'Bourbon hunters' scour central Ohio liquor stores for rare products

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
Bourbon hunters line up outside the Chateau Wine & Spirits in Dublin on Oct. 16 in the hopes of snagging some rare bourbon.

More than a dozen people stood in line outside Chateau Wine & Spirits on Sawmill Road in Dublin on a recent Friday morning waiting for the store to open.

Nearly all wore masks and they stood roughly 6 feet apart, extending the line nearly the length of the parking lot from the shop's glass storefront. They shared a common goal: finding rare and high-quality brands of bourbon.

A supply truck arrived at the liquor store earlier that morning, as it does every Friday, bringing new products, and the self-styled bourbon hunters wanted to see if the day's haul included anything unusual or interesting.

Kirk Seman, left, talks to Mike Baker while they wait for the doors to open at Chateu Wine & Spirits in Dublin.

A handful of them arrived more than an hour before the store opened, despite owner Sunny Patel's attempt to discourage lines by putting products on the shelves throughout the day rather than all at once.

For many of the bourbon enthusiasts who showed up at Chateau Wine & Spirits, an hour or so in line in front of a strip mall or grocery store is a regular occurrence. And some said they are even willing to wait longer, as rare products are put on the shelves.

Not everyone has that patience.

"Last week I was told to wait another hour," said Kirk Seman, who lives in Dublin. He decided not to stick around.

Jason Callori, 43, of Dublin was among those waiting. He called himself a "seasoned veteran" of bourbon hunting, and hosts a YouTube channel called Mash and Drum on which he discusses whiskey and cigars.

"It seems like it's gotten crazier every year," he said.

Callori and others who stood in line said they know hunters who have waited in front of liquor and grocery stores for as much as 24 hours to get their hands on something rare. Those waiting for Chateau to open said they didn't have any specific targets in mind, but wanted to see what was available.

Bourbon hunters look for rare editions of brand names such as Blanton's, Pappy Van Winkel, Buffalo Trace or Henry McKenna, which can cost well over $100 per bottle.

What they find was pre-determined by the state of Ohio.

JobsOhio Beverage Systems owns the liquor bottles sold in Ohio stores. Retailers sell those bottles on consignment, taking 6% commission for retail sales and a 4% commission for sales to bars and restaurants.

Suppliers who sell to JobsOhio Beverage Systems decide what stores receive rare products based on prior demand, said Mikaela Hunt, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Commerce, which oversees the Division of Liquor Control.

"The supplier reviews total bourbon sales at each store and suggests placement at stores that sell bourbon well," she said. "We do have oversight to this process and will, at times, spread the allocation to more stores. But it always comes back to what our data shows."

This level of state control is one of the most contentious aspects of Ohio's liquor industry, which some consumers have argued limits choice.

Consumers "are locked into the products (the state) feels are best as well as the prices they want to dictate, rather than what the market wants, which leads to secondary bourbon markets with inflated prices," said Mark Roehl, who runs the Columbus Bourbon blog.

But Hunt said regulating prices keeps rare products affordable and gives more people a chance to buy them.

"Because Ohio has cultivated one of the top four domestic Bourbon markets in the US, the suppliers of the limited, high-demand products give us a first choice and more product than they do to other states," she said.

But for bourbon lovers seeking that rare bottle of Eagle Rare, the only way to get it may be to line up when the truck arrives. 

Seman chatted with a fellow enthusiast about their favorite bourbon styles as he waited for Chateau to open. Those conversations are part of the appeal, he said.

"You learn about it, and word of mouth helps (in finding rare products)," he said. "You learn where to find things."

Jason Callori, right, of Dublin, and friend Scott Page of Milwaukee were among more than a dozen people waiting for Chateau Wine & Spirits to open in Dublin recently.

Patel said he discourages customers from waiting in line, but some show up anyway.

"Since the (coronavirus) pandemic started, we are not allowed to put products out and make it an event, like we did before," he said. "Every two hours, three hours, we put it on the shelf."

The experience was largely about the thrill of finding something interesting or unique, which makes it worth the wait, several of the hunters said.

"It's like an Easter egg hunt," said Andrea Stoltz, who lives in nearby Powell and was the second person in line at Chateau.

Not everyone approves of bourbon hunters' tactics. Some bourbon aficionados believe line-waiters give bourbon fans a bad name and deny others the chance for rare fines.

"People who are working at that time or can't be at the very specific location at the very specific time are out of luck," Roehl said.

But arriving early is sometimes the only way to find rare brands at affordable prices, Callori said.

"You have guys who are buying it and selling it on the secondary market for two or three times the cost," he said.