Finding old and rare bourbon whiskeys to buy could be a full-time job. Sure, you can nab some bottles in some online stores like Caskers, Drizly, and The Whisky Exchange. And, yes, you’ll see most of these rare unicorns on whiskey bar shelves (if you look way up to the rafters). But they’re not exactly the sorts of bottles you just randomly spot at the liquor store — even at the best liquor stores.
To get premium bottles in your collection you have to enter auctions and pay attention to launch dates and make friends with liquor store owners. Or you have to be willing to pay well above the market price.
But even if you have the means, starting a bourbon collection — with profit as an aim — takes work. There’s a lot to parse. Some bottles become highly valued thanks to the hype machine. These are your small allocations of Pappy, Weller, and Henry McKenna, to name a few. Then there are the limited releases that folks will line up for — sometimes for days — season after season (Four Roses, does a great job with these sorts of drops). Beyond that, there are the rare and old dusties that survived under your grandparents’ sink or have passed through auctions and vaults for decades.
Long story short, it’s not the sort of hobby you can simply dip a toe into. Unless that toe is very well-heeled.
Today, we’re looking at ten bottles — the sorts dubbed “unicorns” in the bourbon world — for the budding collector. These picks just scratch the surface of the bottles being bid on at auctions, resting on shelves like Justin’s House of Bourbon in Louisville, or being poured in high-end whiskey bars like The Ballard Cut in Seattle. Still, they’re all pretty extraordinary, likely to increase in value, and offer a great launch pad for anyone wanting to start collecting.*
Let’s dive in!
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Very Olde St. Nick 12
Average Price: $250
This is a brand with a long story that stretches back to Julian Van Winkle, III, and the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. The juice was originally leftover whiskey from that same warehouses that aged old-school Pappy until it ran out. Then Diageo got into the mix and started sourcing the juice from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (which makes Willett).
Today, the whiskey is craft-made in Kentucky but still relies heavily on sourced juice from some of the best stocks in Kentucky.
There’s a subtle note of salted caramels on the nose with a hint of dried roses, oily vanilla pods, and a warm spicy mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove with a cherry Coke edge. The palate is like a rum-soaked Christmas cake with fatty almonds, candied fruits, dried fruits, and a lot of nutmeg, allspice, and clove with a light touch of silky softness. The finish leans into the fattiness of the nuts while the spice gets chewy with a tobacco edge as it very slowly fades away, leaving you with a note of dried fruit.
This is going to vary in price drastically, depending on what release you actually find. If you come across an old Stitzel-Weller version, it’ll probably be a lot at an auction and you will be outbid. The new stuff remains very collectible in that it’s a small release of bottles that rarely pop up outside of Kentucky or very bespoke liquor stores in major markets.
Average Price: $2,900
This expression spends a long 23 years resting in new American oak. That age means that there’s still some old juice from Pappy’s previous home, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, in the mix. Not every barrel makes the final cut. Only the “honey barrels” — the best of the best — are selected for marrying, proofing, and bottling.
This sip greets you with big notes of rich vanilla, dark cherry, old oak, spicy tobacco, and tart apples. When you add a little water, a dark dusting of cacao arrives to accent the base notes as the spices kick in, adding a real Christmas pudding vibe counterpointed by the musty oak, worn leather, and wisp of pipe tobacco smoke.
This is another bottle you’ll probably only see at a state lottery, auction, or a collector’s liquor shop (like Justin’s in Louisville). The thing is, though, is that high-end bars and average drinkers are opening these and pouring them into glasses. That means that even, say, a 2021 release is going to go up in price as those seals get broken.
Old Fitzgerald, Vintage Edition
Average Price: $2,400
This Old Fitzgerald is the OG bourbon that Julian Van Winkle, II (the one and only “Pappy”), built after WWII. The juice was made at Stitzel-Weller when Pappy still owned and operated the whole place (today, it’s owned by Diageo). When the brands and distillery were sold off, Old Fitz ended up as a Heaven Hill product, where it was revived into one of the most sought-after modern bottles (more on that later).
In short, this is classic bourbon that sort of set the flavor profile for a vast majority of bourbon being made today.
These are still very drinkable. The nose on a 1964 release I tried recently is a mix of salted caramel next to light touches of orchard fruit, oily vanilla, light and soft wood, and spiced tobacco. The palate is pure silk with bursts of stonefruits, soft leather, a touch of vanilla cream, and burnt sugars. The mid-palate to finish is a slow fade into the silliest vanilla custard you can imagine that’s been spiced with fresh tobacco, a touch of mint, and boozy soaked red fruit.
This is another bottle that you still see getting poured at high-end whiskey bars, which means there will be a point when very, very few of these are left. The problem is, drinking this is fun. It really taps you into that beautiful bourbon taste and texture that every other distiller has been chasing since Pappy struck gold with this recipe.
It’s one of the most delicious bottles on the list and hard not to crack open simply for the palate education.
William Larue Weller BTAC
Average Price: $800
This wheated whiskey from 2008 eschews the more common rye and adds in North Dakota wheat. The juice is then barreled and stored in two warehouses where 73 percent of the whiskey is lost to the air and elements. The juice is then bottled untouched and unfiltered.
There’s soft bourbon vanilla that leads towards almond-encrusted toffees inside a pine box with a dark chocolate bonbon hidden somewhere inside all that nutty toffee. The sip leans into a cherry and dark chocolate bespeckled ice cream with a solid vanilla bean base and a dusting of crushed-up walnuts and maybe even peanut. The end is slightly dry and leans more towards cedar and straw with spicy cherry tobacco buzz.
This could easily have been any bottle from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. I chose this one because I actually like to drink it. Moreover, there could be a few Weller releases here too — like the 12-year, Single Barrel, etc. The point is, Weller is one of those bottles that you’re going to either pay a hefty price tag for or find for a price at an auction thanks to so little of it actually hitting the open market.
Moreover, people still drink this stuff (this bourbon drinker being one of them), which is a good sign for A) steady demand and B) decreasing supply.
Four Roses LE Small Batch 2021
Average Price: $150 (Lottery ended)
This year’s LE Small Batch is a blend of four bourbons. Four Roses is renowned for its ten distinct recipes with two mash bills and five yeast strains. This whiskey marries four of those recipes with two from Mash B (very high rye) and two from Mash Bill E (high rye). The yeasts at play are “delicate fruit,” “spice essence,” and “floral essence.” The barrels ranged from 12 to 16 years old, making this a fairly old bourbon, all things considered.
The nose has a mix of honey next to buttery biscuits, rich vanilla, a touch of tart red berries, dry cedar, and a very faint hint of dry mint. The palate dives into a dark plum jam with a spicy edge of allspice and nutmeg. That fruit gives way to a spritz of orange oils next to a light touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate that leads to a rich finish. That finish leaves you with warming spice, more of that orange/choco vibe, and another mild hint of green, dry mint.
A limited release of only 14,000 bottles via lottery from one of the most beloved distillers in the country? Yeah, these go up in price. Again, the juice in the bottle is actually pretty damn tasty, so people tend to drink these away too, which helps their price point rise pretty quickly.
Parker’s Heritage Promise of Hope
Average Price: $900
This yearly release from Heaven Hill is, indeed, rare. The edition from 2013 was a personal mission for Parker Beam. He selected 100 barrels of high-rye bourbons that are at least ten years old for this expression. Those barrels were married and then proofed down to a very accessible 96 proof.
Imagine a still-warm apple pie full of spices, brown sugar, buttery crust, walnuts, and maybe even a raisin or two topped with the richest vanilla ice cream scoop you’ve ever had and you’ll be on the right track. This smells and tastes like home on a summer day with that perfect apple pie vibe that mellows towards a stack of pancakes smothered in browned butter and maple syrup as a note of tobacco chew warms up the back of your throat. The end is very long and full of a sweet maple syrup tobacco buzz.
Parker’s Heritage is Heaven Hill’s yearly limited release that changes year-to-year with some seriously rare drops. This happens to be one that is really hard to find while also being pretty freakin’ delicious. If you do ever see one of these in the wild, expect to pay a hefty price tag but also know it’ll increase in value.
Old Fitzgerald 8 Year, Spring 2021
Average Price: $275
This year’s spring release is a marriage of eight-year-old whiskeys produced in the spring of 2013. That distilled juice rested in barrels spread throughout three warehouses on several different floors. In spring of this year, those barrels were vatted and whiskey was proofed down to 100 (per bottled-in-bond law). Then the whiskey was filled into Old Fitzgerald’s signature decanters and sent out into the world.
This is gorgeous. The nose draws you in with warming eggnog spice, creamy vanilla pudding, rich toffee, mild fruit, and a hint of wet cedar and very muted citrus. To say this is “smooth” would be an understatement. The silky taste dances around oven-hot pans of pecan and maple-glazed sticky buns with plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg next to caramelized orange peel vibes and lightness that’s almost hard to believe. The finish is long, effervescent, and leaves you with this soft sense of having just eaten the best oatmeal raisin cookie of your life with just the right amounts of oats, spice, raisins, brown sugar, and crumble.
Like Parker’s Heritage above, this Heaven Hill release is pretty tiny. But there are three releases per year, making it slightly less rare but barely. Beyond that, the decanter, unique age statement, and deliciousness of the juice in the bottle all make this very enticing. And while these tend to go up in price a little slower than, say, Weller or Old Forester Birthday bourbons, they do tend to go up a few hundred a year.
Plus, that bottle is obviously an incredible get and something that grabs the eye.
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel Bourbon
Average Price: $330
Elmer T. Lee is another hugely popular release that’s very limited (and sought after). Where this differs from the single barrel from Blanton’s is in the mash bill (this is a bit higher rye) and the placing of the barrel in the warehouse. It’s said that the barrels for Elmer T. Lee are stored where the master distiller himself used to store the barrels he kept for his own stash.
The nose on this is like a decadent breakfast of pancakes smothered in cinnamon butter, dripping with the best maple syrup, and topped with a hand-made scoop of vanilla ice cream. The palate holds onto the vanilla and spice but settles into more a floral honeyed sweetness with touches of cedar, old library book leather, and a hint of tobacco buzz. The end lingers for a while and leaves you with a dry pear tobacco warmth next to cinnamon heat and maple bar sweetness.
This might be one of the easier bottles to source on this list. You can still grab these off the shelf at the distillery (and really high-end liquor stores) for a price. You also see this poured at the high-end whiskey bars with pretty good frequency. That means people are still drinking these at a good enough clip to help new and older releases increase in price.
This is the mountaintop of Michter’s line of bourbons. The juice is one of the longest-aged bourbons in the game and tapped from special barrels hand-selected by Michter’s Master Distiller Dan McKee and Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson.
This opens with a deep presence of Christmas cake bursting with nuts, candied and dried fruits, a lot of eggnog spice, brandy-soaked cherry, and a rich and creamy vanilla pudding. The palate delivers on those promises with a buttery chocolate sauce drizzled over salted molasses cookies cut with fresh and rich vanilla, mild and dry tobacco, and a hint of dry wicker. The end is pure velvet with a soft maple syrup sweetness and woodiness that leaves you with a touch of dried vanilla pods and dry cedar boxes full of dry tobacco leaves.
This is one of those bottles that you’re probably not going to find. There are just so few of them. The ripple here is that you’ll rarely see a bottle of this open. This is a “straight-to-the-vault” bottle that just goes up and up in price.
John E. Fitzgerald Very Special 20 Year
Average Price: $850
This Heaven Hill release is an orphan barrel from Old Fitzgerald’s nearly extinct stocks. The juice is a blend of 12 barrels (from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery) that Heaven Hill inherited when they bought Old Fitz. They aged the whiskey for 20 years, vatted the barrels, cut the juice down to proof, and then bottled it in a unique decanter. Only 3,000 bottles were made.
There’s an almost sherry vibe to the sip, with stewed plums swimming in dark holiday spices next to a lightly salted caramel note with a creamy vanilla base. The taste leans into the dried fruit and eggnog spices as a touch of bitter dark chocolate arrives with a hint of almost smoked plums nestled in cedar boxes full of brittle, dried tobacco. The end is long yet very silky with a mild dry nuttiness and a slight return to the stewed plums and savory caramel.
This is a very rare release from Heaven Hill. This goes right back to Pappy, is a wheated bourbon, and remains one of those bottles that you might see out in the wild, but it won’t be cheap. That being said, if you are seeing this on shelves at bars and rare bottle liquor stores, that means some of those 3,000 bottles are still getting poured, meaning your sealed bottle can only go up in price.
*Uproxx is not offering investment advice and cannot be held accountable for fluctuations in the bourbon whiskey market.
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