How to handle allocated whiskey and the people who chase these products will remain a dominant retail story in 2024.
You know these people. They burst into your store and ask for Blanton’s. They follow around wholesaler trucks, and time their appearances for when they know Buffalo Trace deliveries have arrived. They ask, “Can you take a look in the back?” At a recent National Alcohol Beverage Control Association conference, one famously outspoken NABCA member described these kinds of customers as “batsh#t crazy.”
Other descriptors include: Taters, flippers, whiskey fanatics. Sometimes they’re newer or casual bourbon fans fed up that they cannot find any “unicorn” bottles.
Whatever their background, these are the increasingly large number of people who lust after allocated whiskeys. How did we get here? Covid-19 supercharged an existing bourbon boom. Folks stuck at home joined online whiskey groups and learned about trendy bottles. Facebook Fomo is real. Suddenly, everybody needed Eagle Rare, EH Taylor. Bottles you could routinely find in stock five years ago have disappeared. And that’s to say nothing of brands already hard to find.
How do you deal with batsh#t crazy consumers? Some stores hold lotteries where winning tickets earn you access to buying in-demand bottles. But these programs have run into issues: employees sniping bottles, accusations of rigged outcomes, or improperly handled drawings that lead to questionable results.
Other retailers hide rare products throughout the stores to encourage walking around. Others throw up their hands and simply put them out, saying “First come, first serve,” even if that benefits flippers who track and chase (and sometimes drive) the wholesaler trucks. Some stores incorporate bottles into charitable efforts. For stores with an on-premise license, putting allocated items on the bar for individual pours is a fair way for everyone to have opportunity to enjoy.
An increasingly popular strategy takes the bottles largely out of the equation. Rather than drawing lottery numbers for specific products, retailers randomly assign customers a spot in line. Savvy businesses run multiple lines throughout the day, so that folks don’t camp out overnight. People arrive at their time and take their spot. An employee double checks that the line order is accurate, and then people enter the store, one after another, to buy a limited number of rare bottles. Everyone gets an equal shot at whatever’s still available, in waves of carefully controlled groups. (Better yet, stores will also put out their picks, encouraging purchase of single barrels in addition to allocated SKUs.)
This system seems to result in the fewest number of upset customers. (For now.) However you handle allocated whiskeys, it remains a headache that stores nationwide will work to alleviate in this coming year.
An earlier version of this column printed in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue of Beverage Dynamics magazine.