Like Bourbon and Whiskey? A New Auction Site Is Making It Easy to Buy (Too Easy According to My Credit Card Statement!)
My hobbies are largely consumptive: coffee and whiskey (the former to excess and the latter more modestly). Whiskey, specifically bourbon, scratches a bunch of itches for me: a love of American history, a community of people to share the enjoyment, and a deep rabbit hole of bottles to sample. During the initial lockdown, a lot of this enthusiasm moved from bars and IRL meetups to the best available option: socially distanced together, whether it be zoom happy hours and online groups. Around the same time a new Chicago-based business opened, Unicorn Auctions, which quickly started growing from a few hundred bottles up for grabs once a month, to thousands with sometimes bimonthly sales.
Unicorn has taken liquor/spirits auctions, previously more niche and collectible here in the states, and made it mainstream. There’s no registration fee, you can pay for your lots with a credit card, and they can facilitate shipping your wins to you locally. In terms of what gets listed — well, it’s everything from daily drinkers to a rare pre-prohibition dusty. I wanted to learn a bit more about this website capturing my time and dollars, so asked cofounder Cody Modeer to answer a few questions for me.
Hunter Walk: Give me a little backstory on the founding of Unicorn Auctions. Something you’d been thinking about for a while or more of a ‘let’s just try this and see what happens’ side project?
Cody Modeer: Prior to launching Unicorn, I’d been working in the hospitality industry for about a decade. I opened a cocktail bar (Ward Eight) in 2012, and it was pretty successful. My co-founder AJ also had been in the business for years, so when we’d get together we’d end up talking about business ideas and the gaps in the industry that we noticed, just from working in it day in and day out. We started focusing on the auction industry, it seemed like we could bring a new take to that by focusing on spirits. It just felt like the time was right for Unicorn.
HW: Whiskey has really been growing in popularity over the last decade but the pandemic seemed to take it to a whole new level. Mix of bars/restaurants being closed, people drinking at home, and maybe even the general spike in prices of collectibles, crypto, stimmy checks and so on. Have you been surprised by the secondary market price trends?
CM: Definitely. Happily surprised. In February of 2020 we officially launched our first auction with bottles from our own personal collections, and in March we had to close my bar down for COVID safety, and the place AJ worked also closed down. So suddenly we had a lot more time to dedicate to Unicorn. And yes, we saw dramatic price increases as that first year went on. People were stuck in their houses with nothing to do and they had some extra cash from not going out or traveling. The timing just kind of worked out. One door closed and another one opened.
HW: Tell me more about the supply side of this business for you. Is it about getting a few big whales to list through Unicorn or is there a long tail of sellers that bring a handful of bottles to you all? Does the really rare stuff come from collectors or someone who had an old decanter their grandpa gave them and before Unicorn, limited legal options of how to sell it?
CM: We always wanted Unicorn to be more inclusive than the traditional auction houses. If someone gets a bottle for $50 and can sell it for $80, that profit can be meaningful to them. Traditional auction houses usually have minimums and focus more on curation, but that can exclude a lot of people from participating. There’s good reasons why the industry is the way that it is, but AJ and I both thought that if we could figure out a way to scale participation using technology as well as provide a little hospitality, a personal touch, we’d be in a good spot. And it’s not just on the sell side, there’s plenty of frustrated buyers out there that are tired of playing all the retail games and driving around for hours trying to find a particular bottle only to come up empty-handed.
But, to answer your question, we get all kinds, from 1 bottle to 3,000+ bottle collectors. Some are long term collectors looking to retire, some need cash to finish a remodel on their house, and some just need a little extra income to pay the bills. A lot are what you might call dabblers, people who buy and sell a few bottles here and there. We welcome all kinds.
HW: You’ll occasionally hear about counterfeits — you know, buying an empty Pappy bottle, refilling it. It’s pretty rare and I think the community is good about policing itself, but do you also have a hand in authenticating what’s sold on the site?
CM: Unicorn Auctions is a trust platform. We handle every bottle that comes through our auctions. We know the product and we stand by every bottle. By state law we’re required to take possession of every bottle that we auction, and our team does a great job of inspecting and flagging anything that may look off or damaged or unsellable for any reason. This is our only business, and we take the question of authenticity and provenance very seriously.
In the case of very rare and higher-end bottles, we work alongside other auction houses as well as other experts in the field to help us verify and make sure of what we have. If we don’t feel confident for any reason about a particular bottle, we’ll send it back.
HW: So it’s probably stupid of me to try and bring more folks to the auctions — I mean, I’m just creating more competition for the stuff I’m trying to win :) — but if someone reading this is going to jump into the upcoming October auction, what are a few tips you’d give them?
CM: My approach is to go through an auction lot-by-lot and click the star to “watch” any lot I’m interested in. With bigger auctions, I’ll use the search to look for keywords like “Stitzel-Weller” or “Wild Turkey” to narrow it down. Then, I’ll track my watched lots over the course of the auction and ignore the stuff I’m not interested in. If an opportunity comes up to buy one of my starred lots at a good price, I’ll jump on it. There’s a little of the thrill of the chase in the whole process. But the best advice I could give to anyone just starting out in auctions is to buy what you like and have fun.
Thanks Cody! I’ve enjoyed buying on Unicorn, from releases that aren’t available locally in Bay Area, to older bottles that predate my getting into the hobby. If you’re a whiskey aficionado, or just bourbon-curious, I’d recommend giving them a try. During this exchange Cody offered to send me some stuff he liked, which was very generous, but didn’t impact the questions I asked him or any other quid pro quo.