Spirits

A Whiskey Unicorn for Every Taste

September 10, 2020

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

Art: Raphaelle Macaron

Rare whiskey can come in many breeds. Here, a guide to each, from Tater Bait to Sticker Label Stars and beyond.

“Finally got to try my unicorn bourbon!” wrote one woman on a dedicated whiskey Facebook group in late July, uploading a selfie where she proudly displayed a bottle of Blanton’s Bourbon.

It didn’t take long for the resident whiskey geeks to, at the same time, question and criticize her argot.

Responded one man, sarcastically: “Who would [have] thought a 6-year bourbon at 93 proof is now a unicorn?”

While I likewise lament the current fervor for once-common bottles, Blanton’s is, in fact, a unicorn, if only because enough whiskey drinkers pursue it as if it were. Even if it’s not exceedingly rare and is debatable in quality, it nevertheless offers many of the criteria that construct the anatomy of today’s unicorns—allocated, boldly packaged, price-gouged.

There are, of course, different breeds of whiskey unicorns, some more rarely encountered than others. These days, most fall into the American whiskey category—consisting of Kentucky bourbon and rye— and, in the smallest genus of the unicorn kingdom, are almost always Buffalo Trace products. Similarly, any Japanese whisky from the Suntory distillery is immediately exalted to unicorn status in the United States—owing in part to a track record of truly sublime releases, coupled, I suspect, with the perceived exoticism of the hiragana characters on the labels. As is some Scotch, especially if it is jaw-droppingly expensive and packaged in such an ornamental fashion that it seems to signal it’s more an object to look upon than to drink. These days, after all, becoming a unicorn only partially relies on how a spirit tastes.

Here are 10 categories of unicorn whiskey you’ll likely chance upon while out hunting.

Tater Bait

Examples: Blanton’s, Weller, Eagle Rare, Hibiki Harmony

If “tater” is the derisive term for a bourbon newbie late to join the collecting game, then these are the bottles they’re most drawn to. This is largely due to the fact that they’re the only unicorns that can still occasionally be found on shelves. Most hail from Buffalo Trace Distillery and represent a stand-in for the superior Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg in the cognitive dissonance of the tater’s mind. They aren’t particularly rare, though many have become allocated thanks to taters’ rabid shelf-clearing behavior. If longtime bourbon drinkers used to consider these bottles reliable shelf turds, today they can only laugh at the neophytes who label them unicorns.

The Yearly LEs

Examples: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Parker’s Heritage Collection

Just about every major distillery has a once-a-year limited-edition release (or “LE,” in bourbon geek parlance), often the crown jewel of the brand’s portfolio, packaged accordingly in signature bottles in unique shapes, like Birthday Bourbon’s pot still lookalike, often with unnecessary packaging extras like wooden display boxes and plush cloth sacks. These are rarer than tater bait expressions, typically between 10,000 and 20,000 bottles per year, allocated, expensive and usually well-reviewed by critics. Many veteran whiskey drinkers will continually talk about how these releases were better in the past (“Doesn’t compare to PHC11!”) but they’ll still be on the hunt next year, trying to score bottles again.

The Every-So-Often LEs

Examples: Booker’s Rye, Russell’s Reserve 1998, E.H. Taylor, Jr. Cured Oak, Michter’s Celebration

Sometimes distilleries offer LEs only every few years, often a sui generis release never to be produced again. Often, especially if the release is not from Buffalo Trace, these products will be ignored when they hit the market since their future as an appreciating asset is no guarantee, languishing on shelves for months at a time. Then, when people finally realize how good they actually are, usually thanks to a few leading voices online, they become late-bloomer unicorns; collectors rush back to stores to see if they’re still on shelves. They never are.

Household Names

Examples: Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Yamazaki

By now, these bottles have become famous for being famous—expressions that have come to represent the archetypes of good, rare, expensive whiskey. Many of these are released in the same quantity as other LEs, but because they’re so avidly pursued it’s virtually impossible to find them “in the wild,” especially at the distillery’s recommended MSRP. The liquor stores, bars and restaurants that get bottles inevitably mark up the price to what they know the market will bear, and sometimes more. And that’s how you end up with what should be a $99 bottle of George T. Stagg perched behind glass, priced at $500. And yet, they move.

The Yearly Contest Winners

Examples: Henry McKenna Single Barrel, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof B517, 1792 Full Proof, King of Kentucky

It seems like every year a previously non-ballyhooed whiskey is awarded Best in Show at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, finishes No. 1 on Whisky Advocate’s year-end top 20 list, is named in Jim Murray’s annual Whisky Bible, or gets called out as esteemed bourbon writer Fred Minnick’s top whiskey of the year. Suddenly, shelves are cleared and a $35 bourbon has transformed into a unicorn—at least for the next 365 days or so.

Willett

Examples: Any Willett single barrel release

A category unto itself, Willett remains the connoisseurs’ unicorn—exceedingly rare, often mysterious in liquid origin, and, most importantly, inscrutable for the neophytes. A true example of rarity, most Willett releases are produced from just a single barrel, yielding maybe 150 bottles or so. These aren’t allocated—being best friends with your liquor store guy won’t help a lick—and most are sold to private bourbon clubs and select retail outlets, or are released straight from the distillery gift shop unannounced (and yet, certain collectors always seem to know when to stop by). The packaging even looks the same from bottle to bottle—the difference between a decent 4-year-old release and a spectacular 24-year-old bottling might simply be a few small, handwritten details on the label. But those who know the quality of barrels esoterically labeled “B57” and “C1B,” or private releases like Red Hook Rye and Ping Island Strike, understand the lengths worth going to in order to secure these.

Sticker Label Stars

Examples: Weller “Trolls Gold,” Russell’s Reserve “One & A Century,” Smoke Wagon “Gold Rush”

When unicorn sightings became increasingly rare around 2015, bourbon geeks began to artificially create them. Bars, liquor stores and private whiskey groups started buying single barrel “picks” from the leading distilleries and then adding their own identifying, often humorous, decals—featuring soothing painter Bob Ross (WhistlePig “Happy Accidents”), sports icons (Knob Creek “Bo Knows”) or of-the-moment political memes (J. Mattingly “I Will Beat Joe Biden”)—to the back of the bottle. Suddenly these stickered-up bottles were demanding inflated prices—sometimes five to 10 times MSRP—despite their similarity to unstickered single barrel releases. Silliness aside, the rise of these personalized single barrels has had the unintended consequence of shining a light on smaller-name distilleries, like the Kentucky-based Wilderness Trail and New Riff, which have become sought-after brands following the success of their sticker label bottlings.

Conspicuous Consumption Unicorns

Examples: O.F.C., Double Eagle Very Rare, The Macallan (25 or older), The Dalmore (25 or older)

These are the bottlings that are priced, right from the get-go, at a level equivalent to several months’ rent for the average person. Perhaps because of the high price tag, these unicorns are the most likely to be spotted on store shelves (and the least likely to actually be consumed). The fact that these releases often arrive in flashy Lalique decanters or black sycamore “presentation cases” only underscores the conspicuous nature of these purchases.

Dusties of Note

Examples: Wild Turkey, Old Grand-Dad, Stitzel-Weller, ghost distillery single malt

In a way, all “dusty,” or vintage, whiskey is a unicorn these days, even when it’s not all that old or rare, like, say, Wild Turkey 101 from 2010. But there are certain examples of vintage whiskey that truly excite the unicorn hunter. Anything from Stitzel-Weller, the shuttered distillery where Pappy himself once ran the show, is among them. Most Wild Turkey expressions are coveted too, especially their bygone LEs which have since been bestowed with descriptive nicknames like “Cheesy Gold Foil” (with its garish 1980s-era label) and “Donut” (which comes in an odd ring-shaped bottle) by collectors. Likewise, bottles of Old Grand-Dad from National Distillers, the distillery that owned the label before unloading it to Jim Beam in 1987, fetch top dollar. Single malt from distilleries that are no longer extant, like Port Ellen and Littlemill, are highly prized as well. Remarkably, some of these still linger in liquor stores, if you know where to look.

The Non-Whiskey Whiskey Collector Unicorns

Examples: Foursquare rum, L’Encantada Armagnac, Clase Azul tequila, Don Julio 1942 tequila

While many whiskey drinkers have a rigidly monogamous relationship with the spirit, there are certain offerings that might entice them to cross over. Typically, this occurs only when those products happen to taste just like top-notch whiskey—well-oaked caramel and vanilla bombs. Some, like the Sazerac-owned Corazón tequila, are themselves aged in unicorn whiskey barrels, including George T. Stagg and Old Rip Van Winkle, for example. The producers of these spirits have even begun playing to the free-spending whiskey geek, offering cask-strength, single barrel releases (perfect for sticker labels) in handsome packages and, naturally, in limited supply.

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