On the Bourbon Hunt in Ohio

Why some bottles are hard to find in Central Ohio and what to do about it

Donnie Austin
McClellan’s Pub (6694 Sawmill Road) offers more than 500 whiskeys, including bottles from Old Rip Van Winkle, High West Distillery, W. L. Weller and Blanton’s.

I was first introduced to bourbon when my college roommate Nick and I were at the legendary Purdue bar Harry’s Chocolate Shop, and I asked him what his father, Bob, drank. After two hours of sipping my way through a pour of Maker’s Mark, I was enamored. 

If you’ve been paying attention to bourbon in recent years, as I have, then you know that the spirit has skyrocketed in both popularity and variety. But in Ohio, procuring the specific bottle you want can be a challenge. 

What exactly is bourbon? There are federal regulations to distinguish bourbon from other whiskeys, defining it as a spirit distilled from grain that is at least 51 percent corn before it is aged in new, charred oak barrels. While there are twice as many barrels of bourbon in Kentucky as residents, the spirit can be produced anywhere in the U.S. There are barrels of bourbon sleeping here in Columbus as we speak. 

In recent years, some bourbon brands have seen surges in demand. Distilleries just can’t churn out enough, because the brown stuff takes much longer than clear spirits, wine and beer to come to market. And we’re not just talking about a rare Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year. Bottlings like Blanton’s and Eagle Rare, once mainstays on Ohio’s liquor agency shelves, come and go as quickly as the bourbon chasers hunt them down. The pandemic has ratcheted up the competition even further, with people trading their restaurant and bar spending for higher-end bottles to imbibe safely at home. Many have begun to believe that some of these whiskeys are impossible to find or not even sold in Ohio. 

“Just because a customer doesn’t see it on shelves doesn’t mean we’re not getting it,” says Jim Canepa, Ohio’s Division of Liquor Control superintendent. 

Jim Canepa, Ohio Division of Liquor Control

Ohio is one of 17 control states, meaning the state has a monopoly over the wholesaling (and, in some cases, the retailing) of alcoholic beverages. Ohio Liquor, or OHLQ, is Liquor Control’s partnership with JobsOhio Beverage System that manages the sale of high-proof spirits through 487 contracted agencies in Ohio. 

As a control state, in-state pricing is consistent across retailers and competitive with other states, without inflated prices. But if a control state doesn’t play an active role, the selection available to consumers will be mediocre at best. 

Canepa was appointed to his role in 2017, when limited-release bourbons were sparse and not often on shelves for the intended consumers. As the division has improved sales and marketing practices, the availability of bourbons in Ohio has increased, with producers rewarding Ohioans in both volume and variety. The top manufacturers also have a say in where their products are sold. 

Ohio is competing not only with other states but also other countries for highly sought-after whiskeys. “I’m trying to create a fertile marketplace for the highly allocated bourbon manufacturers, and when they think of where they want to put their products, they think of us. I want the manufacturer to have ease to market and distribution that matches their marketing strategy,” Canepa says. 

So, you want to get hold of the hard-to-find stuff? First, begin by searching the product database at ohlq.com and learn which agencies might have a particular bottle in stock. The platform is updated daily and is expected to become more timely and accurate as OHLQ continues to make improvements throughout 2021, says Lindsey LeBerth, brand manager for the Division of Liquor Control. 

Second, you can join a local bourbon group, sign up for tastings and connect with other whiskey lovers to learn about the array of options and how to get them. Leigh Ann Simms has done it all as founder of the Bourbon Club of Central Ohio and host of Women & Whiskey, among other projects. On top of sharing stories and tastings, members of her small club help each other find rare bottles. “Our club procures whiskey from around the world for our members to taste,” Simms says. “The Women & Whiskey series is an educational experience, and we sample whiskey.” 

Bourbon enthusiasts also hunt for single-barrel offerings. OHLQ adopted a model of acquiring these one-of-a-kind bottlings from the best barrels of premium bourbon makers and selling them at select agencies. In the coming months, these special releases will include Elijah Craig, Russell’s Reserve and OHLQ’s first Ohio selection, from Watershed Distillery. (Full disclosure: I’m a production inventory analyst for Watershed.) 

Plus, there is the upper echelon of bourbons that are extremely scarce but still make their way to Ohio. OHLQ shares these unicorns through lotteries, giving all a chance at the opportunity to purchase a bottle. The last lottery of 2020 consisted of Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the dream team of bourbons.  

Lotteries are a way to sell it fairly, Canepa says. This system avoids rare bottles always going to the same agencies, where flippers might ensure they end up in the secondary market, often at a steep markup. 

If you’re not able to find some of the limited releases through your local agency, bars and restaurants with strong bourbon programs might have it on their backbar. This gives many customers the opportunity to experience a bourbon for the first time without having to chase and invest in a whole bottle. 

“Our goal is to have all the staples but [also] something new that they haven’t tried before,” says Amy Schirtzinger, owner of McClellan’s Pub on Sawmill Road, which boasts a selection of more than 500 whiskeys and a craft kitchen. “I’m able to offer so many unique bourbons because we’re in a control state. Otherwise, I’d be hunting around for bourbons when I need to run my business.” 

There are great bourbons out there, but finding whatever is hot at the moment might require some work, along with a little luck. With about 100,000 entrants vying for last year’s year-end bourbon lottery, I wasn’t selected. And that’s OK. Cheers to those savoring their winnings.