The Great Unicorn Chase

How we've been taught that only rare whiskeys are worth the trouble.

If we’re a minute late, we might as well turn around.

It’s a briskly cold winter morning. The sun has barely risen as my wife and I, two whiskey enthusiasts, hop into our SUV and make our way down the freeway, periodically checking the clock on the dashboard.

“Can we make it there before open? If we can’t, we might as well just turn around and go home” I said, as we make the hour-long trek to a small-chain gourmet grocery store in Metro Detroit. Every year – around this time of year – this store will release all of their allocated whiskey, announced with no forewarning, and all at state minimum prices. It’s the only store that we know of that doesn’t gouge the prices on these unicorns. This entire play is a total gamble. Will they release it today? Next week? Next month? Who knows – but the gamble to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on these rare beauties makes the inconvenience worth all the while.

“We should make it just before open” she responds. I take another sip of my coffee to supplement the 6am wake up time. Traffic is light as the world sleeps in on a Saturday, granting us a timely arrival to the grocery store parking lot. 7:58am. As we click the shifter into park and don our masks, we see a man of about 20 or 30 years old, fast-walking into the entrance. The sliding doors open as he continues quickly through the store. Then another walks in. And another. And yet another.

Dread looms over us. We may already be too late.

Time to move. We meander through the fresh produce and gourmet coffee shop, dodging employees with their restocking carts – at a pace that’s not a run – but also not a leisurely walk. We round the bend for the whiskey aisle and are instantly greeted with a line of about 15 people. Immediately we do some mental calculations. Forget the Pappy – we’re too late. No BTAC, either. Probably missed out on the Old Fitz. At 15th place, we’re more likely to grab a Weller of some kind. But that’s fine – still worth the wait to save $100-$200 and to help justify the hour trip.

So we wait. 5 minutes, then 10. The line starts to get curious and idle chatter starts. I strike up a conversation with the gentleman in front of us.

“Any idea if they’re releasing the allocated stuff today? Seems like it, with the line and all” I say, quizzically but semi-confident.

“No idea” he says with a half laugh. “But last year around this time is when they released it, so I showed up just in case”.

“Us too” I respond as I gesture toward my wife. “Hopefully we can grab something good.”

As the line gets more curious and spontaneously social, we keep our ears open for clues as to what anyone knows. One guys describes how he prepped his children’s breakfast last night in anticipation for the early store visit – a simple cereal mise en place – so he could get out the door as quickly as possible this morning.

Another 10 minutes pass and the line gets impatient. One guy says he’s gonna grab an employee and see what’s going on. As he walks back, he doesn’t get back in line. Instead, he makes his way towards the exit. Curious hunters ask the bold Inquirer “what’s the word?” He responds “the guy told me ‘not yet’.” This only causes more confusion. One guy presses the issue. “As in, later today, or..?” to which the Inquirer responds “no idea, but I can’t wait all day.”

The line is suddenly deep in thought. Do we want to abandon it here and head home? Or should we wait? What if they release it in the next hour? How we would wallow in self-hatred for leaving!

Yet, one-by-one, the line dwindles as uncertainty dissuades hunters from pressing on. When we quickly make it to the top 5 in line, we decide we need to be bold and ask for ourselves. We approach a worker close by. “Any chance you guys are releasing the allocated whiskey today?” I ask sheepishly. “No, not today unfortunately” he says while avoiding eye contact. That’s enough evidence for us – can’t imagine the store employee would flat-out lie. Although slightly dejected, we find some solace in a store pick from the whiskey aisle and head out to make the hour-long trip back home.

Chances are you’ve experienced a similar story if you’ve given unicorn bottles your best shot.

How did we get here?

Quite a loaded question but with such a simple answer: Desperation.

The supply and demand of the marketplace has left us all clamoring for these bottles. There aren’t enough to go around so we resort to early morning lines, lottery drawings and always trying to be that much more loyal to the local liquor store than the other guy with the same intentions.

But even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

We’ve come across a handful of shops in our area that had the exact same bottles we were standing in line for that cold, January morning. So why didn’t we just grab those allocated bottles when we were at those other liquor stores? The answer is simple; price gouging has hit an all-time high. And it’s likely to climb even higher. Ask about Pappy 23 and you’re lucky to get an answer under $2,000 – almost a 600% increase in the suggested retail price. Any other enthusiast community wouldn’t tolerate these price hikes. But us whiskey fans are in a bit of a taboo space – for perspective, the very thing we clamor over has something called a ‘sin tax’ applied to it, so we aren’t about to get governmental help anytime soon. In fact, the government has limits on how cheap the product can be, in order to preserve the public health and well-being. From their perspective, the higher the price, well…the better. Makes it harder for an individual to drink themselves silly.

Another contributor to the obsession and desperation? Us, as a community.

Take a look at the most popular posts on Instagram, for example. What do you see? Most of the popular posts feature an allocated bottle of some kind. A collection or ‘shelfie’ of the rarest bottles that we can only dream of getting our hands on. We all want to see what the best bottles are because for most of us, they’re shrouded by mystery. We hear how great they are, but we never get to taste them. We assume they’re worth the ridiculous price increase but in reality, they’re probably only as good as the distillery’s retail price.

Look at some of the most popular accounts on Instagram. Take Danthebourbonman for example, with his over 65k followers, and the type of posts you are likely to see. Taking a look at the 9 most recent posts, each one of them featured an allocated or hard-to-get bottle. Why does Dan do this? Because quite frankly, it gets views. When checking the insights on our own account we noticed that the posts with the most interactions include allocated or unicorn bottles – other than the screencaps of the Homebar app itself.

Bottom line is, there’s a desperation going on that, to the uninitiated, would look totally bananas. Can you imagine if you were outside of the whiskey community and saw the lengths these people were going to? Remove the desperation from the equation and very quickly you’ll notice just how unorthodox our behavior has become. The best thing we can do is try to affect change in order to bring this hysteria to a reasonable, ‘no-5-am-line-campout’ level.

We need to shift our perspective on great whiskey.

We’re not going to stop shop owners from selling bottles at an exorbitant level anytime soon. We’re not going to break the 3-tier system next week. We’re not going to get a press release from Buffalo Trace that says “we suddenly made enough for everyone.” There are a lot of things we cannot do to create a better environment for us hunters.

But there is one thing we can do: we can appreciate and support the bottles that are easily available.

Of course, the bottles I mention here may not be fully available everywhere but they’re also not a known allocated item in many states. Bottles like Old Forester 1920, Jim Beam Bonded, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof or Maker’s Mark 101 are excellent options that are simply overlooked. They are regularly on the shelves and are wonderful bottles, even so far as to be ‘daily drinkers’. We don’t really flinch when we see posts about these bottles on Instagram because they’re not as impressive, but the reality is that we have a better understanding what these bottles taste like, what we could pair them with, and the best way to drink them (neat, on the rocks, etc) because they are more available and thus have more enthusiasts who can share opinions on them. In theory, we should have a better idea on how to optimally enjoy these bottles – much more so than allocated items.

Don’t get me wrong – the unicorn bottles are unicorns for a reason. It’s very likely they are all at the top of the whiskey game because they are absolutely, deliciously unforgettable experiences. But let’s not go too far to get them. I can see people deferring a mortgage payment or defaulting on a student loan payment when they see one of these rare beauties brought from the back room of their local liquor store. And that’s just an unhealthy way to be. To the uninitiated, just the process of standing in the cold, setting up chairs and tents and rushing to the liquor aisle probably looks totally bananas. They probably think we have some screws loose and when I think of how far this has gone, I think they’d be right in that perception.

Let’s flip the script on the unicorn chase. Let’s celebrate the mid-shelfers. Let’s gift and share and enjoy them. In the process, let’s save our hard-earned money and break the cycle of overspending.

Who knows – your own personal unicorn might’ve been right in front of you, the entire time.

Cheers, friends.

Meet the author
Homebar staff member
Kevin is the founder of Homebar.io. His enduring love for trying out different cocktail recipes and home bartending for friends is what led him to create Homebar. In addition to being a (very) amateur mixologist, he’s also a huge whiskey enthusiast and bottle collector. When he’s not voraciously learning about spirits and cocktail-making techniques, you can find him spending time with his family and his Golden Retriever, Molson.


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