Josh Horn's Zeal for BourbonMay 27, 2022 03:27PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Josh Horn pursues coveted varieties of bourbon with the excitement and cunning of a hunter on the prowl for a trophy mount. The Omaha resident described tracking down so-called “unicorn” bourbons as “the thrill of the chase.”
Horn doesn’t consider himself a bourbon expert, but he shares his undisguised passion with fellow aficionados and hobbyists of America’s designated whiskey.
He founded the Bourbon Lovers Omaha affinity group. Horn cultivated his first fellow spirit hunters in neighbors and friends Chris Wurtele, Dan McCrills, and Chad Wilcox. The group later added Jason Enghauser. In two-and-a-half years, the official Facebook page membership has grown to more than 3,600. While the large group has gathered almost solely online, with COVID-19 restrictions easing, Horn looks forward to working with a retailer to have a Bourbon Lovers Omaha private label barrel distilled for members to purchase and drink. Bourbon Lovers blind tastings and other social gatherings may be in the group’s future.
Much of the allure of bourbon is the scarcity and rarity of certain flavors or brands, Horn said. “I think a lot of it is people want what they can’t have. And there’s some collectors that just want to say, ‘Hey, I have this and I’ll never open it.’ Some retail liquor stores have a great collection, but put a price tag on so high that no one’s going to buy it, so it just sits on the shelf.”
Laurie Hellbusch, owner of Spirit World in Omaha, finds this fandom fascinating and puzzling. “The popularity around bourbon is unlike any trend I’ve seen. We have customers who collect wine, scotch, other products…but bourbon has sparked a collector’s mindset that is unique. With other categories of wine and spirits, people experiment within the category and find what they like, then pursue products around those interests. Bourbon connoisseurs seem to be much more heavily influenced by social media, marketing, and hype surrounding particular brands.”
Horn doesn’t believe in simply hoarding or displaying a personal bourbon stock, but, he conceded, “When I find a special bottle…I’ll wait for a special occasion. But, if I have someone over, pretty much any bottle in my collection is open and if it’s not, I’m willing to open it and share it.”
After all, cracking open a bottle to savor the contents is the point for true bourbon lovers, he said.
As with any product where demand far outstrips supply and production occurs in small batches, the most prized, hard-to-find bourbons can be $200-plus per bottle. A Michter’s 25-year bourbon 2020 was recently available online for $10,000.
“Some of that thrill of the hunt is to find something good at a low retail price,” Horn noted. “When you find something you like you naturally want to try that again, but with bourbon there is a possibility you can’t find it. There’s some that I’ve had that I’ve never seen a bottle for sale. It makes for an unattainable gem everybody wants.”
“Many bourbon hunters stand in long lines, participate in lotteries, or spend multiples of regular retail prices for these products on the secondary market without ever even tasting it,” Hellbusch said. “Eventually, supply will catch up with demand. It will be interesting to see if the popularity is still there or people move on to something else.”
No two bourbons are alike.
“Every single barrel of bourbon has different characteristics based on where it was stored, what years it was stored,” Horn said.
Bourbon shares some traits with wine. People ascribe all sorts of undertones to it. The more it breathes, the more its accents open up. An initial sip is advised to cleanse the palette before a snort. Some enjoy sipping it on the rocks. Others prefer drinking it neat.
As for his own preferences, Horn favors bourbon with a higher alcohol content that still goes down smooth. Sharp without too much bite. Like many fans, he’s hooked on the “earthy, spicy” flavor profile.
Like an addict forever chasing that first fix, Horn said once smitten, bourbon lovers crave repeating that virgin seduction.
On a work trip down South he discovered a certain Buffalo Trace. He tried everywhere to find it here with no luck. However, in the process he got turned onto a new favorite, Eagle Rare, made more special by its single barrel provenance. He went back to purchase it, but it was sold out and “even to this day,” he said, “I’m still looking for that same taste.”
That particular barrel of Eagle Rare was sampled and selected by Spirit World, which sometimes buys a barrel of special bourbon. Those special barrels produce about 200 bottles, and once they are sold, they are gone. Each barrel’s specific aging-storage gives these special bourbons a never-to-be repeated flavor.
“At the time, I had no clue it would be something I would never find again,” Horn said.
His search for rare bourbons today focuses on the E.H. Taylor line, Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel, the Weller line, Stagg Jr., Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee, Four Rose Limited Editions, and Michter’s aged offering, Booker’s.
There’s no telling when a store will get bourbons that enjoy cachet. Nebraska’s relatively small population means it’s only allocated limited amounts of bourbon: The rarer the variety, the smaller the allocation.
His group’s FB page posts pics from bottle kills, where the last bottle of a certain variety is enjoyed.
The kills are meant to celebrate that moment of, “Hey, once this is gone, there is a possibility you will never have that again.”
Search @BourbonLoversOmaha to join the Facebook group, or visit spiritworldwine.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.