primary market. Hearing these tales, a modern connoisseur — armed with a burgeoning catalogue of entertaining and informative books about whiskey, with Internet access always on the hip — is liable to get jealous, thinking of all the fun he missed. “Bottlings from the 1970s were still sitting in liquor stores,” Bill marvels. “You could walk in and buy them for $7.99, $8.99, $12.99. I could walk down to one in 50 liquor stores and find a bottle of Old Fitzgerald DSP-16 for $7.99.”
Most of us would likely recoil from a $7.99 bottle of bourbon on the assumption that its contents would leave us a wreck the next day no matter how much we drank — but to a growing number of men and women all across the country, Bill’s story is the equivalent of a trader casually mentioning the Apple stock he bought in 1980. Why? Because the code Bill mentions — DSP-16, short for DSP-KY 16 — refers to a marker on the label indicating that the bourbon was distilled at the original Stitzel-Weller distillery in Lexington, Kentucky, which closed in 1972. (The facility reopened in 2014, but strictly for the purpose of advertising for Diageo, the massive international liquor conglomerate — specifically its highly profitable Bulleit Bourbon line, which has no ties to Stitzel-Weller, and questionable historical legitimacy of any sort, making it similar to most bourbons today that claim any kind of centuries-long American heritage. There are no plans to revive the distillery’s old brands, as they have since been sold off — so lovers of classic bourbon, unlike modern vinyl-record fanatics, have no fount from which to quench their thirst for this specific nostalgic taste.)
(Courtesy of Shuttershock)
Stitzel-Weller is still celebrated for its exceptional and smooth wheated bourbons, and especially for one of its famous founders, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr., an ad man whose name has become synonymous with hard-to-find expensive bourbon thanks to the work of his progeny. Although the branding markers and recipes of the brands Stitzel-Weller developed and made great have been sold to other fine distilleries, any distiller will tell you it’s impossible to replicate the impact each singular piece of equipment has on the production of a spirit. So even though the recipe might be identical, the change in facility, and therefore the equipment used, will dramatically affect the flavor of the product. This in turn leads to the common lament that “the old way was better.”
This surely factors into why the liquor made at the original facility is so lauded, and why old bottles of Bill’s sought-after elixir were sitting in bargain bins here and there. The old stuff was mixed with the new stuff, and Bill was able to spot the exceptional bottles only because of that cryptic code in tiny type near the bottom of the label, which only a small group of people knew how to translate, and even fewer might translate as a sign of quality.
But then something unexpected happened.
Prohibition whiskeys (Courtesy of Shauna Alexander)
“I had no idea that whiskey was going to take off like it did in 2010,” Bill says, referring to the year whiskey sales — aided by the onslaught of microbreweries, accessible craft-cocktail bars and the attendant relaxation of many states’ most egregious blue laws — began to spike dramatically, particularly in the premium and high-end categories.
As the whiskey market expanded dramatically, the pool of insiders grew along with it. Online communities thrived. Soon people were tearing through Bill and Jared’s spots before the duo could get to them, leaving only the everyday bottles behind. The primary market became a relative wasteland. The secondary market, in which rare bourbons are resold at auction both online and in person, began to reflect this new shared knowledge, and things were getting out of hand. Bill especially was feeling it at Jack Rose, which he lovingly refers to as an “international neighborhood bar” due to the fact that he has clientele from Adams Morgan as well as the foreign-dignitary crowd who visit whenever they’re in town. “It felt a little weird,” he says. “You’re used to this bar being a community meeting point. You have regulars. And all of a sudden the same whiskey you were charging $9 for is now $30? But you tell yourself you have to do this, because you have to replace this bottle — but you charged $9 for 12 years, and now it's $30 or $65 or $150?”
There was initial customer backlash, but this was the reality Jack Rose faced. For a little while, finding rare bourbon took less work than it had before, as if whiskey hunting had gone from using a bow and arrow to using a sniper rifle. You didn’t have to cultivate a relationship with an old-school insider, so long as you followed a blog that cracked the codes. You weren’t required to learn a new language; you had a rare-bourbon translator in the browser of your phone.
Then things changed. Again.
For a little while, finding rare bourbon took less work than it had before, as if whiskey hunting had gone from using a bow and arrow to using a sniper rifle.
“In 2014, this big bump happened,” Jared says. “You didn’t realize how much the ground shifted until maybe 2015, when it bumped again. It shifted so quickly.” Suddenly a name like Pappy Van Winkle was less a sly nod between in-the-know experts and more, say, an impressive gift with which to favor even one’s out-of-touch boss at Christmas. Thinking back on this period, Bill and Jared are chagrined — for different reasons.
For Bill, his inner shake-up was temporary; he has adjusted to it. Any fear that his ability to curate rare and delicious whiskies at a great price for his guests at Jack Rose would prove unfounded. He finds ways to sneak great deals onto his menu for those in the know, and his patrons mostly haven’t balked at the price hikes — they understand that fine whiskey is a diminishing (or at least not quickly renewable) resource. They also understand, like it or not, that the industry has learned to play big-league economics, manufacturing scarcity by creating exceptional small-batch spirits for which demand is high. As Jared observes, it was difficult in, say, 2012 to sell someone on a $12 to $15 pour of whiskey, but within three years, many drinkers had become comfortable with a $20 to $30 baseline pour. As the public learned more, its tastes grew more accommodating.
This shift, though, has taken away something primal inside him, vitiated his thrill for the chase. It came to a head during a return trip from the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2014. Jared found himself making his way down through Manhattan, parking his car every so often and stopping to hit three or four stores at a time. Hunting trips that took place outside of D.C. yielded the two of them finds they could use for other purposes from the bar: educational trainings, tasting parties with friends, and their own private collections. The net was wide for what might constitute a kill on that front, but Jared was striking out. He had given up on finding something major, and got to the point where he was texting Bill in the hope that anything he was coming across might benefit them so he could feel at least a semblance of a good kill. Yet despite his sojourn through Manhattan and even a few stops off Interstate 95, he came back to D.C. that night empty-handed. “I quit hunting because I couldn’t take the rejection of losing every time I went into a store.”
It got worse. Jared found that he couldn’t even participate in the secondary marketplace, because in auction houses and online forums where anonymity is nonexistent, his status as a master hunter haunted him. “I found that if I bid on things, I could never buy them anymore. If I put a bid in, people think, ‘Well, if he’s putting a bid on it, it must be a deal.’ It’s futures trading with names on it. Imagine if people were day trading and you could see the names of all the people buying the stocks as they’re coming through, and how that would affect the market. Overnight the markets would change.”
Jared found himself making his way down through Manhattan, parking his car every so often and stopping to hit three or four stores at a time.
Despite the fact that whiskey hunting as they knew it is dead, both men have adapted and managed to thrive along with the industry. For one thing, years of building on their hard-earned knowledge has made them experts, with important relationships in the family- and connections-centric American whiskeyland of Kentucky, where they hope soon to establish a bar.
There are other positives. “I think the people are generally nicer,” Bill says of the new breed of whiskey lovers. “I generally like the whiskey industry much more than I did when I first got started. If you’re a person who likes people and diversity, this is your time. Women and men. Every ethnic group. It’s a much younger demographic with more energy and interests in other stuff. They don’t just sit around and drink whiskey.”
“They do weekends in cities,” Jared adds. “They still do hunting trips that revolve around tasting, but there’s a lot more ‘Oh, come to my city, we’ll have this event, this event, then this event, and we’ll go out, hit bars together.’ ”
Bill has noticed a positive change among the patrons at Jack Rose as well. “I think women feel a lot more comfortable. I love the fact that there are so many women getting into whiskey. It’s rivaling men in the new-drinker category. There were a lot of great women into whiskey back in the day, but now there are a lot more. You can do a tasting now and it’s half women. And who doesn’t want to hang around with more women? You see it at Jack Rose — if you walk up to a table and it’s a couple, and you turn to the guy and say ‘Can I help you with a whiskey?’ he’s like, ‘No, it’s the young lady who needs the help; I’m just drinking beer.’ It’s just a better time.”
A better time, but the old days and old ways are certainly over: That 750-milliliter bottle of Old Fitzgerald that Bill mentioned picking up for $7.99 in the prime of his hunting career? Last February, on the auction site Skinner, a 200-milliliter bottle sold for $221.