It was the early spring of 2018 and I was in Louisville for a bourbon festival. A banquet hall’s worth of industry personalities and Kentucky luminaries were packed into the Frazier History Museum. Canapés darted around the room on silver platters; black ties and the occasional ascot dotted the crowd. The guests were gathered for one purpose: to sample the imminent release of James Thompson & Brother Final Reserve. At 45 years old, it was billed as the oldest bourbon ever brought to bottle.
“It was so tannic, it sucked all the moisture from my mouth,” remembers one whiskey writer in attendance. “I couldn’t chug enough water to get my salivary glands working again.” Indeed, the copper-hued spirit drank somewhere between tree stump and a pile of pencil shavings.
Nevertheless, eager collectors queued up overnight in advance of the sale, hoping to nab one of the 250 commemorative bottles priced at $1,800 apiece. Today, those same bottles fetch nearly three times that amount. This head-scratching correlation between age and price highlights a fundamental discrepancy in today’s world of collectible bourbon. While bottles brandishing older age statements are increasingly coveted, the liquids they contain are rarely meant to mature for nearly that long.
After all, bourbon requires maturation in virgin barrels; Kentucky—where 95 percent of the liquid originates—is characterized by hot, humid summers and profound temperature swings between seasons. It’s the perfect storm for inducing maximum oak extraction into slumbering distillate. Which is great—until it isn’t.
“After about eight years, [Kentucky] bourbon gets too woody and starts to really take over the whiskey,” says Jane Bowie, director of innovation for Maker’s Mark. “Back in the day we had some experimental 12-year-old stuff that I kind of thought was terrible. It was flat and it felt like someone had left the lid off the bottle for too long.”
Ask just about any Kentucky whiskey maker what their preferred sweet spot of maturity is, and a clear benchmark emerges: between five and 12 years. Yet the most prominent of luxury bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle, starts at 15 years old and works its way up to 23 in its priciest bottling.
So why do those over-aged liquids compel avid enthusiasts to camp out overnight in the hopes of forking over four-figure sums for their retrieval? Well, not all wood barrels are created equal. While most exert optimal oak influence sometime after a dozen or so Kentucky summers, every now and then you come across a “unicorn”—a cask outlier that refuses to overpower its contents. Julian Van Winkle III, who took over the family business in 1981, had a knack for finding this precious cooperage and mingling it together in extremely limited batches. “There had never been a market for American whiskey north of 20 years old until Julian Van Winkle, with his magical palate, started selling his 23-year-old,” explains Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon Curious. “Up until that point it was considered rotgut horseshit. It never moved the needle.”
By the late ’90s, however, in an era when world-class bourbon regularly sold for $30, Pappy 23 was justifying its $150 price tag. Around the same time, Even Kulsveen of Willett Distillery was establishing himself as an influential barrel whisperer—or, to put it less romantically, an independent bottler. “He was literally out there buying aged product from every producer in Kentucky—single barrels at cask strength,” recalls Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., and one of the country’s preeminent whiskey collectors. “He was proving that extended time in the barrel could do amazing things.”
The overall endeavor retains a mysticism that science can, at best, identify, but rarely re-create. Unicorns, it seems, are born, not made.
A new sort of arms race was on, sparked by a thirsty generation of drinkers for whom older meant better. To respond to the demand, a number of established distilleries sought to translate the subtle art of barrel whispering into an applied science. Michter’s, for example, released its first 25-year-old bourbon back in 2008. “We spend a great deal of time monitoring and tracking and recording the changes in our whiskeys over time,” says Andrea Wilson, master of maturation for the Louisville-based distillery. “We use our laboratory equipment to quantify compounds but we also use our internal tasting panel to record color, aroma, taste and texture throughout the aging process.” What was an $800 bottle at the time of its release is now worth north of $13,000.
Modern technology helps. To wit, Buffalo Trace Distillery has invested millions in a refrigerated storage facility known as Warehouse P. “We know that below a certain temperature the whiskey will stop aging,” explains master distiller Harlen Wheatley. “So we are experimenting in a temperature range slightly above this point in order to slow down—but not stop—the aging cycle. The results to date are very encouraging.”
This sort of scientific finesse bodes well for the continued credibility of extra-aged bourbon. Yet the overall endeavor retains a mysticism that science can, at best, identify, but rarely re-create. Unicorns, it seems, are born, not made. More often than not, the organic process will exert its influence despite intervention resulting in a market where age only rarely correlates with quality. A 25-year-old Kentucky bourbon from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel label, for example, is still easily procured for around $200 a bottle. A 36-year-old offering from Redemption, meanwhile, sourced from MGP in Indiana, faded from the public consciousness almost immediately after its release in 2017. Even the man who oversees the production of Pappy Van Winkle—the world’s most coveted 23-year-old American whiskey—tastes through mistakes. “We occasionally come across inventory that we will not sell because it is over-oaked,” says Wheatley. “We call them casualty barrels.”
This restraint is more radical than it might seem. After all, it’s hardly hyperbole to say that today’s market would pay thousands of dollars for 20-year-old shoe polish if it came from Buffalo Trace. In fact, collectors regularly shell out the same for liquids with similar age from less-renowned distilleries. To the biggest players in the game, however, there’s far more to lose in reputation than there is to gain from a single cynical cash grab. Which is why some of the oldest bourbon in the world ends up not at a banquet hall teeming with spirits journalists eager to taste it, but instead, where Wheatley says it belongs: “down the drain.”