Are we still talking about unicorn bottles of American whiskey? If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to those expensive bottles of bourbon and rye that you often read about but never really have a chance to actually taste because of how rare they are. The answer is yes, we are still talking about them….because you are still thinking about them. But when it comes down to it, which of these rare bourbons are actually worth the cost and the energy it takes to track them down?
The most famous example of a unicorn whiskey is Pappy Van Winkle, which elicits laughs and groans upon its annual release when bourbon fans see the suggested retail price — $120 for a whiskey that usually goes for about $3,000 on the secondary market. The reality is that some of these highly coveted whiskeys are actually quite good, some are just fine, and arguably none are actually bad. But you have a better chance of spotting Bigfoot in the wild than you do a bottle of Michter’s 25.
There is a second tier of unicorn whiskeys, however, featuring bottles that are pricy and limited but are actually worth the cash time and energy to procure — provided you have enough of all three of those to even embark upon such a mission. We’ve put together a list of ten of the best bourbons that are actually worth the chase and the expense, which will likely please some and elicit hate mail from others. (This list is not to be confused with the rare bourbons that aren’t worth the cost.) Happy hunting, and good luck! Note: even with links to buy, prices will vary wildly by location and availability.
This 15-year-old bourbon with a silly name is rarely in the unicorn bottle conversation, but it deserves a place. Lone Whisker, the company behind this release, partners with Boone County Distilling in Kentucky to produce the whiskey (given that Boone County has only been distilling since 2015, these barrels were sourced from elsewhere). The Dogfather is a 15-year-old bourbon distilled from a mashbill of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley. Less than 500 bottles were released this year, and even priced at $500 it has already sold out (though you can still find it on the secondary market). Yes, there are other more affordable 15-year-old bourbons out there, including an excellent option from Knob Creek. But this is a tasty limited-edition whiskey that will be a valuable asset in anyone’s collection.
Russell’s Reserve 13 Years Old
Russell’s Reserve is produced by Wild Turkey as sort of a smaller batch, higher-end version of the distillery’s core whiskey lineup. There have been a few limited-edition Russell’s releases over the past few years, including last year’s Single Rickhouse bourbon which was meant to highlight the effects of a particular maturation environment on the whiskey. This 13-year-old expression proved immensely popular upon its 2021 release, and both that and the 2022 version hit the secondary market priced at well beyond the suggested $250. Sure, the whiskey is only a few years older than Russell’s 10 Year, but that additional time aging in a barrel has given it a complexity and depth that make this bottle worth the chase.
Angel’s Envy Finished in Mizunara Oak
Angel’s Envy is a Louisville distillery that gives its flagship bourbon a secondary maturation in port casks to imbue it with a burst of dried fruit and spice flavor. The team also puts out a few limited releases each year, and an exceptional one from a few years back was the tenth-anniversary release, a bourbon finished in Japanese mizunara oak. A lot of whiskey brands are using this type of expensive and notoriously porous oak to finish their whiskeys due to the fragrant and incense-like flavor it brings to the liquid. But this bourbon is one of the best, albeit a pricey bottle.
Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon
Barrell Craft Spirits releases its flagship bourbon blend in batches throughout the year, each differing in proof, age, and origin (generally the whiskey is sourced from Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky). Over recent years, the company has expanded into ultra-premium limited releases like the Gold Label series, which consists of older, rarer whiskeys in the mix. The second bottling of BCS Gold Label is a blend of bourbon from the aforementioned states that was matured for a minimum of 18 years and bottled at cask strength of 102.2 proof. This high-end bottle offers a richness and depth of flavor beyond the regular batches of Barrell Bourbon, as good as they are.
Michter’s 10-Year Bourbon
We could include Michter’s 25 Year on this list, but that whiskey is so rare and expensive that it doesn’t quite meet the criteria here. So let’s focus on something a bit more obtainable: Michter’s single barrel, ten-year-old bourbon, which is released annually in small numbers and is consistently excellent. By its very nature, each release will differ from the last, given that the bourbon is bottled from one barrel instead of a blend of many. Michter’s skipped the 2022 release of this whiskey so this year’s batch is in even higher demand, but this special-occasion whiskey is worth it.
When Can You Buy This Year’s Pappy Van Winkle? Consult Our Whiskey Release Schedule.Behold, the release dates for all your favorite rare and limited-edition whiskeys, including Buffalo Trace, Booker’s and Pappy
Four Roses LE Small Batch
The beauty of Four Roses is that you get a lot of bang for your buck. The core expression is an affordable blend of the distillery’s ten recipes (two mashbills, five yeast strains) that is as good as anything at double the price. The annual Limited Edition Small Batch, however, is a bourbon from this Kentucky distillery on the other side of the value spectrum that commands top dollar. Master distiller Brent Elliott comes up with the formula for this release each year, with the most recent being a blend of four of the distillery’s bourbon recipes aged from 14 to 20 years. That one is still out there in the whiskey wild for sale, along with some releases from previous years that are even more expensive.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Birthday Bourbon is an annual release that varies in its makeup from year to year, and whiskey fans have strong opinions about which vintage they prefer. Old Forester is another brand known for its dependable and inexpensive flagship whiskey, but Birthday Bourbon (released to celebrate founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday) is usually interesting and always a collector’s item. The 2022 release was a 96-proof bourbon aged for 11 years, and for many people that hit the sweet spot of maturation. If you can find a few bottles to purchase to compare and contrast, consider yourself very lucky.
Remus Gatsby Reserve
Even if you’ve never heard of MGP, you’ve likely drunk the whiskey produced there if you’re a fan of brown spirits. This Indiana distillery makes bourbon and rye for many other brands, including Brother’s Bond, Bulleit and Dickel. But it also has its own in-house bourbon called George Remus. The core lineup is good, but this expensive limited-edition release was one of the best to come out last year. Remus Gatsby Reserve is a well-aged whiskey with ample spice to balance the classic bourbon sweetness and further proof of just how fantastic the whiskey can be from this factory-like operation.
The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is a limited-edition series released each fall, and the whiskey world immediately goes berserk when the details arrive of what to expect. Indeed, there are some fantastic expressions included in this high-proof, high-priced set of whiskeys, including George T. Stagg bourbon. But people often overlook that label’s younger and slightly easier to obtain sibling, Stagg. This bourbon used to be known as Stagg Jr., but the name was shortened a few years back. The whiskey, however, remains just as impressive, an unfiltered, barrel-proof bourbon that is close to ten years old and usually quite potent. This is another one that is fun to compare batches if you can snag a few bottles.
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond
Heaven Hill has a few wheated bourbons in its portfolio — perhaps the best known is Larceny, which comes in regular and barrel-proof versions. In 2018, the distillery launched a new iteration of Old Fitzgerald, and it is now released twice a year as a bottled-in-bond whiskey (100 proof and at least four years old). Most releases are much older than the minimum required four years, and all are usually pretty fantastic. The 2022 release was the oldest so far with a 19-year age statement, and the flavor was equally complex and mature. Each OF release comes in a pretty fetching decanter as well, so this is a bottle that you’ll be proud to display on your home bar if you’re lucky enough to score one.
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