According to the new book, “The Big Man of Jim Beam,” Booker’s bourbon was released to the market 27 years ago for $39.99.
Approximately 77 hours ago, I bought Booker’s for $43 per bottle, a price increase of roughly 10 percent—over 27 years. (FWIW, that’s been the price at Prospect Party Center for about a year. Around town it’s $10-$15 higher.)
I, like many this weekend, scrambled to buy some extra bottles given the news that Beam will double the suggested retail price of this legendary, super-premium whiskey to $99 per bottle, a boost of about 100 percent. It also will reduce its annual batch releases from six to four, cutting supply sharply and leaving customers wondering whether retailers will now be on allocation.
Sunday, at Costco on Bardstown Road, where I’ve seen it sold as low as $39.99, the shelf slot for Booker’s was bare. I’m certain it was the same elsewhere. And while that doesn’t mean the supply of pre-$99 Booker’s is gone, it does mean when it hits the shelves, it’ll disappear quickly.
The outrage shared online is understandable and predictable: people accusing Beam of being greedy for capitalizing on the bourbon boom, and cursing its overseas owners for alienating its longtime loyalists who’ve supported the brand for so long.
I’m not fond of the pending change either, but I can’t say I’m angry at Beam. I’m only mystified by this action so late in the game.
Beam has only itself to blame for not raising prices sooner. For heaven’s sake, it’s selling so close to its 1989 release cost that it’s almost laughable. I can’t think of any brand that’s held its product that close to the same price—without changing quality or portion size—for that long. The costs of corn, oak, energy and labor have risen steadily over that time, so why not raise the price in step with those increases as they happen as opposed to raising it by 100 percent now?
When at Prospect Party Center gathering my Booker’s haul, I chatted with owner Jamie Masticola and whiskey writer Fred Minnick about the issue. Both said they believe Beam likely has seen enough of craft whiskey producers selling bottles of relatively young and unproven whiskeys for $70 and up—when its venerable Booker’s sells for so much less. I get that.
But as a whiskey buyer, that affordability also burnished Booker’s value proposition. It gave me every reason not to buy an unknown brand priced 50 percent higher. It’s the same reason I’ve been an Old Forester Signature fan for so long. It’s a challenge to justify buying pricier stuff when $22 per 750ml gets you such a good product.
And yet industry folk say Old Forester also is poised to raise its whiskey prices. It’s tested the market with its recent Whiskey Row series of releases (made from the same base whiskey as Signature), none of which I’ve seen priced below $41, though routinely $10 to $15 more than that. Now sources are telling me the brand’s parent company believes its historic whiskey brand deserves price parity with Maker’s Mark’s base whiskey, which sells for $15-$25 higher than Old Fo’, depending on the retailer.
Yet even if that happens, we’re talking about a much smaller price increase—emotionally and dollar for dollar—than the leap from $50 to $100 for Booker’s. Jacking up Old Forester Signature’s price from $22 to $39 is, while disappointing, still less outrageous than Booker’s jumping from the $50 range to $100. That’s a leap I predict few will make.
Will Beam live to regret such a sharp increase, or will it, after hearing enough public outrage, change course like Maker’s Mark did after announcing it would lower the proof of its base bourbon to stretch supplies? Clearly someone in leadership there saw the error of that decision and reversed it before any watered-down stuff hit the market. And since both are sister companies under ownership of Suntory, I suppose that’s still possible.
Yet I have my doubts that’ll happen, and I have every confidence it’ll harm the Booker’s brand by offending its loyalists. Potentially angering a core customer in hopes of getting a new one at a higher price is always a risky proposition. That’s a risk I bet Booker Noe, the Big Man himself wouldn’t have allowed.