Stuff To Freak Out About: Yes, There Really Is A Whiskey Shortage

No, seriously. There is. Not some kind of manufactured, doing-it-for-the-clicks viral/social faux-shortage, but an actual, honest-to-John-Jameson real shortage of good whiskey. Outposts of serious journalism (like Smithsonian Magazine and Esquire) and no less a force than the PR department at Buffalo Trace have come forth and said, with no equivocation, that we, the brown-liquor-loving masses, are drinking whiskey faster than it can be produced and, as a result, a crippling shortage in whiskey is coming. Also, as of this moment, there is very little we can do about it.

Except, of course, to begin hoarding immediately.

So what’s behind this doomsday prediction for professional appreciators of Irish brain lubricant? Science, of course. And economics. And climate change.

See, whiskey–good whiskey–is kind of like the ultimate slow food. It takes years to produce the aged stuff, and even though whiskey distillers are generally pretty good about being able to see into the future and match supply to demand, what none of them saw coming 10 years ago when today’s aged whiskey was first being put to bed was the massive spike in whiskey drinking occurring today.As just one example, the folks at Buffalo Trace note that while bourbon overall is seeing a 5% growth rate (a nice, manageable number with current stock levels), the thirst for premium brands (of which Buffalo Trace is but one) is up something on the order of 20%. Which would’ve been great if, 10 years ago, someone had gone around to all the whiskey producers and told them that they really ought to up their production and storage by 20% to compensate for some mystical time when every hipster worth his mustache and tiny hat would be drinking Redbreast and Pappy like water.

Obviously, no one did that. So we’re left with the stock that was put into the barrels a decade ago, just coming to maturity now. And what’s there is not enough to meet the demand of today’s whiskey enthusiasts.

Oh, but wait. The news gets worse.

In the course of the aging, a whole lot of tonsil-paint is lost to evaporation (the “angel’s share”). And distillers are accustomed to this. It’s one of the reasons why aged whiskey costs more than moonshine. And the longer the aging process, the more whiskey is lost. So science says that there is already going to be less whiskey around the older it gets. And with demand increasing–specifically and catastrophically–for the premium, long-sleeping varieties of pop-skull? Well, that’s when distillers (and whiskey drinkers) begin to panic.

And the problems still aren’t over.

One of the ways to mitigate the shortages (or to at least put a definitive cap on their duration) is to increase production and storage today in anticipation of continued demand in the future. And that’s all well and good–except that we’re also experiencing a shortage of bourbon barrels in the United States. And we’re experiencing a shortage of bourbon barrels coming from the cooperages because they are short on American oak–the wood used to make bourbon barrels. The shortage of wood is a result of the long, shitty winter we just went through, and is expected to last for 12-24 months–meaning that many distilleries are sitting there with spirits in the tanks, waiting to go into barrels, but with no barrels to put the good stuff into.

All of this together adds up to bad news for whiskey drinkers–and American bourbon whiskey drinkers most of all. The shortage is here. It is bad. And it’s going to get worse. Prices will rise. Certain brands will become unavailable in certain regions. And certain magazine food editors of Irish descent and the whiskey-loving persuasion are currently estimating precisely how many bottles will fit in his basement if he were to begin stockpiling right now.

We’re Drinking Whiskey Faster Than Distillers Can Make More [Smithsonian]