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'It's very competitive' | A look inside the world of bourbon hunting

The bourbon market continues to grow as people track down and buy the hard-to-find American-made whiskey at retail prices.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Steve Watkins is one of many Americans on the hunt — the hunt for the rarest bourbons in America.

“I probably go to three or four different liquor stores every single week," Watkins said.

Watkins is a bourbon hunter, someone who tracks down and buys hard-to-find whiskey at retail prices. He's taken his quest from Knoxville to Virginia to track down the best of the best.

“I have just about everything but there’s always brand new releases each year, special editions and things like that," Watkins said.

Otherwise known as 'Bourbon Steve,' he has his own YouTube channel — Bourbon Quest. He posts videos showcasing his love for the American-made drink with a goal to educate and entertain bourbon enthusiasts. 

Watkins said he has more than 500 types of bourbon in his home. Some bottles are empty, some are full and he said he is in the process of trying some of them out.

“There’s definitely some windshield time that has to be put in if you want to be able to hunt bourbon successfully," Watkins said.

Credit: WBIR

So, how do you make it as a successful bourbon hunter?

According to Watkins, it's all about making close connections with your local retail liquor stores owners.

One of his connections includes Cristy's Liquor Store off of Rutledge Pike. There, buyers can find store owner Savan Patel helping his customers, like Watkins, offering weekly specials of rare bourbons.

Credit: WBIR

"As far as going after hard-to-get bourbon, I have a system in place here where I take care of the customer who supports me throughout the year," Patel said. "I sell all these hard-to-get bourbons which have crazy secondary prices going from $500 to up to $2,500."

If a buyer misses out on a specific bottle, they could end up paying ten times its retail cost on the secondary market. 

"It's very competitive," Patel said.

Patel said around 75 people come into his store every day looking for bourbon.

"When I first started 5 years ago, it was not like this," Patel said. "That's the number-one thing bringing customers here, the prices."

When there's a new weekly deal on bourbon, Patel said sometimes people will wait in line for 45 minutes before the store opens.

"Yeah, this stuff is no joke," Patel said. "I find this fun."

Patel said the bourbon market is growing as more people join in on the bourbon hunt.

Credit: WBIR

Knox Whiskey Works head distiller Ryan Dickenson said bourbon is uniquely different from any other alcohol.

"Bourbon can take several years to make," Dickenson said.

There are multiple factors that make bourbon whiskey a singular and distinct spirit. According to the American Bourbon Association, there's five rules bourbon has to live by:

  1. It's Whiskey produced in the United States.
  2. It's made from a minimum of 51% corn, along with a combination of other grains such as rye, wheat and malted barley.
  3. It's distilled at no higher than 160 proof.
  4. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof.
  5. It must be a minimum of 80 proof at bottling.

The American Bourbon Association states for bourbon to be designated “straight bourbon whiskey” it must have aged in new charred oak barrels for a period of at least two years.

Credit: WBIR

"It takes a while but it can be very rewarding," Dickenson said. "Especially if you are involved as the manufacturer, you see your hard work come to life."

No matter what state distillers are in, from California to the Carolinas, as long as they meet the listed requirements, they have a bourbon. 

"It's true, 95% of the bourbon manufactured comes from Kentucky but there's a lot of really good bourbon that comes from here in Tennessee," Dickenson said. "Even some right here in Knoxville."

What's the reason some people may be quick to jump in line for bourbon?

“The FOMO effect, the fear of missing out," Watkins said. "That's what people are afraid of — that bottle is only going to come out, it’s only going to be on the shelf for a matter of sometimes minutes and they don’t want to miss out on that potentially great bourbon."

He said there's a sense of accomplishment in knowing you finally got the rare bourbon you've been waiting for.

Watkins said the hunt can be crazy, but it's all about having fun and not taking it too seriously.

“When you do get that special bottle, open it up. Enjoy it," Watkins said. "Share it with friends and family."

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