Call it the Pappy effect, or just plain business savviness, but most distilleries saw an opportunity in limited, premium bourbons in the early 2000s. They’ve done wonders to help to fuel the boom and raise the profile of the entire industry. We took a pilgrimage to one of Lexington’s best bourbon bars, the Blue Grass Tavern, to pay our respects to one of the most impressive gatherings of bourbon in the world.
The bottles below represent a portion of the crème de la crème in the marketplace today. Like with Pappy, you’ve got better shot at colonizing Mars than finding a bottle at your local shop without some careful planning and perhaps a kickback or two. Most are allocated in the fall each year and spoken for before ever leaving the box. Thieves aren’t heisting these cases just yet though. Stay sharp at your town’s best bourbon bar and you might just spy a few of these holding court on a top shelf, or even on the drink menu.
Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig brand has always held the respect of enthusiasts. At the time of its release, the company claimed this super-premium bourbon was the oldest single barrel bourbon in the world, though other releases (20-, 21- and 23-year) have subsequently taken that crown. It was awarded “Best Bourbon” and a “Double Gold Medal” at San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010. Elijah Craig announced that it was being replaced by a 20-year-old offering in 2012 because of supply constraints. Fortunately, Heaven Hill did revive the offering this year — but don’t expect to see it still sitting on shelves.
The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection
This limited-edition series is released annually and is probably the second most recognized line of super-premium bourbons beyond Pappy. Today it consists of five bottles, including Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon, George T. Stagg Bourbon and William Larue Weller Wheated Bourbon. All of the offerings in the “BTAC,” as its known by fans, have won various medals and awards for their quality, though some are more sought after than others. Each bottle is supposed to retail for somewhere around $80. On the secondary market, most fetch upwards of $300.
Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel
The now-annual release from Four Roses may not have the same name-brand recognition as other bottles on this list, but it’s prized by bourbon lovers. It shares the same bottle shape as Four Roses’ excellent regular single barrel offering, making it harder to identify without focusing on the label design. Master Distiller Jim Rutledge uses the opportunity to hand select a set of barrels from one of the company’s 10 bourbon recipes to bottle each year.
Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Bourbon
We’ve already talked about Willett’s story in depth. Like a few other collectable bourbons out there — including Pappy Van Winkle — the juice inside these bottles isn’t actually made by Willett (though this should change soon since Willett has started distilling on its own). Who makes the whiskey is part of the mystery surrounding the Family Estate label. As each of bottles in the Willett Family Estate line of bourbon is single barrel, the age and proof varies wildly. (We’ve come across 7-, 9-, 10-, 13-, 20- and 21-year bottles in the past, and there are surely plenty more.) While the Willett family may not produce the bourbon, they certainly know how to identify exceptional barrels, which is a skill unto itself. Almost anything under the label is good, and most of it’s great.
Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year Old
This wheated bourbon is one of the most controversial rare bottles among fans. Some love it. Others see it as a piss-poor attempt to ride the coattails of Pappy Van Winkle at least, and an outright sham at most. Like Willett (and again, Pappy Van Winkle), the Jefferson’s brand doesn’t actually make its own bourbon. This particular bottle gained notoriety because its contents were potentially sourced from the now-defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery, which is the same distillery that produced bourbon for the Van Winkle family for years. It’s unclear; the label simply says “aged in Stitzel-Weller Barrels.” If you’re paying attention, “aging in” isn’t exactly the same as “produced by.”
To add to the sketchiness, the former brand manager and owner of the Jefferson’s Reserve name has stated that older batches of the 18-year were mixed with rye to top them off, violating the “distilled from wheat” phrase found on the label. Still, early batches of this bottle in particular received wide amounts of praise from the review community. Its background is a mystery, but the whiskey is still good.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength
The Angel’s Envy brand is a relatively new startup of Wesley Henderson and his father, Lincoln Henderson. Lincoln Henderson was the former master distiller for Brown-Forman Corp who helped develop Woodford Reserve and is part of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Hall of Fame. Lincoln soon joined his son in business and oversaw the early distilling efforts of Angel’s Envy until he passed away in late 2013. Since bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years, early bottles of Angel’s Envy have been sourced from other distilleries.
What makes Angel’s Envy relatively unique is that it’s finished in port casks before bottling. The company’s limited-edition Cask Strength offering, originally launched in 2012, raised a few eyebrows. It was limited to only 600 bottles and sold in three different states. Its contents were hand selected by Lincoln Henderson and bottled at a bold cask-strength proof, but it still came from only four- to six-year-old stock (and no age statement is listed on the label). Respected spirits reviewer Paul Pacult still named it his number one spirit of the year. A larger number of bottles were released in both 2013 and 2014, though they were still quite limited.
A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey
There are some who believe this is the best bourbon ever created. Whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery even wrote a book about it, aptly titled The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, outlining the bottle’s tumultuous history. If you’re really curious about the details, consult Cowdrey — but the quick and dirty history is that this whiskey was produced in a distillery in Pennsylvania that shut down in the mid ‘70s. A set of 400 of the remaining whiskey barrels were acquired and moved to Cincinnati to be aged and bottled as A.H. Hirsch Bourbon. The stock was sold slowly over time, with the very last bottles hitting shelves in 2009 in boxed sets for $1,500 a pop. Despite what owners and sellers of Pappy Van Winkle 23 might say, A.H. Hirsch Reserve is one of the true white whales of bourbon.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Not every collector’s bourbon has to cost as much as a kidney. Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is a prime example. The series was created to celebrate founder George Garvin’s birthday (September 2). Each year, a small batch of whiskey produced on the same day is singled out for inclusion in the series. The reason for its selection varies, making each year’s offering distinct from the next. As Master Distiller Chris Morris explained to Southern Living: “One selection came from a day when the distillery lost power because a squirrel shorted out the electrical system, and we lost our cooling power, and we had to drop the fermentation early.” Bottles usually sell for upwards of $55, which is well below other retail prices on this list. Somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 are sold each year.