“Hold this,” Bill Thomas whispers as he hands me a bottle of Macallan 18-year scotch that he’s just plucked off the top shelf at a liquor store in Hagerstown, Md. “We’ll talk about it in the car.”
A peanut-sized dust bunny lands in his beard, but he’s too excited to notice.
He grabs three other bottles of whiskey and checks out. Including the $199 bottle of Macallan, the total comes to $660. His girlfriend, Brittany Garrison, a local publicist, and I follow him to the car, which is relatively tidy save for a vintage ceramic decanter clinking around in the back seat.
“This is absolute gold to me,” he bursts out once we’ve shut our doors. “I’m literally overjoyed right now.”
Garrison pulls out her iPhone and searches for “Macallan 18, vintage 1988” on a website that appraises alcohol.
“OK, in 2013 it went for … holy s—!” Garrison says. “Well, this was in Hong Kong. Which is interesting because Asia has started purchasing a lot of American whiskeys in the past couple of …”
“Are you going to tell us or what?” Thomas asks.
“$1,840,” she says.
“I can’t believe this is the first store we hit, and this is what we found,” Thomas says. “Let’s go. It’s already a really good trip.”
Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Thomas’ bar in Adams Morgan, houses more than 1,800 bottles of scotches, bourbons and ryes, making it one of the largest retailers of whiskeys in the Western Hemisphere. That’s still a nip compared to Thomas’ private stash of 4,000 bottles that he stores at his Northwest D.C. home.
The collection is divided into two main categories: dusties (museum-quality bottles from old distilleries so-called for the layer of dust they collect after going unnoticed for so long) and special releases (limited-run, discontinued whiskeys from bigger brands).
In both cases, there’s a finite amount available of these types of whiskey in the world, and the minute you take a sip of one, there’s that much less on the planet.
Because of the whiskeys’ rarity, enthusiasts are willing to pay top dollar through a broker or at auctions. Or, as in Thomas’ case, spend their time “hunting” for them in the wild at liquor stores that sell them at retail prices far below their real-world values. “A lot of the stuff we find has been sitting on the shelf since the ’80s,” Thomas says. “And it’s still priced at $12.99.”
Thomas, 44, searches primarily in D.C. and the surrounding area, though he’s increasingly spending more time in Kentucky. He can’t help but notice that his turf has gotten more crowded over the past two years.
“Back in the day, when you went hunting you expected to find something,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s not guaranteed. You don’t have to know your craft anymore. Anybody can find an old bottle and Google it, and those are the people draining the market.”
Thomas is on a high after his first “kill.” He doesn’t even mind that Garrison, the elected driver for the day, has gotten us turned around. (“I usually navigate because he doesn’t know how to use Google Maps,” she says when she thinks he’s not listening.)
The next liquor store we hit is more manicured than the first, which Thomas worries will mean fewer chances to nab a dusty. He’s right. On the way out, he asks the cashier if he has anything old lying around in the back.
The inquiry gets the two talking about rare alcohols and the rise of whiskey hunters. “You can always tell when they come in,” the cashier says. “Some of them are jerks.” When Thomas mentions he owns Jack Rose, the cashier perks up.
“Come here,” he tells Thomas, motioning to the other end of the counter with his head. He crouches down, pulls out a bottle of Stagg Jr. bourbon second release from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky and places it on the counter.
“Already got it,” Thomas says.
The cashier goes back under and comes up with a coveted Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye whiskey from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.
“Got that one, too.”
We leave empty-handed, but the cashier tips us off to another store nearby. “It’s not exactly a retail gem, but you may know something he has that he doesn’t.”
Domestic whiskey revenue rose 10.1 percent in 2013 over the year before, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. In comparison, vodka revenue was up only 2.2 percent and gin was down 0.6 percent.
“Why do we have a Starbucks on every corner when a Dunkin’ Donuts would have been fine?” asks Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the D.C.-based trade association. “It’s because there’s a flavor revolution going on. People are leaning toward whiskey because they’re interested in products that have flavor,” as opposed to less-complex spirits like vodka.
This is good news to Thomas, because it means a steady stream of customers thirsty for something unique. While most of the bottles he finds in the wild end up in his private stash, he uses some of them to replenish the stock at Jack Rose. But nothing he owns is sacred.
“It’s all meant to be drunk eventually,” he says. “The collection is a library, not a museum.”
The shop recommended by the cashier proves to be a bust. As does the next one we hit. And the next one. We stop at a total of 13 more stores in Hagerstown, which Thomas zeroed in on after an industry friend tipped him off that the town held some good finds.
After replenishing at a roadside deli, we swing by six more shops with varying degrees of success before heading home. We’ve been at this for 71/2 hours, and Thomas is sated for now, with the day’s purchases ending up at just over $1,000.
Long before he had his first sip of whiskey, Thomas collected aluminum cans when he was 7 to make money to spend at the arcade. The son of a major appliance salesman-turned-video-store owner, the Prince George’s County, Md., native grew up with a go-getter attitude.
“My favorite quote is [attributed to] Abraham Lincoln: ‘Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle,’ ” he says.
Thomas opened his first bar — The Blue Room in Adams Morgan, which he later converted into Bourbon — in 1999 with money he earned scalping concert tickets. He also owns Breadsoda and another Bourbon in Glover Park.
Thomas maintains his motives for whiskey hunting are not entirely financial. Rather, he’s more excited to own a little piece of history, and he finds peace while hunting.
“I’m not maximizing my time by doing all of this. I’d be better off at Jack Rose pushing whiskey,” he says. “But sometimes you don’t want to do that. You want solitude. To me, this is relaxation.”
Whiskey enthusiasts have their own vernacular, which they often use in online forums.
Another word for whiskey. “Is that old or new juice,” someone might ask to determine the age of a whiskey.
A bottle of whiskey that has been sitting unnoticed on a shelf for so long that it’s collected a layer of dust.
‘In the wild’
Whiskey scored at a liquor store, often for much less than it would have cost through a broker.
How a whiskey hunter refers to his or her find in the wild.
What a Steal
$114: The total price that Thomas paid for six bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year bourbon he found in a clearance bin in Kentucky a few years ago. (That’s just $19 each.) Today, one of the bottles would sell on the secondary market for around $800 due to its cachet and rarity. A 2-ounce shot of it is available at Jack Rose for $80.
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