The Best Rare Bourbons for a Whiskey Drinker's Collection
A whiskey collector shares his favorite super-luxury bourbons.
I started collecting whiskey the way most people do, focusing mostly on single malt Scotch whisky and Japanese whiskies. Bourbon was an afterthought, at best. At the time, the only thing that truly piqued my interest were the obvious choices of Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. But those days have come and gone, and there is now so much collectible bourbon that it is truly overwhelming.
Over the last several months, the majority of my collection attention has turned to bourbon and rye. While people are still coveting Highland, Islay, and Japanese whiskies, America is just starting to hit its stride, and it has a long way to go before it starts to top out.
Here's a list of some incredibly rare favorites.
Pappy Van Winkle 25 Decanter
I know that it comes as no surprise that a PVW bottle would be on anyone's list, but there is a vast difference between this and other PVW bottles out there, even the 23-year-old. This whiskey was barreled in 1989 and fully aged at the now-closed Stitzel-Weller distillery. This is important to note because as values of bottles go, juice from SW is more valuable than the current product, which is made at Buffalo Trace. The bottle comes in a limited-edition crystal decanter that was numbered out of just 710 bottles, and each number is hand-etched into the bottle. Originally retailing for $1,800, this bottle is on the market for a minimum of $27,000, with some prices as high as $36,000. It's easily one of the most expensive bourbons out there.
LeNell's Red Hook Rye
Where to begin? This is, without question, the most coveted bottle on this list. There is something special about the year 1984 when it comes to whiskey (not just that it's my birth year). Some of the most famous brands in the world have a prized bottle from 1984 in their collections, including Yamazaki, Macallan, and Karuizawa, to name a few. So the fact that bourbon has something so coveted from that year is perfectly complementary to the others. There are four casks to choose from, and the set of four can run north of $200,000.
Michter's 20 Bourbon
This is an all-time favorite of mine, and I've had it on a few notable occasions, including at a tasting of the entire Michter's range at the Louisville distillery in 2017. The price in the aftermarket has skyrocketed in the last year at around $7,000, but at an initial retail offering of around $750, if you saw it in the wild, how could you ever say no?
Willett Bonili 24/94
This rye is largely considered to be the greatest of all time. It's 24 years old and bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV, hence 24/94) in 1984, and it was made especially for Japanese distributor Bonili. Limited to only 264 bottles, this gem is one to be coveted for decades to come.; it was last seen in the wild for around $10,000.
Parker's Heritage 27 Year 2nd Edition
This bottle was made in honor of the legend Parker Beam. John Hansell, the creator of Whisky Advocate, awarded this stunning bourbon 95 points. Need I say more? This is one of the oldest bourbons on the market. Even Pappy Van Winkle's cutoff is 25 years, which must tell you something. Finding this for anything less than $4,000 makes you a lucky individual.
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Gold Wax Top
This is something special—100% pure Stitzel-Weller juice that only complements the 23-year-old decanter in a collection. Bottled prior to 2005, meaning before the merger with Buffalo Trace, this whiskey was distilled at the Hoffman distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY. Find it for around $4,000.
Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 Year Rye
This is one of those bottles that will fetch 1,200% of its original retail value the moment it hits shelves at $120. So how does it get to over $1,500 so quickly? Well, it helps to have the PVW name attached to it, and it doesn't hurt that this bottle is both spectacular and supremely rare to come across. It's one of the best ryes of all-time (see Michter's 10, Sazerac 18, Michter's 25). If you've got one, hang on to it for dear life … or … drink the damn thing, because it also happens to taste ridiculously good.
Jefferson's Presidential 17 1991
This bourbon was distilled in the last year of the Stitzel-Weller era. There are indeed older JPS bottles, including those that are part of this series, but this bottle has struck a particular chord with me since tasting the flight at Sage in the Aria Resort in Las Vegas five years ago. For me, this outdid the 18, 21, and 25. What started at $110 per bottle is now easily over $1,500. Disclaimer: There are specific batches of this that are worth more than others, so do your homework first.
Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary
I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Young at a tasting event in late 2017, and it comes as no surprise to see Four Roses celebrate the former legend's 50th year at the distillery, which was also commemorated with a book. What started around $100 has been known to fetch as much as $2,000. Having tasted this a few times, I can tell you that it is pure deliciousness.
Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Kentucky Small Batch
Let's just go with … $4000. Or more. That's what you can expect to pay for this absolute treasure. But what makes it a treasure? Well, the fact that no one really knows where it's from helps. The list of bourbon royalty that has had their hands on this is truly impressive: From Julian Van Winkle III to the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery and even Heaven Hill in its later bottlings, this is a mythic bottle.
Michter's 25 Year Rye
Michter's seems to be finally hitting its stride as one of the most valuable whiskey brands in the world. After numerous appearances on the TV show Billions, as well as selling a cask of its coveted 10-year-old bourbon at a COVID-19 charity auction for an astronomical $210,000, the brand is starting to be viewed by collectors in a similar light as Macallan. Don't believe me? A bottle of this delectable juice from 2014 just sold for $22,000 in California.
AH Hirsch 16 Year Blue Wax (First Bottling)
When a bottle has a book written about it (The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste by Charles K Cowdery), you know it's of mythical proportions. Distilled in 1974, Adolph Hirsch commissioned this 400-barrel batch out to Bomberger's (now Michter's) and had the production and marketing done by Julian Van Winkle III in Lawrenceburg. Finding this bottle for anything less than $4,000 isn't just a win, it's a goldmine. If you can't get a hold of this rarity, Hirsch has revived the brand with their newest bottle "The Horizon," hitting shelves across the continental US. They will also be releasing 50 single barrels throughout select US retailers this year.
Apart from—well, maybe on par with—PVW, this is easily the most sought-after collection of annually released bottles. BTAC stands for Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, which consists of five bottles, including George T. Stagg, Sazerac 18 Rye, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, and Thomas H. Handy. The minute the collection leaves a retailer, you can expect prices to shoot through the roof. I've seen people buy and sell these full collections for north of $7,500. Not bad, considering "suggested retail" is about $500 … for the entire set!
Very Old Fitzgerald 8 Year Old
Distilled in the early 1950s and bottled in the late 1950s to early 1960s, this bottle may be the hardest one to find on this list simply due to its date of origin. Bottled at 50% ABV, I recently saw this for an astronomical price of £4,000 on The Whisky Exchange, which wasn't even the highest price I've seen on it. This is a must-have for any true American bourbon diehard collector.
Nate Ganapathi is on Instagram at @singlemaltdaily.