April 27, 2014 by Bourbon Empire
There’s no denying that American whiskey is a seller’s market right now. The companies that make it are like the proverbial lemonade stand in the middle of the desert, parched customers crawling up to them and taking whatever they can get. Surging demand has outstripped supply and prices have risen. Companies don’t have to work as hard to move a product that everybody wants, and that has given them a kind of leverage against their own customers: take it or leave it, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. Somebody else will buy it.
The most obvious example of whiskey companies giving themselves a break and taking advantage of their situation–and a trend that has been well-covered by many other whiskey blogs–is the dropping of age statements. When it was a buyer’s market and whiskey companies needed to try harder, the age statements were used as a selling point, an extra bit of information they used to entice customers. Now that it’s a seller’s market, they can drop this “feature” without dropping the price. It’s no different than if an auto dealer stopped including radios and air-conditioning as standards but didn’t charge less or give anything else in return.
The horrified cries of whiskey geeks have clogged up a couple percentage points of the blogosphere’s bandwidth. Nevertheless, the complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Companies can get away with it, so they do. The industry counterargument that some barrels are ready in less time than the age statement has some validity–depending on where they sit in the warehouse, barrels age at different rates. Companies don’t want to be limited by an age. I get it.
But arguing that this justifies removing the age statements is ludicrous. There is no way that keeping a useful bit of information from customers, even if that bit of data is an amorphous and sliding variable, somehow does customers a favor. The only thing this maneuver does is allow companies to slowly, over time, reduce the age of whiskey, and keep consumers none the wiser. It’s a seller’s market and they can get away with it.
So I’ve been a little surprised that Heaven Hill’s decision to add a seven-year age statement to Bernheim Wheat Whiskey has received so little attention from people. It’s a welcome move, going against the tide of the industry trend, and deserves more recognition. If companies won’t listen to complaints about age statement omissions, perhaps the best response is to vote with pocketbooks. It’s been a while since I’ve bought Bernheim, but it just shot to the top of my list on principle. Besides, the weather’s warming up and a nice wheat whiskey will fit the bill nicely.