There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of bourbons on the market. The good news: you’ll find a lot of great new whiskey available at reasonable prices, as well as some expensive and rare bourbons that are worth the cost. The bad news: many labels run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars, and it’s not always easy to know why. Sometimes a particular expression is exceedingly rare, well-made or delicious. Sometimes someone just decided it should be expensive. Is any bourbon really worth $600 or $6,000 dollars?
“One thing I always say is that the price that is right for a bottle of whiskey is what you’re willing to pay,” says Jeff Knott, owner/bar manager of Louisville’s new Tartan House bar, scheduled to open early this summer. Knott earned his bourbon stripes at The Bar at Willett, inside the Willett Distillery, which itself knows a thing or two about rare and in-demand whiskeys. “Is it what I’d pay for a bottle? Probably not, but it’s different for everyone.”
The Best Rare Bourbons That Are Actually Worth the CostSometimes a hard-to-find whiskey justifies the sticker shock
With that thought, a handful of caveats before we proceed:
- “Rare” is a fluid term (pun intended). Technically, every single-barrel whiskey or indie brand distilling in a California storage unit is making “rare” whiskey.
- “Expensive” is another versatile term: $20 is expensive for many people. $2,000 is a piffle for a few. If you have Fast 5 level wealth, ignore this whole article and buy whatever you want.
- Any statement about a bourbon’s flavor, popularity or quality is heavily subjective. Like ranking the best Succession episodes, your results may differ.
- Saying a bourbon isn’t worth its retail price doesn’t mean it’s a bad bourbon. It’s often a great bourbon that’s simply retailing for more than it should, according to those in the know.
- We are working from average retail prices, not secondary market prices. That said, retail often significantly exceeds the producer’s suggested retail price (see below).
- We are excluding one-off, 50-year-old expressions packaged in custom Lalique crystal and hand-delivered by Ferrari. Those are definitely not worth the price.
- This is, admittedly, hardly a comprehensive list
All right, let’s look at a few times you might want to put that wallet away.
Pappy Van Winkle
The elephant in the room. But let’s be very clear about this: what we’re talking about is the elevated retail prices for the well-aged expressions in the PVW family. The dirty, not-so-secret secret is that collectors (and the media) elevated Pappy’s status so high, that retailers quickly realized they could charge ten times the MSRP. It’s a situation common to many allocated bourbons, but with Pappy it’s “gotten out of hand,” according to Knott. The bottom line? If you somehow see a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 15-year, or any heavily inflated whiskey, at or near MSRP ($120 in this case), snag it if you’re able, then brag a lot. It’s worth it.
Most celebrities don’t make branded products featuring their likeness. They — or a marketing guru — scope out existing product, buy a bunch, and put it in a new package with a clever brand name and extensive marketing. That means an automatic jump in price. Interestingly, most celebrity-backed bourbons hover in the attainable $35-$65 range, so the markup isn’t bad. “I always say, don’t just fall for the designer bourbons,” says Samara Davis, founder of the wildly popular Black Bourbon Society, which brings together aficionados and new fans — largely people of color — to learn, socialize and share their bourbon treasures. “In the end, a Gucci shirt is still just cotton, and a luxury bottle of bourbon is still just bourbon.”
As a for-example of pricey celebrity whiskeys: I can’t speak to the quality of rapper Yaelwolf’s Limited Edition Creekwater Sometimes Y 18-year blended rye ($400). Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door 11-year Bootleg Series Volume IV Wheated Bourbon ($500)? Holy moly is that great whiskey. Are either worth the money? In these cases, it may depend on if you have the money to burn.
What Is an Allocated Bourbon and Why Is This Even a Thing?Or, why it’s nearly impossible to get the next Pappy Van Winkle
Lock and Load Gold Bourbon Rifle
Novelty whiskeys — bourbons displayed in bottles shaped like rattlesnakes or rifles, packaged with an author’s book or fancy jewelry, or poured from a helicopter into your thirsty gullet — are almost always dumping mass-produced juice into a fancy container. A gold-painted bottle shaped like an AR for $400? Yeah…no
Orphan Barrel Whiskeys
Diageo kicked off the Orphan Barrel series of collectible expressions in 2013, and launch one or two new rare labels each year. The project, which purports to “discover” lost and forgotten extra-aged barrels of bourbon, rye, and other American, Scotch, and Canadian whiskeys, was one of the first to release expensive, extra-aged expressions specifically for collecting, and has had fans and detractors from the get-go. In general, many long-time bourbon fans find the expressions oaky and woody from their many years in the barrel, and the sourcing details murky. That said, there have been many home runs. I’m a fan of one of the recent releases, Muckety-Muck, a 26-year single-grain Scotch whiskey from the ghost distillery Port Dundas. SO good, though $300 is a bit high for a grain whiskey.
New “Indie” Bourbon Labels
This is a bit tricky. Of course it’s important to support small craft producers. However, because of the start-up costs involved, a lack of aged inventory for blending and the learning curves of producing great bourbon, almost any new brand is going to have to price their hooch far above their weight class. “A lot of the smaller craft labels — I almost shudder to call them craft,” says Davis. “Some aren’t crafting anything, they’re sourcing, and most are overpriced.” That’s not to say sourcing is in and of itself bad: High West has made a fine art of sourcing and blending whiskeys, as have many others.
Another “victim” of inflated retail prices. The unique bottle design and a variety of admittedly cool racehorse-and-jockey sculpts on the closure, along with an allocated supply, means what was originally a perfectly fine mid-shelf whiskey now commands $150 or more, when you can find it. Fans love the juice, but those expecting a complex spirit are often viscerally disappointed. “Henry McKenna has the same mash bill at half the price,” says Davis. “What makes Blanton’s special, beyond the bottle top, is that it comes out of a specific location in a specific rickhouse. Everything else around it is the same grains, the same yeast, the same process. How much of the story and the added bottle materials is worth paying for?” That said, if you’re one of the legions who love this whiskey, it’s probably worth the hunt and the price.
How to Maximize Your Bourbon Dollars
- Learn the mashbills and aging techniques. Often a similar product is bottled in less-expensive ways. “Find a similar whiskey that might be 90% as good, but 5% the cost,” says Knott.
- Look beyond the label. “Labels are how we identify what we like,” says Davis, “but I think there has to be deeper research. Understand what you’re drinking, and why it’s significant to you.”
- Get to know who does most of the bourbon production for multiple brands: Bardstown, MGP, Heaven Hill, Sazerac / Buffalo Trace. Learn their products, mash bills and rickhouses. This will help you find affordable analogs and avoid marketing traps
- Ditch the secondary market. There are enough scammers and miscreants to make eBay look like your friendly corner store. Whiskey Scam has made a mini-career out of exposing these charlatans
- Get to know your local whiskey sellers. Visit stores, make friends, ask questions. You might be the lucky one to score the “dusty find.” “The best part of being a bourbon connoisseur is shopping around,” says Knott
- Consider sampling rather than buying. Rarities bar in the Hotel Lotte New York Palace offers up a bourbon flight of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-Year and 23-Year, and Michter’s Celebration 30-Year for $1,100 (as opposed to the $15,000 or more you’d pay for three bottles)
- Drink what you like. Let’s face it, in the end, bourbon is “worth it” if you like it.
Bonus: Three Bourbons Worth Their Price
Sometimes, a bourbon is just so delicious, or so well-priced, you shut up and hand over your money. Here are three that do it for me:
Blue Run Reflection 1
A new label, “sourced” whiskey, $100 – $200 per bottle? Could be a recipe for mediocrity, but in the case of Georgetown, Kentucky-based Blue Run, working with industry veteran Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), everything I’ve had of theirs knocks it out of the park. Bottles can often be found at MSRP despite small batches (usually 200 barrels or fewer). “They came in with great alignment, knowing the value of their product,” says Davis. PRO TIP: Blue Run Reflection 2 is scheduled to be released this fall.
Blue Run should also be your rye go-to: the brand has released both a Mother’s Day and Father’s Day collection of rye whiskeys. With 10 elegant single-barrel expressions in each collection, the bottles run about $200 each.
Rabbit Hole Tennial (SP)
Kaveh Zamanian’s brand and distillery has only been around for a decade, but has made a huge splash with bourbon fans. To celebrate, Rabbit Hole has released Tennial, a limited release combining Zamanian’s signature bourbon recipes (a four-grain triple malt and a high-rye double malt). “For me, it has to be a unique, original expression,” says Zamanian. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to go out and pay several hundred dollars for a product that can be found in another sourced bottle.” This one’s $650, and there are only 939 bottles, but definitely worth the hunt if you have the scratch.
Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Peated Bourbon
Only six barrels (or about 3,000 375ml bottles) were produced of this latest member of the brand’s Experimental Collection series. Aged ten years in new charred white oak, the mash bill features a touch of peated malted barley, commonly used to contribute smoke notes to single-malt Scotch whiskey. The result is a glorious traditional straight bourbon with just a hint of Islay-style adventurousness. As distiller Harlen Wheatly says, “The Experimental Collection is not about breaking the rules of bourbon. [It’s] to better understand the variables that affect our final flavor profiles.” The kicker? The MSRP is $46 for a 375ml bottle. Definitely worth it, if you can find it at that price.
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