Allocations: The Hunted & The Hunters
BY ETHAN KELLEY
Unicorn bottles, as they are known, refer to bottles that are notoriously difficult to find. Just like Captain Ahab, unicorns vary from person to person, or rather hunter to hunter. In many cases, unicorn bottles refer to those special pours that are highly sought after, limited in release, and difficult to spot in the wild. The brave souls that take on retail pricing and weekend mall traffic are called hunters and, unlike the rest of us, they know where those particular stores are and where a unicorn might be found. Those unique shops with an almost clandestine reputation for getting the good stuff are referred to as honey holes. Thanks to social media and a few too many loose lips, these stores can be swarmed by unicorn hunters if things aren’t kept quiet, making the task of getting a great bottle even more difficult.
Over the past few years, the allocated bourbon market has accelerated beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Many bourbons on the market today have been labeled as ‘allocated’, which means distributors have throttled the sales down per customer, going so far as to withhold sales completely if the retailer is not deemed worthy enough. While there are questions about the legality of such practices, the simple reality is that it occurs. These allocated items were commonplace in recent history and still are in other markets. Blanton’s is a perfect example of this, as is Weller.
Remarkably the prices of these unicorn bottles have not gone up the way someone would expect, at least on the wholesale level (the cost from the distillery to the distributor). However, some more aggressive retailers have raised the prices and are now trying to sell some of the more highly allocated bottles, like Pappy Van Winkle or the Antique Collection, at retail for a similar price as you would see on the secondary market.
This is where we see the hunter in his element, scouring the land looking for these allocated bottles at a fair price. A good hunter can find retailers who charge an honest and transparent markup, and when they do, they swoop in to buy up all the unicorns. Allocated bottles are not always in the premium category, let alone the luxury tier, but savvy marketers can hit sales targets while simultaneously creating stunning levels of FOMO and attracting significant press and social media impact, all for free. Sometimes the resulting inflation is justified, and sometimes it isn’t.
The key for a Bourbon hunter is to know the difference. Does the bottle or Unicorn have some sort of lineage? Perhaps a very limited release of something more pedestrian, i.e., the EH Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving. When a new brand has tons of hype and early successes, perhaps it is worth the gamble to pick one up to put aside, something like a Smoke Wagon. Then, of course, there are the standards that always sell, like Blue Chip stocks, bottles such as limited release Macallan or Stagg.
We can see what kind of hunters they are, not just by the caliber of their trophies but rather by what they do with them. The hunters who go home and list their cache at astronomical prices are called flippers; they are in it for the money only. Then you have your collectors, who understand the value and may look at the bottle as an investment or to complete a set. Lastly, you have the people that go home and drink it; we call those people friends.