Indulge me in a thought exercise, if you would…
Let’s say you’re the owner of an American whiskey distillery. You put up your own capital to buy stills, build rickhouses, procure grains and barrels, and hire folks to help you produce whiskey. After a large financial outlay and several years of waiting, you now have a mature whiskey ready to sell to the public.
In consideration of your own production costs, as well as the selling prices of competing whiskeys with similar specifications, you decide to price this whiskey at… let’s say $85. It’s a success; you sell every bottle, reviews are positive, and distributors come back to you asking for more.
A short time later, you become aware that people are reselling this whiskey for more than your suggested retail price of $85. In some cases, bottles are trading hands for double, even triple this price. What might you conclude?
I can imagine several responses from our hypothetical distillery owner. A brief chuckle and a bemused shaking of the head, perhaps? After all, the initial price was set to guarantee the required profits to (at least) cover the owner’s cost of capital. Once the owner moved all his or her bottles at $85, he or she was presumably made whole, in the sense of having earned the targeted return on investment.
However, this owner is also a businessperson, and the job of a good businessperson is to maximize profitability within the strictures of fair dealing, compliance with applicable laws and regulations, sustainability, and (emphasis here) considering the interest of stakeholders. We’ll return to that last part in a minute.
So, going back to Economics 101, we have our supply and demand graph to consider:
When demand exceeds supply – as it evidently did, in this case – price is the balancing factor. The price rises until demand is impacted, as not everyone can or would spend $100+ for a bottle of whiskey. Classical economic theory would tell us that producers respond to this price signal by producing more, bringing supply and demand back into equilibrium. So, our hypothetical distillery owner might choose to lay down more barrels going forward, so as to grow their stock of saleable mature whiskey in years to come.
However, one can imagine a different response. Let’s say that it is impossible to produce more whiskey due to production constraints or other reasons. Or, let’s imagine that relative scarcity (or the perception thereof) is actually the reason someone is willing to pay $85 or more for this whiskey. In this scenario, the quantity produced is necessarily fixed.
Rather than increasing production, our distillery owner might conclude that he or she underpriced the whiskey at $85, with supporting evidence for this claim coming from the “secondary market” of illicit transactions in Facebook groups and elsewhere. He or she clearly left money on the table, allowing flippers to profit from reselling bottles. Going back to our initial point of departure: the distillery owner took all the risk by putting up his or her capital to build the distillery and produce the whiskey. Why should someone else’s pockets be lined – illegally, at that – at the expense of the distillery owner?
So, what is the “correct” price for this whiskey? $85 was too low, as it turns out. Let’s say – purely for the sake of illustration – that the highest priced bottles traded hands for $170, double the SRP. Is that the correct price? Is the correct price somewhere in between these two?
The classical economist would say that the correct price is whatever the “market” will bear (quotation marks added to indicate that the American whiskey “market” is actually 50 separate markets with legally protected middlemen). However, capitalism has evolved to consider the role of stakeholders, meaning: suppliers, employees, customers, the communities in which the business operates, and so forth.
To isolate but one set of stakeholders: some folks bought this whiskey for $85, opened it, enjoyed it, shared it with friends, etc. Might they be aggrieved the next time around when they see a higher price tag on the same expression? Of course, aggrieved consumers are part and parcel of the whiskey business in the year 2023. Someone (fine: it’s me) will inevitably take to social media or a blog to lament the “good old days” (usually a laughably short time ago, relative to the long history of the whiskey business) when prices were lower, whiskey tasted better, the sun shone brighter, kids respected their elders… OK grandpa, it’s time for your nap.
Thanks for playing along with me throughout this extended prologue. This wasn’t a purely intellectual exercise, as it turns out. Without presuming to know the motives of anyone involved in the building of the Michter’s distillery (owner Joe Magliocco), the production of this whiskey (Master Distiller Dan McKee) or its maturation (Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson), I can imagine that some or all of these concerns were taken into consideration when it came time to set the price of this bottle.
This whiskey – the 2023 release or Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Finish Rye – arrived on my doorstep, which (as you can see from the photo) is currently lousy with pumpkins thanks to the Mrs’ Halloween decorating. It was sent to me by Michter’s, for which they have my kind thanks. They also included a printed copy of the press release heralding this whiskey’s arrival, and noting its suggested retail price of $120.
On seeing this sum, I recalled Matt’s prior review of the 2017 iteration of this expression. I noticed that suggested retail price back then was $85, hence the starting point for the example provided above. How should we feel about this?
The last Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (no toasted finish) I reviewed here carried an SRP of $100. Assuming that is the “correct” price (and disregarding persistent inflationary pressures in the time since I penned that piece), it doesn’t seem outlandish to pay an extra 20% for the two years spent finishing in a toasted barrel.
Snap back to reality: barrel strength aside, toasted barrel finish aside, this is still a very high price for a bottle of NAS rye whiskey. Does Michter’s do things differently – and also at greater expense – than others, in a way that produces special whiskey? I know for a fact that they do. How much is that worth? Time to find out the hard way.
Final specifics, before I get down to tasting. This is barrel number 23G2641, bottled at 109.2 proof (54.6% ABV). It spent an undisclosed amount of time in an original charred barrel before being transferred to a toasted – but not charred – barrel for a 24 month finish. As noted above – but reiterated here in the name of complete transparency – this was provided to me, free of charge, by Michter’s. That won’t influence my notes or score; I’ll be evaluating this on Malt’s price-sensitive scoring framework, as though I paid $120 for it.
Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Finish Rye – Taylor’s Review
Color: Dark chestnut.
On the nose: The toasted cask influence is immediately apparent, as this jumps out of the glass with an intense aroma of marshmallows roasted over a campfire. Beyond this, there’s an intriguing dance between classic rye scents (aloe vera, eucalyptus), darkly sweet notes (caramelized sugar, molasses), and a very heavy aspect that I can only describe as “meatiness.”
In the mouth: This is very sharply focused at first, hitting the tongue with a jet of those pure rye flavors from the nose. These take on a citric cast of tart lime juice as the whiskey moves up the tongue. In comparison to the heft of the nose, this is surprisingly lithe on the palate. That’s not to say that it is at all thin; more like lean and toned. This takes on a texture that is dry, slightly hot, and tannic as it moves into finish; I can feel my entire mouth puckering up as it progresses toward the back of the throat. There’s a momentary, delightful reprise of that toasted marshmallow note before this finishes, leaving little flavor but an intense and persistent heat radiating around the cheeks, gum, and lips.
If this were a streaming service, it would be called “Rye+”. It’s unmistakably rye whiskey, with the toasted finishing barrels used to good effect. They impart a distinctive and wonderful note that I’ve come to associate with this methodology; it’s sweet and warm and… well… toasty.
It’s also challenging whiskey, especially on the palate. The intensity of the texture makes this drink as though it were 120+ proof, rather than the 110 proof bottling strength. ABV hounds will be pleasantly surprised, while those looking for an easier sipper might want to add a bit of water first.
Back to scoring: in light of the high price, this whiskey would have had to be something truly unique in order to justify a positive mark from me. Did it? Without question. I can’t think of another rye whiskey I have tried that delivers this experience. It’s not for everybody, but that’s no knock. This whiskey knows exactly what it wants to be, and it is unabashedly that. It’s also a whiskey that will make experienced sippers sit up and take notice; I can’t wait to share it with friends. As such, a score one point above the middle of the range – corresponding to “Great” on our scoring bands – feels about right.
To paraphrase a disgraced former governor of my state: Michter’s has this thing that’s golden, and they’re just not giving it up for nothing. Their whiskies don’t always hit the mark (for my palate) but, when they do, they tend to argue convincingly for the above average SRP. I continue to watch the distillery’s progress with interest and – judging by the enthusiasm this brand generates – I’m not alone.
As a sanity check, I brought in our resident toasted barrel fanatic Matt Kusek to contribute his notes:
Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Finish Rye – Matt’s Review
Color: Baltic Amber.
On the nose: It’s a few notes away from being perfect in my book. The umami of simmering cola as you get your barbecue sauce ready fills the nose. On another burner caramel is warming. Maybe it’s the holidays approaching but a sugar cookie candle with notes of warming wood in the fireplace come to mind. I really enjoy this.
In the mouth: Burnt s’mores enter. We indeed have been around the fireplace here. Maybe it’s my want of that original marshmallow note that is clouding the tasting; but it’s also hard as the proof is pushing forward through any sweetness or umami that might be there. There is a nice spice combo of clove that finishes with a combo of black pepper and cinnamon but you have to concentrate for it to stay. Another thing that is missing is the signature mouthfeel. I know these whiskies to be thick and creamy and while this has good body and weight to it; it isn’t what I’ve come to expect.
My first botte of Michter’s Toasted Rye was a revelation. At that time, secondary barrels were used from other categories. Rum finished tasted sweet. Red Wine finishes were all tannic and tart for me. Toasted Rye married some of the principles that we love about American whiskey and doubled down on them… meaning they used another barrel to produce flavors we all know and love. This whiskey is no different. It has an amazing nose and a good taste to it; but it fails to live up to the original, and that isn’t a bad thing. At this price I must drop it a point.
Please don’t take this disappointment to mean that it isn’t good whiskey. It drinks like a well-aged bourbon and with a final note I’d be willing to call this a very good whiskey version of Dr. Pepper.
Supply and demand graph courtesy of Brittanica.