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To drink fine bourbon on a budget, hunt 'unicorns'

Scott Keeler/tbt* Some higher priced bourbons are available at Norman\u2019s Liquors and Fine Wines, 5235 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, August 1, 2018, From left to right: Whistle Pig-Farmstock, Whistle Pig-The Boss Hog, Yippee Ki-Yay, High West Distillery-Bourye, Old Fitzgerald- Bottled in Bond, Woodford Reserve- Master\u2019s Collection, Little Book by Freddie Noe, and Kentucky Owl.
Scott Keeler/tbt* Some higher priced bourbons are available at Norman\u2019s Liquors and Fine Wines, 5235 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, August 1, 2018, From left to right: Whistle Pig-Farmstock, Whistle Pig-The Boss Hog, Yippee Ki-Yay, High West Distillery-Bourye, Old Fitzgerald- Bottled in Bond, Woodford Reserve- Master\u2019s Collection, Little Book by Freddie Noe, and Kentucky Owl.
Published Aug. 8, 2018

For more than year, I have chased unicorns.

I've searched the Tampa Bay area. I've hunted in Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland and
Las Vegas. I've walked through dozens of doors, but I often strike out.

I'm not chasing mythical creatures. My unicorns are rare bottles of bourbon that I have only heard of but never seen. I'm not alone. The craze has swept across the nation. Women and younger generations have helped fuel the craze.

"It's very much a social culture," said Fred Minnick, a Kentucky-based editor of Bourbon+ magazine and author of numerous bourbon books. "It's infectious. Bourbon has become their hobby. It's the sport they follow."

As connoisseurs search for limited bottles like Pappy Van Winkle, W.L. Weller Special Reserve and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, even lower-priced bottles are disappearing from shelves. There's a better chance of snow falling in Tampa this month than finding a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle in a store priced under $750. The Van Winkle bourbons are aged in the barrel between 10 and 23 years — making them rare to find.

It's no longer your grandfather's drink.

The craze started from a "perfect storm" more than 20 years ago, Minnick said. That's when the internet took hold alongside distillers pushing bourbon in Japan and Americans wanting more flavors. Other factors include social media and women, he said, noting they make up 30 to 40 percent of bourbon consumers.

"We're drinking more bourbon today than ever before," Minnick said. "Millennials are drinking it. Generation X is drinking it. Every generation is drinking it."

One distiller, Midwest Grain Products of Indiana, produces about 50 different brands sold by other companies. Many consumers think the company on the label produced the spirits. They didn't. Likewise, craft distillers have popped up everywhere to help flood the market with local bourbons.

Like me, thousands of people follow Facebook pages devoted to bourbon. I had to limit notifications because my phone blew up all day. When a person posts that a location has a sought-after bottle in stock, hunters scramble to the store. Bottles are quickly depleted.

By all accounts, the feverish hunt isn't limited to high-end bottles.

Many people either hoard for themselves or clear shelves of bottles priced between $25 and $70, like Eagle Rare, Blanton's and Buffalo Trace. Some people sell those with inflated prices on a secondary market.

Of course, there's ways to find a few unicorns. Most retailers prefer loyalty. I frequent an independent store near St. Petersburg. The unicorns are locked in a room, but the owners always tell me what's in stock. I recently bought a bottle of George T. Stagg. (No, I'm not sharing the location.)

Consider Buffalo Trace, which I've paid between $24 and $26 at Publix, Total Wine & More or at mom-and-pop shops. Last week, a Largo store had four bottles priced at $79.99. I passed. My wife didn't marry a fool.

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"It's purely a supply issue," Minnick said. "Bourbon is in demand in Mexico, Spain and Canada. The distillers are trying to grow markets elsewhere."

The frenzy intensifies when limited-edition bottles hit the market or when distillers release barrel picks. That's when retailers and groups sample several barrels and buy all the bottles. They typically contain a label with the store or group name. Many retailers limit customers to one hard-to-find bottle. Some offer online lotteries or maintain sign-up sheets. I got on a list in December at ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in St. Petersburg.

A clerk called two months ago. I paid about $36 for a bottle of W.L. Weller 12-year.

The price on the secondary market: $275.

Some states hold drawings for rare bottles.

In November, 27,500 Ohio residents entered a contest for Pappy Van Winkle, according to cleveland.com. The Ohio Department of Commerce allowed residents the chance to buy one of 338 bottles. Three of my relatives entered the drawing for me.

I wasn't always this way.

Being a former truck driver, I drank only Miller Lite — the brew enjoyed by blue-collar workers who wear steel-toe boots and sweat to earn a paycheck.

But my taste changed in 2016 when my wife and I became great friends with a retired police sergeant and his wife. His liquor cabinet resembled a small store stuffed with unicorns and exquisite glasses. By sliding samples in front of me, he insisted I expand my palate — in the way that a salty gumshoe squeezes a confession from someone.

It expanded.

My buddy and I now argue over whether my 60 bottles is still a starter collection. It is. I've hauled bourbon home from Denver, Detroit and Cleveland. I'm reading books to learn about small batches, bottled-in-bond and single-barrel bourbons.

Yes, chasing unicorns is magical — and addicting.