There’s no getting around the hiked-up prices of rare and delicious bourbon whiskeys these days. A lot of great but very limited releases (“allocated” if you want to get all technical about it) bourbons are not only hard to find but inflated price-wise when you do stumble across them. Retailers (in non-state-run states) will put seemingly insane price tags on the most sought-after bottles of, say, Weller 12-Year or Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year even though those whiskeys are supposed to cost $40 and $99, respectively. Add in that aftermarket sellers will also sell you those same bottles at ridiculously higher prices, and you have the perfect storm of what should be accessible and excellent whiskey ending up as prohibitively expensive (if you can even find it).
That begs the question, do bourbons that theoretically cost $50 but really cost $500 or stack up against bourbons that actually cost $500 at MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price)? That’s what today’s blind taste test hopes to find out.
Before we dive in, let’s get some context out of the way. This inflation of price in rare and heavily desired bourbon is the system we live in this world. It’s no different than Nikes, Rolexes, Supreme gear, wine, scotch, or any other product that has the perfect balance of rarity, quality, and consumer desire. Thinking that bourbon should somehow be exempt from this system is, well, naive at best and delusional at worst (it’s a simple misunderstanding of how our economy works on a fundamental level). We live in a world/economy where rarity, desirability, and quality are going to drive the market and therefore explode prices into the stratosphere. I’m not saying it’s fair but point to a single thing in this world that is.
Still, are the $50 bottles getting that massively inflated price point really so good? Are those bourbons truly as good or even better than bottles of rare whiskey that actually cost $500 (due to true rarity or age and not just hype)? I gathered some bottles that touch on this exact conundrum and had my wife shuffle and pour them so I could answer exactly that.
That makes our lineup today the following bourbons:
- Old Rip Van Winkle Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 10 Years ($69 MSRP)
- Chicken Cock Chanticleer Cognac Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($499 MSRP)
- E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond ($60 MSRP)
- Rare Hare 1953 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in XXO Cognac Casks ($585 MSRP)
- Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($55 MSRP)
- Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon ($499 MSRP)
- Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Aged 12 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40 MSRP)
- Heaven’s Door The Bootleg Series Volume IV Wheated Bourbon Finished in Islay Scotch Casks Aged 11 Years Cask Strength ($499 MSRP)
Yes, a couple of these are $60 and above and one is below. It all averages out in the end and they all top out at or over $500 in the real world. Moreover, the actual prices on these bottles at retail are going to range pretty far and wide but are always around $500.
One huge reason for that is that most of these whiskeys have vintages. Finding a, say, Old Rip 10-Year from 2022 is going to be cheaper than finding one from 2019 or even 2010. Likewise, that Rare Hare release is actually cheaper than its MSRP (because few people care about it). To sum up, there are a million factors that influence the exact price that you might find from the vintage (year released) to local taxes/allocations to the literal whims of local retailers.
Lastly, when it comes to ranking these bourbons, it’s about one thing only: Taste. What tastes best is my modus operandi. I’m ranking them accordingly and we will all see if those $40-$60 bottles that cost around $500 actually stand up to the real-deal $500 bourbons. Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The $500 Bourbon Blind Tasting
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of old barrels next to rum-raisin folded into a honey-nut creamy fudge cluster with pecans and walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar, sweet cinnamon, and orange zest.
Palate: The palate leans into salted caramel with vanilla cream next to stewed apples with maple doughnut frosting and a twinge of old dates soaked in black tea.
Finish: The end has a moment of black pepperiness before heading toward woody winter spices, old piles of orchard wood with a hint of black mold, and soft leaves of chewy tobacco laced with dark chocolate, salted caramel, and marzipan.
This is pretty good bourbon. It was a little tannic (old barrels) on the nose but delved deeply into stone-cold classic Kentucky bourbon vibes after that.
Overall, it didn’t feel “special” though. It felt like a “really good and very classic” bourbon.
Nose: The nose is supple and full of creamed honey, moist marzipan, peaches and cream ice cream with a hint of waffle cone, and fresh plums dashed with clove and star anise.
Palate: The palate leans into the plums with a spiced cake vibe next to rich Black Forest Cake, candied dates, rum-raisin, and banana bread with plenty of butter, cinnamon, and walnut with a twist of fresh orange zest.
Finish: The end embraces the orange and adds in salted dark chocolate tobacco with a hint of brown butter, pecan shells, and cedar boughs.
This feels special. There’s a depth that just goes and goes with a classic vibe overall. It’s also amazingly well-balanced.
Nose: Dried dark fruits and a hint of vanilla wafers mingle with fig fruit leather, a touch of orchard wood, and a deep caramel on the nose that leads to this very nostalgic sense of sunny backyards on lazy summer days of childhood. It’s almost mesmerizing.
Palate: The palate holds onto those notes while layering in dark berry tobacco with sharp winter spices, new leather, and a singed cotton candy next to a cedar box filled with that tobacco.
Finish: The finish lingers on your senses for a while and leaves the spice behind for that dark, almost savory fruit note with an echo of blackberry Hostess pies next to soft leather pouches that have held chewy tobacco for decades and a final hint of old porch wicker in the middle of summer.
This is excellent bourbon that also feels very special. There’s real depth here and it plays like a one-of-a-kind experience that’s somehow super comforting thanks to a deep familiarity.
Nose: The nose is like walking into a health food store and setting up camp on the vitamin aisle before dark fruit leather next to brandy-soaked raisins arrive next to a clear yet soft graininess that’s very Tennessee hollow on a cold fall day.
Palate: There’s a hint of clove and toffee on the nose that leads into the palate with a sense of sharp cinnamon spice next to a touch of black licorice that’s kind of like a black Necco Wafer.
Finish: The end leans back into that autumnal forest with a barky chewiness that’s slightly sweet and fruity next to a final note of salted toffee drizzle over a thin line of sour cherry tobacco leaf.
This is boldly a Tennessee whiskey that really leans into the multi-vitamin and chalkiness of it all. It was really hard to get into and a little light overall.
Nose: This opens with a pecan pie vibe that’s nutty, dry, and full of dark Caro syrup sweetness with a hint of candied orange peels, a touch of cinnamon, and dry cedar bark.
Palate: The palate holds onto the sweetness as it leans towards a campfire roasted marshmallow, a touch of saffron and clove-stewed pears, a pile of sappy firewood, and creamy nuances of vanilla pudding all meander through your senses.
Finish: The end has a light savory nature that leads back to the pear, vanilla, and marshmallow on a very slow fade toward a pile of fresh firewood piled high on soft black soil.
This is very nice but a bit of an outlier thanks to the deep nuttiness and the dryness that comes along with that. Still, it’s balanced excellently with soft fruits and creamy sweetness.
If I had to guess, this is a cheaper whiskey that costs a lot of money thanks to that balancing act and the uniqueness of the overall profile.
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of wet oak staves (think rained on barrels) next to freshly pressed sugar cane juice, damp, almost still unharvested cherry tobacco leaves, the seeds from a vanilla pod, rainwater, stringy cedar bark, and fresh apricot next to Bing cherry.
Palate: Dark cherry leads to candied ginger on the opening of the taste as orange marmalade mingles with toasted sourdough, sticky yet subtle fir resin, and creamy key lime pie filling with just a hint of the butter in the crust of that pie. The mid-palate leans into the sugar in that pie filling as the cherry kicks back in with a sliver of tartness next to overripe peaches, dried hibiscus, mild anise, allspice berries, sassafras, and dried cacao nibs.
Finish: The finish gently steps through a field full of orange blossoms as that cacao dries out more, leaving you with dried choco-cherry tobacco that’s been inside a cedar box wrapped in decades-old leather.
This pour was almost mind-blowingly better than the rest. The depth alone was fantastic while the balance of both pure nostalgic classic bourbon with so much more and interesting notes really drove home that this was not only special but quintessential.
Nose: The nose hits softly with bruised peaches and old pears next to fresh wool sweaters, vanilla pancake batter, and moist marzipan next to orange oils, worn-out wicker deck furniture, and old Buffalo Trace leather with a faint hint of dried roses.
Palate: The palate kicks around cherry bark and apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks with spiced cranberry sauce over buttermilk biscuits and gingerbread.
Finish: The end leans into the sharp brown spices with a mild sense of vanilla cake with apple cider and cinnamon frosting, a touch of burnt orange, and more of that moist marzipan covered in salted dark chocolate with this faint hint of proofing water at the very end.
This was nice and classic whiskey but ended a little thinly. That’s a shame because this is good stuff but not particularly memorable.
Nose: Old lawn wicker and worn-out leather tobacco pouches mingle with Christmas plum pudding, rich and most marzipan, and campfire-kissed marshmallow with this faint trace of burnt incense ash.
Palate: There’s a sense of old corn husks that leads to old oak staves, orchards full of dead leaves, sour cherry, marzipan cut with dark orange oils, and this fleeting speck of beef tallow.
Finish: That whisper of umami leads back to the dark orchard fruits, soft nuttiness, and mild medley of botanical winter spices with a chewy fresh tobacco vibe.
Again, this is mind-blowingly better than everything except taste six. It’s deep, complex, vibrant, textured, classic, fresh, and just sublime to sip.
I’m going to have to go back to this and taste six a few times if I’m going to pick a winner between them. They’re both far and away the best pours.
Part 2 — The $500 Bourhon Ranking
8. Rare Hare 1953 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in XXO Cognac Casks ($585 MSRP) — Taste 4
Average Price: $496
The juice in the bottle is a blend of 17-year-old bourbons from undisclosed sources in Tennessee. Those 17-year-old barrels were blended and then re-barreled into XXO Cognac casks (barrels that held brandy for at least 14 years in Cognac, France) for an additional 12 months of mellowing. Finally, that juice is vatted and bottled as-is into 1,953 bottles.
This is very Tennessee whiskey in that health store multi-vitamin chalkiness. That’s going to be hard to get over for a lot of people out there. And let’s be honest, you shouldn’t have to get past anything if you’re paying $500. That probably explains why this is one sale everywhere for almost $100 cheaper.
7. Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Aged 12 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40 MSRP) — Taste 7
Average Price: $457
This Buffalo Trace whiskey rests in the warehouse for 12 long years, in the same barrels and warehouses as Pappy van Winkle whiskeys. The difference between this and Pappy 12 — good ol’ “Lot B” — is pretty simple actually. If the barrel doesn’t hit the exact flavor profile needed for a Pappy, it’s sent to the blending house to become a Weller (as long as it hits Weller’s flavor profile, of course). So yes, this could have been a Pappy 12 had the flavor profile been slightly different in the barrel. Regardless, this is then batched and proofed down for bottling.
The low proof really drew this one back on this tasting panel. This whiskey tasted the most inexpensive by far. It’s still a great-tasting whiskey, but not for anything close to that price point. If you could get this at $40 or $50 at retail, then we’d be having a completely different conversation.
6. Michter’s US*1 Limited Release Toasted Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($55 MSRP) — Taste 5
Average Price: $588
Michter’s originally dropped this back in 2014; it has since become a mainstay of their release schedule. The whiskey is standard bourbon that’s then finished in a toasted barrel from the famed Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville. They build these barrels by hand from 18-month air-dried white oak and then lightly toast (not char) the inside before the aged whiskey goes in.
This was very good but didn’t quite pop. There was a lot going on, it all made sense, and this tasted very good. It just didn’t feel like a $500 pour at all. It did, however, feel like a great $50 pour with a truly one-of-a-kind flavor profile that just works, especially if you’re an oak-head.
5. Old Rip Van Winkle Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 10 Years ($69 MSRP) — Taste 1
Average Price: $799
This is Pappy at 10 years old but not “technically” Pappy (this is a “Van Winkle” expression, which are the entry-point expressions from the brand). Semantics aside, this is the same wheated juice that hits its prime at 10 years instead of 12, 15, or 20 years. The main difference here — besides the younger age — is the proof. This goes into the bottle with only a touch of water, keeping it far closer to barrel-proof at 107 proof.
You can find these for around $520 (I have) but it’s rare. Price aside, I really like this one. It feels like a solid 10-year-old bourbon but I cannot say it’s that much better than an Eagle Rare 10-year which only costs $50.
If this was only $70 a bottle and sitting next to a $50 Eagle Rare 10 on the shelf, I’d buy both — one for sipping and one for mixing — and be very happy. This is delicious. Don’t for a second get me wrong.
4. Chicken Cock Chanticleer Cognac Barrel Finish Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($499 MSRP) — Taste 2
Average Price: $499
This super rare whiskey is made from a classic mash of 70% corn, 21% rye, and 9% malted barley. That whiskey was aged for an undisclosed amount of years before it was re-barreled into 32 French cognac barrels. Those 32 barrels were then batched, proofed, and bottled as-is for this release.
This is where we get into the “wow” pours. This instantly was just better. I liked a few pours a bit more (they just had a tad more depth), but this was excellent bourbon that truly tasted like you were getting something deeply special and unique.
3. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond ($60 MSRP) — Taste 3
Average Price: $499
This whiskey is aged in the famed Warehouse C at Buffalo Trace from their Mash Bill No. 1. In this case, single barrels are picked for their perfect Taylor flavor profile and bottled one at a time with a slight touch of water to bring them down to bottled-in-bond proof.
This is really, really good bourbon. In fact, this felt and tasted special while being probably the most “classic” bourbon pour on the list. It just goes to show that you can be “classic” while still offering so much more.
I honestly couldn’t tell if this was truly expensive or just “marked up” expensive. That said, it didn’t touch the next two when it comes to true brilliance.
2. Barrell Craft Spirits Gold Label Bourbon ($499 MSRP) — Taste 6
This whiskey is a blend of Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky bourbons. Each barrel in that blend is a minimum of 16 years old. The barrels were specifically chosen for their cherry, nutty, high-proof, and chocolate profiles. Half of those barrels were then finished in new American oak for a final touch of maturation before vatting and bottling as-is.
This was so good that it was almost unbelievable. There was a depth and balance that was just unparalleled (in six out of the eight pours on this panel). This was so clearly a rare and expensive bourbon because it just tasted, well, really f*cking special.
The only reason that it’s not tied for number one is that the next pour was a little more of a surprise on the palate. Still, this is stellar.
1. Heaven’s Door The Bootleg Series Volume IV Wheated Bourbon Finished in Islay Scotch Casks Aged 11 Years Cask Strength ($499 MSRP) — Taste 8
Average Price: $499
This late 2022 release from Heaven’s Door carries on the tradition of the Bootleg Series being stellar. The whiskey in the bottle is a wheated bourbon that spent 11 years mellowing before being re-casked in old Islay Scotch whisky casks. After a final rest, those barrels were batched and bottled as-is.
This has everything you could ever want in a complex, enticing, and delicious whiskey — nuance, balance, and enough flavor notes to draw you in without seeming muddy or overwhelming.
Truly, this is a whiskey where you smell it and know immediately that you’re in the presence of something truly great. Moreover, that was blatantly obvious from the first moment of interacting with the glass. It just instantly read more refined and deeper and never let up while providing a wonderful experience from beginning to end. This is real first-class whiskey.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on $500 Bourbons
The top two whiskeys on this list are something truly special. I cannot overemphasize that. Are they worth their real $500 price tag? Yes. No question. I’d also argue that the Chicken Cock release is worthy.
Amazingly, the only $50 bourbon that I would also say is worth its inflated price point is the E.H. Taylor, Jr., Single Barrel. It’s pretty much a perfect classic Kentucky bourbon.
The rest… meh. Not really. The Old Rip 10-Year is perfectly fine but not the best option if you’re looking for a Pappy to fall in love with — that’d be Pappy Van Winkle 15-year. The Weller and Michter’s are also perfectly fine pours but don’t have the special pop that merits those prices. The Rare Hare is a hard pass (on this panel).
So there you have it. For the most part, the price and worth of these whiskeys just depends. There are $500 whiskeys that don’t live up to their high prices. There are $50 whiskeys that should cost way more and do. But let’s be real, three of the top four were all true $500 bottles. That should tell you everything you need to know.