Friday, January 8, 2021

Local, Craft Whiskeys Hold Pride of Place, at Least in My Neighborhood


North Buena Deli & Wine is a joint in my neighborhood. They have good sandwiches and are right next to a good bar, The Bar on Buena. Klein's Bakery and Café is right across the street, so it's a pretty tasty intersection, where Broadway crosses Buena.

All three have online menus, naturally. I was just browsing North Buena's. My interest was primarily sandwiches, but part of my pathology is that I can't look at a liquor store (or bar, or restaurant) and not look at their bourbon list if they have one. It's a pretty obvious truth of retail that you can read a lot into what a retailer chooses to sell. It tells you how they view their business and their actual and prospective customers. The more limited their offering is, the more it tells you.

This may not be everything they stock in the store, but this it what they list online under "Bourbon Whiskey." It's a short list, just six items.

  • Koval Bourbon Whiskey $49.99. (Koval is nearby, maybe a mile west.)
  • FEW Bourbon Whiskey $49.99. (Also local, a few miles north in Evanston.)
  • Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey $34.99
  • Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey $29.99
  • Four Roses Bourbon $24.99 
  • Woodford Reserve Bourbon Whiskey $37.99
Under "Rye Whiskey" they offer two selections.

  • Koval Rye Single Barrel Whiskey $45.99
  • Low and Slow Rock and Rye $29.99 (Not local, but from a small producer in New York. Also not whiskey.)

The most interesting fact is that, on such a limited menu, three of the eight offerings are from local craft distilleries, and their products are the most expensive products on the list. This is where the best craft producers are right now. This store believes its customers want artisan and local, and are willing to pay for it. You will find FEW and Koval products next door at Bar on Buena too. North Buena Deli & Wine also features Koval and FEW gins.

The rest of the bourbon list tells you what national brands their customers are buying, the space in which (at least to this retailer's way of thinking) FEW and Koval play. Bulleit, Woodford and Maker's are high end offerings (but still mainstream) from Diageo, Brown-Forman and Beam Suntory, three of the industry's giants. Most bourbon fans won't be surprised to see the Four Roses name, but might find it curious that it's the so-called 'yellow label' expression, not the more prestigious small batch or single barrel. That's why it's the least expensive bourbon on offer.

People who buy bourbon at North Buena are doing so for convenience, after they get off the #36 bus on their way home, while picking up a Sicilian (Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, Capicola, and Provolone cheese on a 6" or 9” French Roll. Topped off with red roasted peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and our Italian dressing) and some Joe's potato chips. This is Chicago, after all. There are several other places to buy booze within a few blocks in any direction, so this is a neighborhood place with a very definite idea of who its customers are and what they want.

And what they want, in addition to tasty sandwiches, is locally-made craft spirits.


Stacy Thomas said...

I'm as much in favor of new distillers as the next guy, but the prices shown for Koval and FEW are a problem. I've tried both and they are just OK -- but far from the same league as Wild Turkey 101 as an example, or Evan Williams BIB, and at more than twice the price.

Richard Turner said...

In response to Stacy, I can't disagree with the point. I will however mention that the differences between established brands, especially 'line' or 'value' brands, and smaller or craft brands are sometimes the selling point for the crafters. Tasting 'different' and using locally sourced materials are strategies that work within their niche market quite well. In this niche they are not necessarily looking to go "head-to-head" with WT 101 or the other such brands from large producers who have huge advantages in scale and aged stocks. In addition, price/value is certainly dependent upon one's preference, but that determination not the only important one when seeking a "whiskey experience".

Unknown said...

I have to confess that I don't get craft whiskey. I'm happy to support local, small business--if they can provide a product that is at least as good as the big guys, and do that at a reasonable value. In my experience, craft whiskey doesn't check either box.

Craft beer, I get. The craft brewers have brought to the market beers with flavor and character that was utterly lacking in the offerings of the big brewers. Beer drinkers have rightly responded accordingly.

But whiskey? Unlike beer, the big whiskey producers provide stellar offerings, and the value proposition is excellent. I just can't see how mediocre whiskey at premium prices works in that market. It sure doesn't for me. Until the craft guys can produce something for their $40-$50 asking price that is as at east good as,say, Early Times Bonded, I'm not biting.

Unknown said...


Do they? I’ve been seeing this retort for years - that the difference between craft beer and craft whiskey is that mass-produced whiskey has always been good. Really? It’s an absolute lowest-common denominator product, and it has been for decades. Predominantly use the cheapest input - commodity corn. Produce it in the cheapest place - rural Kentucky. Then hype the hell out of it, confuse the consumer with a ridiculous amount of layers of marketing, bottled by who knows whom, owned by who the hell knows, and fire off ever-changing bullshit about the necessary minimum age for what a good bourbon is (when I toured a bunch of KY distilleries in ‘08, it was six years; when I returned in 2012, the minimum for a good bottle had dropped to four years, according to the same tour guides at the same distilleries). I dunno man, maybe you just have had shit craft whiskey.

-Jeff Harner

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jeff.

I don't think the "unknown" commenter is claiming "that mass-produced whiskey has always been good." I think the point is that, on average, whiskey from the big companies is usually better for the cost. The example cited, Early Times Bottled in Bond, is not produced in rural Kentucky. It is produced within the Louisville metro area, in Shivley. It is made by Brown-Forman, a company that is 150 years old, who also bottles the product. Early Times Bonded has very little marketing; most do not even know it exists (compared to, say, Wild Turkey 101). Because it is bonded, it is four years old minimum, and bonded whiskey at four years old has been considered good whiskey since the Bottle in Bond Act from 123 years ago, not 2012. You are absolutely correct with the many issues that you mention from the big companies, but I also know that some of best whiskey out there is about $15 a bottle with no marketing or hype: Very Old Barton, J.T.S. Brown, J.W. Dant.... We know who bottles them, they have always been considered good, and they have always been between 4 and 6 years old. I suppose Bardstown where they are produced can be considered rural Kentucky, but that just adds to transportation and distribution costs; it does not make it produced at the cheapest cost.

Craft beer is either not aged, or minimally aged, so crafters can make an excellent product that is very different and usually better than many mass-produced beers, at only a slightly higher MSRP. Meanwhile, because whiskey is an aged product, and the aging process involves many uncontrollable variables, the mass producers have thousands of barrels to choose from to ensure a good product is available consistently. Craft whiskey does not have that luxury. Thus, I believe most mass-produced whiskey does have a better flavor to cost ratio than most craft whiskey. With beer, it is the other way around.


Crown Point Marc said...

You put best whiskey and JTS Brown in the same sentence. Be careful there.