Accessibility in the whiskey world is a pie with three very different shaped pieces. The first and biggest section — the one that most of us know best — is made up of the easy (and reasonably easy) to find bottles of scotch, bourbon, rye, Irish, and other assorted whisk(e)y styles. Bottles that are available at every liquor store, grocer, and bottle shop in the country. The second section represents the expressions that are a little harder to find, but definitely not impossible — available in limited quantities, at specialty shops, and (often) released on seasonal schedules. The last slice is the smallest. The hard-to-find bottles that you either have luck into finding, pay extra for, or get the chance to purchase because you know the owner of the place selling them.
These rarer bottles are often dubbed “unicorn bottles” when discovered in the wild (liquor stores). In some cases, you need to win a lottery just to be given the right to purchase them. If you miss out, you’re looking at serious markups on the aftermarket. But even with their frustrating levels of scarcity, these bottles are often deemed worth lusting for by aficinados.
Why? Because they’re just that good.
We ask 12 bartenders to tell us their favorite hard-to-find bottles of whiskey on the market. Some picked expressions they’ve tried and others called out bottles they’re still chasing — proof that even the folks slinging the stuff can’t get their mitts on some of this juice.
Weller Full Proof
Gavin Humes, bartender at Scratch|Bar & Kitchen in Encino, California
There are a ton that fit this question, but for now, I’m trying to get my hands on a Weller Full Proof Bourbon. It’s a nice wheated bourbon, which is something I’ve been looking to add to my collection. Weller has historically made whiskey that’s been among the best, and this “full proof” bourbon is just right for sipping on one large rock.
It’s got the classic characteristics of a wheated bourbon — where the sweetness and almost nutty quality emphasize the vanilla and caramel with a touch of dried fruits.
Samantha Casuga, head bartender of The Dead Rabbit in New York City
Red Spot. I have a natural affinity towards Irish whiskeys (obviously) and have always loved single pot stills. When Red Spot came to our bar, we were so excited to try it. This is a 15-year-old Irish pot still whiskey finished in a combination of American bourbon casks, Spanish oloroso sherry butts, and marsala wine barrels.
Many complex flavors and just a great reminder of the power Irish whiskey has.
Deena Sayers, bartender at Common Ground in New York City
Yamazaki is hands down my favorite whiskey producer as well as the hardest to find. The signature 12 Year is in high demand due to its incredible number of layers that all blend into one beautiful masterpiece. From butter, honey, and vanilla, that transform into an orange and cranberry sweetness, with a crisp clean finish and subtle smoke that will keep you wanting more.
Angel’s Envy Finished in Japanese Mizunara Oak
Gabe Urrutia, USBG bartender in Miami
Right now, I am chasing Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon finished in Japanese Mizunara Oak casks. It was created in celebration of their Founder’s Day on August 19th, the 10th anniversary of the first port barrel filled by Angel’s Envy, so they’ve decided to release this beauty. It has some crazy tropical notes as well as mocha and wood. It’s quite complex because of the blend of 4 and 9-year-old whiskies.
Only 1,200 bottles will be released with a first release at the distillery, then at select retailers in Kentucky. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s making its way out of bourbon country.
Red Breast 27
Jane Danger, beverage director at Mother of Pearl in New York City
Red Breast 27 is luxury in a glass. Aged in a few of my favorite ex-barrels, bourbon, and sherry, for 26 years. Then finished for the last year in Ruby Port barrels. If the deep garnet color isn’t a dead giveaway for the flavor you are in for the aromas of walnuts, deep berry, thyme, and toffee. Once you get a sip the holiday cheer surrounds you — sweet red wine, sugar plum, vanilla, custard — instead of a burn from alcohol there is white pepper and chili spice. In the end, there is Irish wood spice to remind you this is a whiskey.
I would never mix this, but a slice of blue cheese or Irish cheddar on the side would be sublime.
Glenfiddich Winter Storm
Sebastien Derbomez, brand advocacy manager at William Grant & Sons
Try to get your hands on Glenfiddich Winter Storm Icewine Cask finish 21 Year Old. It’s wonderful on the nose and has soft sweet notes of candied fruit and Turkish delight. Pair this single malt whisky with your favorite cheesecake! You’ll thank me later.
Elmer T. Lee
Jonathan Stanyard, bartender at Feast in Kirkland, Washington
It may not be the absolute hardest to find, but for what it is worth, the Elmer T. Lee bourbon from Buffalo Trace is epic. This juice is everything a bourbon should be. Oak, caramel, grain, and spice fill your nose and transfer to the palate as you savor it.
Evan Williams 23
Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami
Evan Williams 23. A bourbon past the age statement generally sought out for my palate, this is just fantastic to sip. Rich age flavors of smoke and wood are complemented by a sweeter finish that is accentuated by the higher proof and subtle heat.
Pappy Van Winkle
Brooks Cloud, founder and managing partner of Proof Old Fashioned Cocktail Syrup in Decatur, Georgia
The unicorn of whiskey has to be the Pappy Van Winkle. It’s probably my favorite liquid in the world — next to Proof, of course.
William Larue Weller
Stefan Huebner, co-owner and head mixologist at Dot Dot Dot in Charlotte, North Carolina
William Larue Weller. It’s an amazing bottle of whiskey, part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. It’s a once-a-year release with very low availability. It has big vanilla, oak, and robust leather/tobacco flavors, making it the perfect whiskey to sip while you’re sitting by the fireplace.
Robert Gleim, managing partner at Bamboo Willie’s Beachside Bar in Pensacola, Florida
Blanton’s is hard to find. When you see it at your favorite place, order a glass. Its depth of citrus, rich flavors, and warming spices make it an awesome tasting bourbon. Put it in your collection at home.
Jon Bacon, bartender at FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar in Bloomington, Minnesota
It’s annoying how Weller 12 Year Kentucky Bourbon has become a poorly kept secret. For years I was able to pick up a bottle in October for around $30, now it doesn’t even hit shelves, but goes right to the secondary markets for around $350.
It’s incredibly smooth and well-balanced… from what I remember.