On a recent Monday, we took a few hours out of our afternoons to ponder what, exactly, makes a bourbon or rye whiskey “luxury.” Is it the age? The price, maybe? How limited in supply it is? Or is it actual quality?
As recently as 20 years ago, you could still find well-aged—we’re talking 12 year-plus—bourbon on shelves below waist-level, costing a mere $10 to $15 per bottle. Bourbon’s luxury possibilities started building in the 1980s, when the category was still fighting for its life. No one was buying it in the States and, thus, distilleries had a glut of old barrels with nowhere to go. Sure, some could route to the Japanese market, which worships lofty age statements, but the bulk would need to be moved domestically.
Enter Blanton’s. In 1984, the Ancient Age Distillery (today known as Buffalo Trace) introduced their single-barrel bourbon into an unfriendly marketplace. It was considered the first “super-premium” bourbon ever made. Packaged in a distinctive hand-grenade-shaped bottle with horse-and-jockey stoppers, the then-pricey $30 Blanton’s sold well. In fact, the New York Times later claimed that it “was widely credited with raising bourbon’s cachet with liquor connoisseurs and helping to reverse a long slump in Kentucky’s signature industry.”
Jim Beam would offer their own luxury competitor in 1988 with Booker’s Bourbon, a fiery barrel-proof whiskey packaged in repurposed Chablis bottles and named for their legendary master distiller. After receiving rave reviews, it’s 1,000-bottle run sold out quickly despite the $40 price tag.
The industry took another leap forward when Julian Van Winkle had the idea to use stock he’d acquired from the shuttered Old Boone Distillery and treat it like a luxury liquor; he even placed it in green Cognac bottles. No one had ever seen a 20-year-old bourbon like the one he released in 1994; it became a sensation. By the release of Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old in 2004, an arms race had kicked into high gear.
Today, high-end bourbons and ryes come in many forms, which brings us back to the initial question we pondered: What unifies all of these “luxury” whiskies? Is it age? Well, many of our entrants don’t even have age statements. Price? For this tasting we mostly did look at products above $50, but the range above that varied widely. Availability? Sure, many were limited-edition bottlings that few people ever see “in the wild,” but many other bottles are available on shelves. Maybe all a luxury whiskey really offers, as our guest taster Erick Castro posited, is “one that comes in a good-looking bottle.”
Still, which of those good-looking bottles is actually worth the price? That is a question we figured we’d actually be able to answer. For this tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on the topic of whiskey, and Castro, an acclaimed bartender and partner at San Diego’s Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves as well as New York’s Boilermaker. We blind-tasted 18 different bourbons and 10 different ryes. Below are our top picks in each category.
NB: We included both a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon (Astor Wines & Spirits’ pick) and a Maker’s Mark Private Select Bourbon (Bill Samuels, Jr.) in the tasting as wild cards. Both performed well enough to “make the podium,” but given their lack of availability, they’re not represented below. However, they both reinforce our belief that single barrel selections can offer a great way to get more for your money in the “luxury” category. Also, many of today’s high-end whiskies are impossible to find at their manufacturer’s suggested price, so we relied on Wine-Searcher averages to provide a better estimate of what retail outlets are charging at the moment.
Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
Introduced in 2016 to show what the distillery’s “medicinal” whiskey might have tasted like during Prohibition, 1920 proved so popular that it’s become a regular part of their lineup. At barrel strength it’s hot on the nose and initial palate. But with a few drops of water, it drinks rich and concentrated, with notes of caramel apple and dark cherry and an underlying graham-cracker savoriness. The finish is long and spicy, which leans out the oily mouthfeel.
- Price: $59
- ABV: 57.5 percent
Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof (B517)
Three batches of this are released each year, with slight variances in flavor profile between them. This uncut 12-year version offers a fruity, salted-caramel nose with just a hint of grassiness. The palate presents layers of brown butter and toffee, with hints of black cardamom and baking soda. A connoisseur’s bourbon, due to its complexity and intensity, Castro noted that he “wouldn’t sell this to some guy just getting into bourbon.”
- Price: $87
- ABV: 62.1 percent
W.L. Weller 12 Year
If the term “luxury” bourbon is laughable to many, the fact that Weller 12 has become that very thing is even more amusing. Once a $25 bottle you could find anywhere, the imprimatur of Pappy (it uses Buffalo Trace’s same wheated mash bill) turned this twist-cap bottle into one that’s nearly impossible to find; it’s cost on the secondary market has ballooned in accordance. Like many “wheaters,” it’s intensely sweet, though not in a cloying manner. It’s typified by deep vanilla and caramel on the nose while the palate is balanced by wood notes, tannin spice, dark cherry and even some citrus. Silky and drinkable, this was a clear standout.
- Price: $207
- ABV: 45 percent
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch (2016)
One of the most pursued “allocated” bourbons amongst geeks, 2016’s release is a blend of 12-year-old barrels of the distillery’s OESO and OBSV recipes along with barrels of 16-year-old OESK. This barrel-proof offering is new with each sip, with notes of sandalwood and allspice on the nose leading into a palate of dark fruits and a long, rich finish. Despite the proof, it’s surprisingly mellow. As one taster noted: “It just tastes expensive.”
- Price: $421
- ABV: 55.6 percent
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye
While way more expensive Wild Turkey products were included in the tasting, this mid-priced year-round offering performed best. Non-chill filtered and nearly barrel-proof, it tastes like the quintessential rye: peppery on the nose with a spicy mid-palate balanced by vanilla, leather and a hint of cigar smoke. The panel was also impressed by its textural complexity and length.
- Price: $61
- ABV: 52 percent
Michter’s US-1 Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
A fairly new release—first entering the market in 2015—this is believed to be a Heaven Hill distillate (Michter’s doesn’t reveal its source) that made it to barrel at a uniquely low entry proof of just 103. It leads with warm baking spices, like cinnamon and allspice, with a rich mouthfeel defined by plenty of butterscotch and cherries, backed up by a strong note of tobacco that, Castro said, “makes me want to smoke a cigar.”
- Price: $86
- ABV: 54.4 percent
Hochstadter’s Family Reserve 16 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey
This bottling comes courtesy of The Coopers Spirit Company out of Pennsylvania, which sources this 100 percent rye from Alberta Distillers in Canada. “There’s a lot going on here,” remarked one taster, as we compared the nose to menthol, cedar drawers, attic and even “old man.” The palate is loaded with butterscotch notes, but remains balanced thanks to its strong spice notes. An unexpected pick given its source, but a worthy bottle nonetheless.
- Price: $196
- ABV: 61.9 percent