What do you think you deserve?
I will be considering the concept of “entitlement” today, and particularly its relevance to whiskey culture. This meditation was prompted by a comment that caught my attention and got me thinking.
My friend David Jennings, aka Rare Bird 101, recently tweeted “Bourbon… the land of entitlement.” While this may seem cryptic to some, I immediately understood what he was getting at, or think I did, at least.
The bourbon landscape has undergone shifts in the last few decades that, cumulatively, feel tectonic. Consider the 80’s, when the likes of Booker and Elmer and Jimmy and Parker were tasked with shaking off bourbon’s image as grandpa’s rocking chair sipper of choice. Fast forward 40 years, and unknown upstart NDPs can slap a $100+ price tag on ornate bottles of sourced whiskey and get people clamoring to buy them.
Demand exploded, supply failed to keep pace, and so we’ve entered the era of allocations, the “secondary market,” counterfeiting, pay-to-play shenanigans (how many end caps full of Wheatley vodka have you seen?), and endless complaining from all precincts.
It is this latter phenomenon that has drawn the charge of entitlement. I’m a whiskey consumer myself, so I understand the frustration felt when a previously ubiquitous bottle becomes unobtainable or (more likely) obtainable only through exorbitantly overpaying. I derive no comfort from (or even give any credence to) the idea that the marked-up prices on retail shelves and in Facebook groups represent the invisible hand of the efficient free market, as imagined by Adam Smith.
However, I have managed, for the most part, to embrace a serene acceptance of things outside my control, one of which is bourbon availability. Some people in this community aren’t so zen, evinced by their responses to the provocation of seeing others securing bottles that they have themselves been unable to lay hands on. It’s a slippery slope from “Lucky you!” to “I wish I was as lucky as you!” to “Not everyone can be lucky enough to have your connections!” to “Only the people with connections get the good bottles, and the rest of us are left out.”
I have yet to learn of anyone who managed to get an allocated bottle by complaining about it on the internet, though feel free to correct me in the comments section if this has been a fruitful strategy for you. In addition to being ineffective, this kvetching comes across as unpleasant and churlish and, yes, entitled.
The debate about entitlement rages well beyond the whiskeyverse. Numerous articles have been written about the perceived entitlement of whatever the current generation of young adults is being called, often from the perspective of their elders. In turn, Gen Z/millennials are quick to point out that these same elders expect to be supported in retirement by a government program that may be underfunded to the point of insolvency (thanks to decades of low tax policy, from which these elders themselves benefited), which feels pretty… entitled. Without straying too far into politics, it’s clear that whiskey remains a microcosm of society at large, and is therefore wrestling with some of the same dilemmas as society more broadly.
The thorny topic of pricing – and, as a consequence, profits – is another nationwide debate that has its mirror image inside whiskey. Off the top of my head, I’m able to think of half a dozen expressions that have either had the SRP raised outright or which have been “premiumized” with minor tweaks to their specifications and relaunched at a higher price point. Whiskey drinkers that relied on the earlier budget versions of these expressions typically waste no time in organizing themselves into a whiny Greek chorus decrying the greed of the producers.
Do the distilleries not have their own grounds for objection, seeing the pockets of flippers lined by reselling (often illegally) bottles for multiples of their cost? If secondary market prices really represent the free market’s assessment of supply and demand (and, to once again be clear, I don’t believe that they do), why should the producers undercut themselves by pricing their most coveted releases at a discount to their “fair value?” Aren’t the folks who actually risked their capital to produce the stuff entitled to all the money made from it?
Many of these threads weave their way through Michter’s press release for the release of their 10 year old rye whiskey, which begins:
“As Michter’s continues to face inventory constraints due to strong demand, the company is taking steps to expand capacity responsibly.”
The release then goes on to detail the specific investments being made, including additional fermentation tanks, expanded bottling operations, and the running of the company’s Shively plant 24/7. However, the echoes of flummoxed fans’ protestations are audible elsewhere in the release, such as in this passage:
“’We recognize the frustration of some of our supporters as they encounter challenges in finding certain Michter’s releases on the shelf. We want our loyal Michter’s drinkers to know we are trying to continue to invest in the growth of the brand while maintaining the exceptional level of our whiskeys,’ commented Andrea Wilson, Michter’s Master of Maturation.”
They go further, adding:
“For over 20 years Michter’s Executive Vice President Steve Ziegler has been tasked with allocating the Kentucky whiskeys offered by Michter’s to the company’s distributors and importers. ‘My job was a lot easier years ago when we felt lucky to sell 50 three bottle packs nationally in a month,’ observed Ziegler. ‘We are still quite small compared to many other whiskey companies. Our Master Distiller Dan McKee and our Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson decide when specific barrels are aged to their standards and ready to release, and I do my best to spread that whiskey around to our customers. Unfortunately, what we release simply is not enough to meet demand right now, and we are addressing the shortfall without cutting corners.’”
What’s certainly not helping supply meet demand is the fact that Michter’s generously sends me some of their bottles. For my part, I try to distribute them to friends and acquaintances who otherwise would not get the chance to try them. For example, the last of my prior bottle of 10 year rye was donated to Malt’s own Ryan Andrews, who needed an appropriate whiskey to toast his tenth wedding anniversary (congrats to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews). So, don’t bring your entitled complaining to me now, you hear?
While I receive these whiskeys free of charge, I do keep their prices in mind when reviewing them. Michter’s 10 year bourbon carries a suggested retail price of $185 for a 750 ml bottle, which jumps to $200 when considering the 10 year Rye (an increase from last year’s $185, it bears noting). All that aforementioned investment comes with a cost and, like any business, it is ultimately borne by us: the customers.
Today, I’ll be pitting these pricy potables against one another in a “Battle of the 10 Year Olds,” which sounds like a grade school martial arts competition. I’ll be considering these on their own merits, and also relative to one another, bearing in mind the hefty cost for the purposes of our price-sensitive scoring bands.
Starting with the bourbon: this is 10 year old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, from barrel #23A0270. It comes to us at 94.4 proof (47.2% ABV). As noted above, SRP is $185.
Michter’s 10 Year Old Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-dark tawny orange.
On the nose: This is one of the best Michter’s bourbons I have ever sniffed, harkening back to epic whiskeys of yore from the likes of Stitzel Weller. It jumps out of the glass with a robust punch of butterscotch, married to the hallmark Michter’s note of apricot, presented here in its most fleshy and ripest form. This moves via a channel of mocha and limestone toward some really intriguing, darker accents of bitumen, fresh cut tobacco, and tarragon, before turning abruptly toward the airy sweetness of confectioners sugar. I can’t wait to taste this.
In the mouth: This has an incredible heft to start, feeling almost meaty in the front of the mouth. That sensation is leavened by an almost effervescent note of citrus, orange specifically, that propels this toward the middle of the mouth. There, the whiskey rounds out to once again express that initial butterscotch note from the nose, which is quickly entwined by herbaceous tendrils of eucalyptus, thyme, and rosemary once again. Floral perfume and exotic incense flavors carry this into the finish, this tacks lean and, in an echo of the nose’s progression, ends with a drying, stony note accented by a very gentle sweetness.
Prior to nosing or tasting this, I was prepared to have to heavily caveat any positive impressions by countering that this didn’t quite justify the astronomical price. I was wrong. $185 should buy you a hell of a bourbon, and this is one hell of a bourbon. I’d be shocked to learn that this is actually a 10 year barrel; I suspect an age at least a few years more senior. This has intensity, depth, and complexity to rival some of the best whiskies – or even wines – that I have ever tried. It appeals to both my Apollonian and Dionysian inclinations; it’s intellectually fascinating, but just a pleasure to drink hedonistically. Would I pay my own dollars for a bottle of this? Every time. It’s just that good, hence a score corresponding to “Exceptional” on our scoring bands.
A tough act to follow, perhaps, but onto the rye nonetheless! Frank previously reviewed the 2022 release of the 10 year rye; I chipped in tasting notes for that excellent article, which included an in-depth conversation with Andrea. Please review the specifics contained therein if you’re interested. As for this bottle: coming from barrel #23C0875, it is 92.8 proof (46.4% ABV).
Michter’s 10 Year Old Rye – Review
Color: Similar medium-gold orange, less tawny, and perhaps a shade lighter.
On the nose: Whereas the bourbon barged into the nose, this tiptoes elegantly, teasing only aromatic glimpses at first. This is unmistakably a rye, but wrapped in a gossamer blanket of creamy vanilla sweetness. Inhaling deeply, I get a meatiness to this as well, but in much more subtle, understated form. Allowing some time to adjust, I start to pick up on a bit of rich fruitiness – apricots, yes, but also clementines – expressed with extreme modesty. Let’s see if the palate is similarly demure?
In the mouth: Starts softly as well and, to be honest, a little dilute. There’s a steady improvement as this moves towad the middle of the mouth, though, as the whiskey rounds out and takes on more of a fruity aspect. The most forceful this gets is in the midpalate and into the finish, where the rye most confidently asserts itself in the form of a tingly, spicy note of black pepper. The whiskey fades abruptly, unfortunately, leaving behind some green and stalky notes as a lone reminiscence of its presence.
Whereas the bourbon was an overwhelming tour de force, I felt like I had to work very hard to get much out of this rye, and not in a good way. I appreciate a subtle whiskey, and this is definitely subtle. However, there are parts where it feels as though the rye wants for something to say for itself. There are no flaws, just lulls in the conversation.
In the way that I’d be an enthusiastic buyer of the bourbon, I’d confidently pass on the rye at SRP. Again, not bad whiskey, just not quite to my tastes, especially for the price. To account for that, I am awarding a score below the midpoint of the range.
Once again, thanks to the kind folks at Michter’s for providing these bottles. Of all the things to complain about in whiskey, the quality of Michter’s bourbon isn’t one of them. Hopefully my honest assessment of the rye’s merits (and the resultant score) demonstrate that my integrity isn’t a cause for griping either. Some may disagree with my conclusions, but (as I’m fond of saying) everyone is entitled to my opinion.
This is an interesting piece and I learned several things I did not know previously. Where I live (Nova Scotia, Canada) Michters used to be available – I remember seeing at least 3 or 4 different types on the shelf – and I bought two of them that I recall just a few years ago, their “American whisky” and the Sour Mash variety, in their NAS “star” lineup. They were OK for what they were and not priced at outrageous levels (I believe around $70CAN) but even at that I did not feel they were good value in this market, especially considering the NAS status and relatively low proof point. Of course they were perhaps 1/3rd of the price that the higher-line ones in your review now go for, which I don’t recall ever being offered here. Now all Michters products of any sort have vanished from stores here. From the sounds of how the company is attempting to meet demand I suspect we may never see it here again.
Appreciate the comments, Greg. The Michter’s US*1 range (Bourbon, Rye, Sour Mash, and American Whiskey) sells for about US$50 here in Chicago, and bottles are widely available. Given the abundance of low-cost competition from the likes of Heaven Hill, Old Forester, Wild Turkey, and others, I don’t typically pick these up as daily sippers. However, going up the range (as was the case here) can get you some phenomenal whiskey, though at a cost that bears keeping in mind. Cheers!