Now I’m back, and I have quite a few tasting notes to post. But first, a public answer to a question I get now and then via email…
Where do I buy my whisk(e)y?
I’ve blogged about far more whiskies than I have access to via local stores. I have people ask me where I find this stuff, especially the expressions that are only available overseas. I do have some links to online sites on my Whisky Resources page. However, let me discuss in a little more detail my purchasing approach.
For any more “common” expression, especially when it comes to bourbon, I will start out with my local stores. I also check in periodically with my local specialty liquor store for certain special releases, such as the Diageo releases in the Fall.
- Total Wine & More: Here in AZ, this is the best priced big box store. They make their money on wine, offering up many scotch and bourbon expressions not much above their purchase price. I also like it that they have somebody like Greg Tuttle who is active on Twitter as @TotalWine, and has pushed for some in-store scotch tastings. They also have a deal going with Duncan Taylor’s Battlehill brand to offer up some unique one-off expressions, like the Caol Ila 25 year that my wife bought me for Christmas.
- BevMo: I’ll periodically buy from here. There are a couple of expressions that are priced lower than Total Wine, but most are higher. I do have a membership and keep an eye out for coupons or special deals. Recently, they’ve also started offering some interesting looking A.D. Rattray bottlings…their equivalent to the Battlehill expressions at Total Wine.
- Specialty Stores: I really like the idea of supporting smaller, local specialty shops. The best one that I’m aware of here in the Phoenix, AZ area is Sportsman’s Fine Wine and Spirits. I know there are some for whom this would be a really big deal relative to the big box stores, kind of like the anti-Walmart crowd. I do value being able to talk to somebody at the store who is enthusiastic about Scotch or bourbon. Hopefully, your local specialty store will also have tasting events, which are a great way to get familiar with new whiskies. Ultimately, though, I’ll only reach so far on price. If Lagavulin 16 is $70 at the big box and $105 at the specialty store, I’m going to go big box (or mail order) for that one. On the other hand, if the price difference is reasonably small, I’ll pay a bit more and purchase from the specialty store.
- Hole in the wall stores: You know these stores…they’re often located on the “other side of the tracks”, and the sign out front simply says “Liquor.” When it comes to whisk(e)y, they probably sell far more small, flask-shaped bottles for under $10 than they sell Highland Park or Ardbeg. I’ve found some really interesting bottles at these stores, though…expressions that are no longer available at the more popular stores. I found a Dalmore 21, Glenmorangie 15, older dumpy bottles of HP 18, Aberlour a’bunadh Batch 15, and more. One store in particular had obviously purchased an initial stock of scotch around 2006/2007 and had never sold much of it. You can’t find this stuff at BevMo.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time visiting all of these stores, and I now have a pretty good idea in my head which expressions are available where, and who has the best price for a particular brand or even individual expression. Regardless of your stance on specialty vs big box, you should definitely spend some time at your local specialty store and get to know the people, their whiskies, and their pricing model. Sometimes they’ll have prices on certain expressions or brands that even the big box stores can’t touch. Plus, you’re more likely to get useful suggestions for new expressions to try.
If you get great service/advice at your local specialty store, please consider buying there, even if it’s a few dollars more than at BevMo or Total Wine. I mean, I get it if they’re charging 30-40% more and you decide to purchase elsewhere, but don’t run down the street to the big box to save $5 on a $75 bottle they just introduced you to.
U.S. mail order
I’ll go mail order for expressions I can’t find locally, or when the deal is just too good to pass up. Here are a few places I’ve ordered from with much success. If you can order several bottles at once, you really cut down on the shipping cost. However, I’ve tended to be a 1 or 2 bottle at a time buyer. There are deals to be had even with this purchasing approach.
- Shopper’s Vineyard: Subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on Facebook or Twitter to keep tabs on their deals. Sometimes they even go so far as to offer near wholesale prices with free shipping!
- Astor Wines: I purchased Lagavulin 16 from them for $50 plus shipping!
- For Scotch Lovers: Join their newsletter and check out their Whisky Wednesday deals. They’re not all great, but there are some gems in there.
I also know people who have purchased from Beltramo’s, Hi Time Wine, and Binny’s very happily.
International mail order
There was a time a couple of years ago, when the exchange rate was lower, that it was a much easier decision to purchase from the UK. Now, you really have to look for the right deal, and purchase enough bottles to keep the shipping costs in check. Still, there are some expressions you just can’t get in the U.S., and it’s good to know there are trusted sources elsewhere.
- The Whisky Exchange: This is where I started with overseas mail order. They have great people, a HUGE whisky fan/collector for an owner (well, he’s not a huge person, but he’s a significant collector and he knows his whisky), and fantastic service. Their shipping for a single bottle is on the expensive side, but order several and you’ll do fine. Their shipping service is top notch. You can track your shipment, and it’s FAST! Check out their own-bottled expressions under the Single Malts of Scotland or Port Askaig brand names. They have some real winners!
- Loch Fyne Whiskies: Another super high quality store, located in Scotland. I order most of my special one-off editions from them, such as the HP Earl Magnus releases, and the early Kilchoman expressions. They’re very good to their customers. Get on a waiting list for a special release, and they’ll make sure you get it.
- Master of Malt: Another great group of people…true whisky enthusiasts. I didn’t order from them for a long time, as they don’t subtract the UK VAT in the basket when you set up an order. However, I found out that you can just email them and ask for a refund on that portion of the purchase and they’ll credit you. Not ideal, but it worked, and I trust them. My favorite thing about MoM is their sample program…a great way to try before you buy, or try something that you can’t afford a whole bottle of. Also, like The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt bottles some really exciting expressions of their own.
Once you’ve built up your whisky collection to more bottles than you can drink over several years (or for some, in your lifetime), a great way to keep trying new expressions is to get to know other enthusiasts and start trading. I’ve gotten to try some amazing expressions this way. You can also do things like split in on an order and divide bottles up between several people.
Well, there you go…my approach to buying and trading for new expressions on my whisk(e)y discovery journey. Yes, I’ve also gotten some free samples as a blogger, but I’ve purchased or traded for most of my collection. I know there are other great stores out there. If you have a favorite mail order source that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear about it!