The Good Life: The thrill of the chase

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

Last updated on April 17th, 2023 at 01:32 pm

In the ’70s and ’80s, the popularity of bourbon was at a low point, with millions of barrels sitting around, while tequila and vodka became more fashionable. Starting in the early 2000s, that changed, and there is no doubt that bourbon has been steadily gaining fans.

Lately, the chase to acquire heretofore readily available brands has resulted in scarcity, rising prices and crazy numbers on the secondary market. I’ve seen certain rare bottles of bourbon being sold for more than what it would have cost to buy a house in the year I was born. (It is not necessary to cite the low prices of other everyday items way back then. I admit the analogy works best if you don’t think about it too much.) A single highly sought-after bottle can now go for $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 and up.

There are websites and apps that direct their subscribers to the availability of scarce bourbons when they become available. And in June 2022, some guy who worked for the Virginia alcohol control board was charged with selling insider information. Also, check out the Netflix documentary “Heist,” about the famous Buffalo Trace bourbon theft.

Some well-aged and artistically produced bourbons have always been holy-grail finds. Pappy 23. Michters 20. Jefferson Presidential 18. Elijah Craig 23. Baterhouse 20. I’m starting to sound like Peyton Manning barking out calls at the line of scrimmage.

So, what is causing the high prices and absence of availability? Some would say it is the fault of collectors.

It is more complicated than that. In the three-tiered system of makers, distributors and retailers, there are a few factors of supply and demand that ultimately mean when someone will pay big bucks for a single gourmet cupcake, you aren’t going to price it the same as a box of Twinkies.

If you have patience, luck or connections, you can usually find what you want. But some collector’s items don’t always translate to price.

A bottle of Military Special bourbon.

Case in point: I do not have a bottle in my collection of Military Special. That is because it is sold only at United States military exchange stores.

Since the 1940s, when Monumental Distilling in Baltimore started producing it, military personnel have had access to this less than stellar but very affordable bourbon. In 1972, Atlantic Distillers took over, and for a while the Military Special brand came from Heaven Hill. The PX most recently switched to Sazerac, which makes it at their Bartons 1792 distillery.

As an aside, Bartons during World War II produced antiseptic and antifreeze for the military.

Some soldiers would tell you that while the label on the neck of Military Special says “smooth and mellow,” the bourbon doesn’t garner great reviews. Maybe Gomer Pyle’s buddy Duke Slater would have bought it, but your Sargent Carters and Corporal Boyles have access to choices that are a little more familiar.

Military Special is 80 proof, aged between three and four years, and in a 1.75 liter plastic container for often just under $10. You get what you pay for. I’ve also heard it comes in the same bottles used for Zachariah Harris bourbon, which is readily available but not exactly a nuanced option. I’ve tried it. It’s fine if you need to take advantage of the fact that its plastic container will get through a metal detector.

I have some pretty cool military themed bourbons in my collection, some of which are excellent products from distillers or beverage companies that were founded by veterans. And while it has never come across my civilian path, I wouldn’t mind adding a hard-to-find bottle of Military Special to my bourbon wall.

But, if you want me to tell you what I want—what I really, really, want—it would be Arby’s Smoked Bourbon, a collector’s item that sold out online in about a minute in October 2022. I’d pay big bucks for that.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Wauwatosa-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens. ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon’ lifestyle feature appears regularly at

Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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