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Even Bourbon Can Evolve
Forget about those barrel picks from the nerds at your local whiskey club. There's a new wave of American 'négociants' who are simply better at it.
I don’t write about it often, but I probably drink as much bourbon as any other spirit. From a shot of Jim Beam to go with my PBR in the classic Philly “citywide special” to a post-writing tipple of Wild Turkey Rare Breed or Elijah Craig 12-year-old to something much more exclusive poured by friends.
I am particularly fortunate to have a friend, David Avedissian, who has an astonishing collection of American whiskey. Though David himself has never spent more than $200 on a bottle of bourbon, his collection has benefited from the past decade’s madness of rising bourbon prices. I wrote about David’s collection in 2021 (for a strange site called Otis, which was attemping to become “the stock market for culture”):
Besides his 15 bottles of George T. Stagg, there are cases of Elmer T. Lee worth $500 each, William Larue Wellers that now sell for $2,000 each, Jefferson Presidential 17-year-olds worth more than $5,000 apiece (“that is the best whiskey you will ever taste” says Avedissian, “it is sublime”) and a 16-year-old A.H. Hirsch (made in 1974) with a gold wax seal that’s been valued at around $15,000.
And then there are his 70 or so bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, the unicorn of bourbons. Avedissian has a mix of 10-, 12-, 15-, and 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. The old rule of thumb in Pappy pricing had been roughly $100 per year of age. In 2018, a 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle was auctioned at $20,000. But even that is an old calculation. The ceiling right now seems limitless for coveted bottles.
Since David’s office is right below mine, let’s just say I occasionally get to taste some very special, very expensive bourbons during happy hour. During one of those happy hours not too long ago, I overheard a phone call in which David fielded an offer from the owner of a famous whiskey bar, who was looking to restock after being depleted during the pandemic. That offer was $80,000 for a mere fraction of David’s collection. He declined the offer.
Now, we can debate all day about whether or not coveted bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle are “worth” their inflated price tag (in my opinion, taste-wise, they’re usually not). But from purely an investment point of view, their status is indisputable. “Scarcity matters,” David says. “Though the demand and scarcity sometimes feels artificial.”
That scarcity is often created at the local level, with shops and bars making “one-of-a-kind” barrel selections. These days, private whiskey clubs, with a few dozen members, will combine buying power to select special barrels direct from distillers. Those barrels become a special limited run of a couple hundred bottles for club members, with some of the excess allocation going to a local retailer. Talk about manufactured scarcity!
The appeal of barrel picks to collectors is easy to understand. Selecting your own special whiskey feels more dynamic than, say, collecting wine—you get to be part of the curation process! But by now, this kind of private barrel selection is a little overdone. “Barrel programs really became a thing around 2010,” David says. “Now, there’s too many people doing it. Most stores are not getting the great barrel picks anymore. No offense, and I don’t want to sound like a snob, but I don’t need a club to tell me where to run around and buy whiskey.”
Beyond the sameness of club picks, most of these barrel selections come from the same big distillers—despite the exponential growth of craft whiskey distilling across the country. There is great whiskey being made in nearly every state. What American whiskey has needed for some time is what exists in places like Cognac and Armagnac—a class of professional barrel hunters. Pardon my French, but American whiskey needs better quality négociants.
Enter Lost Lantern, an honest-to-goodness, barrel-hunting whiskey négociant. Of course, Lost Lantern sensibly calls itself an “independent bottler,” in plain American English.
Based in Vermont, Lost Lantern’s founders have serious credentials as spirits tasters and curators: Nora Ganley-Roper is a former sales manager at Astor Wine & Spirits, one of the country’s top spirits retailers; Adam Polonski was senior whisky specialist at Whisky Advocate. (Polonski also gets bonus points for being a fellow University of Vermont alum).
They’re whiskey nerds, and they’ve traversed the country, tasting and hunting down American whiskey barrels from craft distillers that most people haven’t yet discovered. They also have a deep commitment to transparency, similar to importers such as PM Spirits (another Everyday Drinking fave). This year, Lost Lantern was named Independent Bottler of the Year at the global Icons of Whisky Awards in London.
I’ve tasted a number of interesting Lost Lantern selections over the past few months, including American single malts from distilleries such as Balcones in Texas and Whiskey Del Bac in Arizona, as well as Lost Lantern’s own blended American Vatted Malt.
But this summer, Lost Lantern has turned its attention to bourbon, releasing eight new bottlings, including six single casks, one single-distillery blend, and the company’s own blend. The whiskey in this “Summer of Bourbon” release comes from distillers across the country: Frey Ranch in Nevada, New Riff in Kentucky, Still Austin in Texas, Boulder Spirits in Colorado, and Ironroot Republic in Texas, and Tom’s Foolery in Ohio. “The bourbon world has transformed, and we want to showcase the incredible quality and ingenuity coming from all over the country,” Polonski says.
I recently did a tasting of Lost Lantern’s eight new bourbons with some whiskey friends, including David, and below are my favorites. I highly recommend a few of these, but they’re limited edition (some as few as 150 bottles) and they go on sale tomorrow (Wednesday). I can’t promise they’ll be available for long. Lost Lantern tells me that if you sign up for their newsletter, you can get early access at noon EST.
Three Excellent ‘Négociant’ Bourbons
Lost Lantern ‘Soaring Spice’ Frey Ranch Distillery Nevada Straight Bourbon (63.8% abv), $100.
It’s all about fours: 4-year-old whiskey from four grains, made from a blend of four barrels. Super unique notes of evergreen, mint, clove, fresh-cut flower, along with warm citrus and pastry dough. Honestly, steal at $100. (For those who like even higher proof (68.6%!) check out the single-cask bottling from Frey Ranch, too).
My personal favorite of the tasting comes from one of Kentucky’s most exciting new distilleries. Made from 65% corn, 30% rye, and 5% malted barley, and aged 4 years, it’s super drinkable with spicy notes of licorice, cardamom, and a bit of mesquite, balanced by pastry notes, and a wonderful, long finish.
The lowest proof in the series, aged for 4 years and made from 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley. Woody but attractive, a touch of smoke, warm cocoa and vanilla. This, for me, is a lovely sipper, that’s nice even over ice.