Don't Panic, but We May Be On the Verge of a Bourbon Shortage


Bourbon lovers, you may want to put down your tumbler before reading this.

A recent story in Nautilus brought a truly distressing bit of information to our attention: A bourbon shortage may be upon us. The explosive popularity of the amber liquid — exports topped $1 billion for the first time ever in 2013, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States — combined with its lengthy aging process has proven to be a dangerous combination.

"The bourbon boom is real," Bill Newlands, then-North American president of Beam Inc., said during the 2013 World Whiskies Conference. "Today, bourbon is the fastest growing category in this country ... When did you think you would hear that comment?"

By law, bourbon — a corn-heavy type of whiskey — must be distilled in the United States and aged in new, charred oak barrels. Though distillation time varies, bourbon must be aged for at least two years to be considered "straight" bourbon, and if it's aged for less than four years, the distiller is required to say so on the label. 

Like other kinds of whiskey, many people prefer their bourbon on the older side, as the more time it spends in a barrel, the deeper and more complex the flavors tend to be. This, however, is where the fears of a shortage come in: Because the process takes so long, demand may begin to supersede supply. 

Fifteen or 20 years ago, bourbon producers likely had no idea that their liquor would experience such a boom. Obviously, they upped production when demand rose, but as Nautilus notes — its article is titled "Whiskey Can't Hide Its Age, Either" — you can't force the clock.

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Distilleries are feeling it. Last November, Buffalo Trace Distillery sent customers a panicked email. "Despite the increase in distillation over the past few years, bourbon demand still outpaces supply," the company wrote, according to Business Insider. "Bourbon must be matured in new oak barrels and we age many of our barrels for eight to ten years, and some over two decades ... The increase in sales, coupled with the aging process and evaporation loss, leads to a shortage with no end in sight."

In 2013, bourboneer Maker's Mark  announced that it would begin diluting its booze with water to assuage its supply problems. The decision was met with swift pushback, and the company immediately put the kibosh on the plan.

"The unanticipated dramatic growth rate of Maker's Mark is a good problem to have, and we appreciate some of you telling us you'd even put up with occasional shortages. We promise we'll deal with them as best we can," the company wrote in a statement.

Of course, not everyone is convinced. In response to the slew of stories about the bourbon shortage, the Washington Examiner's Joseph Lawler wrote, "The Internet-wide scare appears to be the product of the sensationalization of a few unrelated stories cobbled together to scare an American public that recently has become crazed for bourbon." He argued that should the country's stash of bourbon begin to dwindle, the laws of supply and demand would simply take over.

So what's the deal? Is the bourbon shortage actually real? To get to the bottom of the Great Bourbon Shortage Mystery, Mic spoke with Colin Spoelman, co-founder and master distiller of Kings County Distillery, the first operating whiskey distillery in New York City since prohibition.

According to Spoelman, bourbon lovers should only be worried if their tastes run on the higher end.

"If you wanted to go to the store and buy bourbon, there's definitely no shortage of bourbon on the shelves," he said. "But for some of the more coveted, longer-aged bottles, they're definitely getting harder to find."

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"Certainly the top-shelf [bourbons] are going really crazy, but even some of the more interesting bottom-shelf whiskies are getting hard to find, too," he added. 

Tastes have changed in recent years, and they've begun to focus less on standard bourbon and more on craft whiskies. Part of this has to do with legislative changes — New York, for example, recently loosened restrictions on micro-distilleries, which has allowed an avalanche of new spaces to open up — which has in turn has created a taste for a more specialized product. 

"I think, 20 years ago, people weren't necessarily interested in the niche, expensive, long-aged bourbons," Spoelman told Mic. "A different style of bourbon used to be popular — the sort of younger, Jim Beam [or] Jack Daniels, very straightforward, middle-tier bourbon. Now, small batch, single barrel, about seven to 10 years, is what people are interested in."

But he cautioned against relying exclusively on age when selecting a bottle. "There's kind of an obsession right now with age," he said, but it doesn't always translate into a quality batch. 

In fact, he advised that a shortage of older bourbons may actually present an opportunity to explore the younger types out there. "The conspicuous consumers want to show [that they have] a rare bottle," he said. "They're all chasing one thing, when actually there's really great whiskey hiding in plain sight."

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So there you have it, bourbon fanatics: You likely won't run out of Jim Beam anytime soon, but other types — like Four Roses, Old Charter or George T. Stagg — are dropping like flies. Thanks for nothing, Don Draper. 

h/t Nautilus