In the West, bourbon supply is stretched, giving boost to scotch, rye

Colorado's take on a classic, The Mountain Manhattan made with Breckenridge Bourbon, distilled over a mile and half high at what's billed as the highest distillery in the world. (Photo by Hudson Lindenberger.)

“My customers are experimenting with a wide swath of high-end whiskeys, when we struggle to get Pappy, Blantons, and such, we steer them towards single malts.“ -- Nate Maston, bar manager at OAK at fourteenth in Boulder.

By HUDSON LINDENBERGER
Colorado Editor / BourbonStory.com 

BOULDER  -- Mark Twain could have been talking about 2014 when he said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Demand for whiskey – especially premium bourbon, but other pours, too – keeps growing. Last year, more than a billion dollars worth of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold overseas, and 18 million cases – about $2.4 billion worth -- were sold in the U.S.

Distillers are struggling to keep up. Some have removed age statements from bottles, choosing to bring out their bourbons sooner by a year or two. Even the venerable Maker’s Mark distillery flirted with, and then abandoned, plans to lower the potency of its bourbon to make it stretch further. And for those that haven’t changed their standards – think Pappy Van Winkle -- outages are becoming common.

But here in Colorado, and elsewhere, it’s not just the makers of the whiskey who are running short. Increasingly, bar managers are aiming to offer expansive, sophisticated bourbon menus – and it’s getting harder to keep the shelves stocked.

“We have a bourbon list with over seventy-five brands and if it was not for our strong relationships we have forged over the years we would struggle too maintain our diverse selection,” said Caroline Johnson, bar manager for the recognized Boulder bourbon hotspot, The West End Tavern, which boasts it has the “most knowledge staff of bar-keepers in the state” and a menu of bourbon, beer and barbecue.

“As little as two to three years ago we could order without issues. Now we get allocations of higher end brands,” Johnson said.

Sometimes even the best connections can’t keep the best bourbon on the shelves in Colorado, adds Nate Maston, bar manager at OAK. ”A member of the family that owns Sazerac, makers of Buffalo Trace bourbon, tried to get us a barrel for the restaurant, but unfortunately their supply is so tight, she could not help us. Her family owns the brand, but even she could not pull liquid out of production.”

Welcome to one of the downsides to the worldwide boom in bourbon: There isn’t always enough to go around.

The shortages are especially pronounced in places like Colorado, where demand for whiskey is rising faster than the allotments distillers are giving the state. Nearly 3.2 million people live in the 12-county Denver-Aurora-Boulder area, and all those thirsty souls aren’t quite enough to make an impression on the big distilleries when it comes time to decide who gets the shipments and who doesn’t.

The Colorado market sometimes loses shipments to other regions, sources at Southern Wine and Spirits, one of the larger distributors of bourbon, confirm.

But if economics teaches us anything it’s that if demand is sufficiently high, thirsty folks will find a way to boost the supply. In Colorado, that has meant getting creative. The state is famous for its abundance of microbreweries and that entrepreneurial spirit is spilling into spirits. Colorado is now home to more than 40 micro distilleries, with several more slated to open this year.

But even the best-known Colorado distilleries, like Stranahan’s, produce very small quantities when compared to such heavy demand for whiskey.

Not every distiller ages its whiskey like the better bourbon-makers tend to, but even so it is going to be a long time before the microdistillers in Colorado are producing enough whiskey – bourbon or otherwise – to give bar managers like Nate Maston a meaningful back up when the premium stuff from Kentucky and elsewhere is tough to get.

For now though, consumers and retailers alike are getting creative as they look for ways to keep interesting options on the shelf, or in their glass. Drinkers in Colorado are embracing rye whiskey, a product left for dead 15 years ago, to the extent that demand is outgrowing the inventories in restaurants and bars, according to Southern Wine and Spirits.

Scotch, too, is appearing on more cocktail lists in Boulder, and across the country, where total single malt scotch revenues were up 14.7 percent last year. OAK has added 10 new offerings in the last four months to keep up with demand. Nate Maston offers this view: “My customers are experimenting with a wide swath of high-end whiskeys, when we struggle to get Pappy, Blantons, and such, we steer them towards single malts.“

So the bottom line for bourbon? In Colorado, drinkers are thirsty for premium bourbon. But if supplies remain tight, they are going to be happy to try something new in their glass – and every year they’re going to have more choices to buy what they want from distilleries located right here.

Hudson Lindenberger is Colorado editor for BourbonStory.com. Follow him on twitter at @hlindenberger or e-mail him at hplindenberger@gmail.com.