There are more rare bourbons on the shelves than ever before. Which, admittedly, kind of feels antithetical to the word “rare.” Still, independent bottlers, distillers, retailers, bars, whiskey clubs, and restaurants are all getting in on the game with single barrel picks, special blends, and one-off drops. In short, it’s never been a better time to do a rare bourbon blind whiskey tasting (or to buy some rare bourbon!).
Before I dive in, let’s get some technicalities out of the way. “Rare” does not mean expensive or exclusive. Rare simply means “thinly distributed” or “occurring far apart in time.” Sure, that can mean that those “thinly distributed” items gain popularity that inflates prices, but that’s not crucial or defining for “rare” at all. Hell, rare doesn’t even mean good or special.
Look, I get it, people out there conflate “rare” with special or better or expensive. But that’s just not always the case.
Today, I’ve chosen bourbons that are mostly single barrel picks because that means there are 200 bottles or less of that expression — and there never will be any more of that specific release, ever. Yes, you might see another barrel pick from that brand out there but don’t expect it to taste anything like the last one you saw. I’ve also included highly allocated bourbons that are damn near impossible to get unless you know where to look (but not impossible if you’re willing to pay far above MSRP). The first covers the “occurring far apart in time” and the latter covers the “thinly distributed”.
That makes our lineup today the following rare bourbons:
- Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Warehouse PN Barrel No. 86-3E
- Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Antique 107 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey Single Barrel Aged At Least 15 Years
- Shortbarrel Single Barrel Series Kentucky Straight Bourbon
- Elijah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Private Barrel ReserveBar S2B7
- Hirsch Selected Whiskeys The Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Double Oak
- Rare Character Single Barrel Select Series Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength
- Doc Swinson’s Hand Selected Exploratory Cask Series Rare Release Aged 15 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon
After the blind tasting, I ranked these bourbons based on taste alone. And ho boy, these were some magnificent whiskeys. Still, some had more depth, nuance, and balance than others so it wasn’t that hard. Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The Rare Bourbon Blind Tasting
Nose: Woody maple syrup and cinnamon sticks lead to a hint of pear candy with a vanilla underbelly on the nose.
Palate: The palate lets the pear shine as the spices lean into woody barks and tart berries next to leathery dates and plums with a butteriness tying everything together.
Finish: A spicy tobacco chewiness leads the mid-palate toward a soft fruitiness and a hint of plum pudding at the end with a slight nuttiness and green herbal vibe.
This is delicious whiskey. It’s nuanced and deep with a bourbon vibe that goes well beyond classic to something much more.
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of vanilla pods and orange next to old saddle leather and cedar bark with cinnamon and caramel apple fritters.
Palate: The palate feels like a cream soda float with malted vanilla ice cream cut with cherries, dark chocolate chips, and espresso flakes next to cinnamon cherry bark tobacco on the mid-palate.
Finish: The end dives toward a thick braid of cedar bark, sage, and blackberry tobacco with a thin line of sweetgrass and vanilla pods woven in there.
This ended a little thin overall. It was classic bourbon but didn’t slap.
Nose: This is all about the cherry pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream next to a slight apple-tobacco vibe with a clear multi-vitamin chalkiness that leads to a deep cedar woody spice with a rich tobacco feel.
Palate: Red berries lead toward a cherry-choco soda pop, more vanilla cream, and a light touch of bourbon-soaked oakiness on the taste with a sense of woody winter spices and cedar bark braided with sweetgrass and smudging sage.
Finish: That woodiness leans into a musty corner of a cellar as a spicy cherry tobacco finish leaves you with a dry, almost chalky, yet sweet mouthfeel.
Well, hello Dickel. This is really good bourbon — Dickel or not. It’s so easy to sip as a neat pour. It’s distinct though and has a vibe all its own.
Nose: There’s a clear sense of fresh orange zest and dark cherry on the nose with a hint of winter spice, old dried prunes, and a hint of black tea.
Palate: The winter spice leads to creamy vanilla and eggnog on the taste as a peach cobbler with fresh vanilla whipped cream leads to warming tobacco spices and hints of old oak.
Finish: Marmalade and leathery dried apricot counter the vanilla creaminess with a light sense of winter spice barks rolled up with soft pipe tobacco leaves and dipped in black cherry soda.
This is another really good pour that leans very classic. I’m not sure if there’s more here though.
Nose: Rich cherries soaked in maple syrup mingle with a light sense of cedar cigar humidors, apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks, and cloves buried in orange peels with a hint of marzipan lurking in the background.
Palate: That cinnamon and clove blend with eggnog and nutmeg as the palate leans into mincemeat pie, vanilla cake, and a hint of toasted marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate.
Finish: The end gets a little dry as white pepper and old boot leather mingle with rich maple syrup over blueberry pancakes with a light sense of vanilla sugar cookies.
This pour starts as a stone-cold classic Kentucky bourbon and then dives so much deeper. The heat amps up on the end pretty significantly but never overpowers the overall experience (for me anyway).
Nose: Classic notes of dark cherry cola, cinnamon barks, and rich pipe tobacco dance with lightly buttered whole wheat toast, roasted marshmallows, and a whisper of pecan waffles on the nose.
Palate: Those pecan waffles take on more butter and rich and sweet maple syrup on the front of the palate as rum raisin and sticky marshmallow lead to soft grits cut with brown sugar and winter spices.
Finish: The end gets lush with caramel and dark chocolate over brandied cherries with a nice layer of tobacco-stained leather rounding things out.
This nails classic bourbon. It’s super easy to drink but doesn’t go beyond the ordinary.
Nose: Rips of winter spice barks and clove-studded oranges pop on the nose next to oily toasted vanilla beans, perfectly roasted marshmallows, cherry cotton candy, a whisper of caraway seed on rye bread crusts, and pine-y honey tobacco packed into an old humidor.
Palate: That rich vanilla takes on a deep creaminess with eggnog spices and sweetness on the front of the tongue as sharp marmalade over buttermilk biscuits lead to shark cinnamon-laced apple cider and warm vanilla buttercream.
Finish: The cinnamon, clove, and allspice really amp up on the finish as dry tobacco and smudging sage braid with cedar bark before dank dried chili pepper and sharp cinnamon bark add some serious heat to the very end.
This is outstanding bourbon. If I had to nitpick, it’d be the heat at the end of the sip. By the end, it was begging for a drop of water or a single ice cube.
Nose: Rich notes of sweet and spice oak mingle with old leather tobacco pouches on the nose before a deep sense of winter spice cakes brimming with roasted nuts, candied citrus and dark fruits, and dark chocolate notes combine with brandied pear and ribbon candy with a fleeting sense of dried spearmint layered into caramel candy.
Palate: That leathery tobacco pouch gets a little chewy on the front of the taste as dark Christmas puddings and mincemeat pies drive the taste toward brandied fruits, candied citrus, and toasted nuts before a deep dark salted chocolate arrives with a hint of espresso oils and vanilla syrup all countered by a dank and musty barrelhouse.
Finish: That dank and dusty barrel house leads to dried tobacco leaves just kissed with black cherry and pear brandy before echos of Christmas treats and nogs create a lush and vibrantly spiced sweet finish.
This is phenomenal whiskey. It does so far beyond average or classic and delivers a truly deep and delicious experience when sipped neat. Even now, I want to make the best Manhattan ever with this after slowly sipping some after a huge holiday meal … next to a crackling fire … on a snowy morning … with a dog sleeping at my feet.
The point is that this is deeply experiential, rewarding, and exciting bourbon.
Part 2 — The Rare Bourbon Ranking
8. Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Antique 107 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $50
This non-age-statement bourbon is still called “Old Weller Antique” (OWA) by those who love the old-school vibes of the expression’s previous iteration. The ripple with this wheated bourbon from Buffalo Trace’s Weller line is the higher proof. The barrels are vatted and barely proofed down to 107-proof before bottling (the entry proof is 114).
This felt like a pretty average bourbon overall. It was made for mixing cocktails back in the day and still sort of is. The rarity of the release (it’s highly allocated in most states) kind of programs newbies into thinking this is something special. It’s really not. This is just a really good cocktail bourbon. Ignore the hype and treat it as one.
7. Hirsch Selected Whiskeys The Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Double Oak — Taste 6
Average Price: $99
Only 30 barrels were released of these Hirsch bourbons this year. That’s rare. The whiskey in those barrels was a blend of eight and three-year-old Kentucky bourbons. Once those whiskeys were batched, the bourbon was re-filled into a lightly toasted used finishing barrel for a final rest before someone picked a single barrel for cask-strength bottling.
This is really good classic bourbon. It doesn’t go beyond that and that’s just fine. Is it worth the $99 price tag? Sure. Again, this is good stuff and super rare. That said, you can get two Wild Turkey Rare Breeds for basically the same price. Maybe do that because that expression goes beyond classic into something much more.
6. George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey Single Barrel Aged At Least 15 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $60
This is a very old whiskey for a great price. The whiskey is from single barrels — “aged 15 years or more” — and the proof varies accordingly (sometimes it’s cut with water, too). This actual whisky is made from an 84% corn mash and stored in Dickel’s famed single-story warehouse. In this rare case, the whisky that ended up in the bottle is from a barrel that was 17 years and 7 months old when bottled this year.
That’s incredibly old Tennessee whisky.
This is excellent Dickel bourbon. It’s so nuanced and delicate while still offering a clear sense of Tennessee whisky vibes. And that’s the only reason this is a little lower in the ranking, it’s very locked into classic yet delicious TN whisky and doesn’t go deeper.
That all said, this is also an excellent deal. Dickel’s own 18-year expression (basically only months off being the exact same thing) costs $300 per bottle. Look at the price link again. You know what to do.
5. Shortbarrel Single Barrel Series Kentucky Straight Bourbon — Taste 4
Average Price: $74
These Shortbarrel Single Barrel releases are all over four years old and sourced either from Green River Distilling in Kentucky or MGP in Indiana. In this case, the whiskey was made in Kentucky and bottled in Georgia.
This is just good sipping bourbon. It goes beyond classic bourbon notes to something a little more nuanced and deep. You kind of can’t go wrong getting a bottle of this if you want something that’s just damn good bourbon.
4. Elijah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Private Barrel ReserveBar S2B7– Taste 5
Average Price: $82
This barrel pick from ReserveBar is a masterpiece bourbon. The whiskey in the bottle is a nine-year-old barrel made with Heaven Hill’s classic bourbon mash bill (78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley). The barrel rested in Heaven Hill’s famed warehouse KK for all nine of those years before it was bottled for this special release.
This is where we get into the spectacular stuff. Single Barrel Barrel Proof Elijah Craig is like finding a four-leaf clover. Hell, regular Barrel Proof Elijah Craig is getting harder and harder to find.
Rarity aside, this is great bourbon. It delivers all the Kentucky notes you want and then takes you deeper. It’s a great sipper neat or on a rock. And oddly, right now it’s easier to buy than a mainstream Barrel Proof Elijah Craig. Just hit that price link above and get some! And then when you go to your bottle share and someone excitedly busts out their Barrel Proof EC, you can bust this out and really wow the crowd.
3. Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Warehouse PN Barrel No. 86-3E — Taste 1
Average Price: $57
This Single Barrel Four Roses is a slightly proofed version of their famed OBSV recipe. That’s a bourbon recipe with delicate fruit yeast and a high-rye mash bill. A single barrel of that was picked from the north side of Warehouse P (a beloved position for Four Roses’ single barrel fans — yes, barrel position and warehouses make a big difference).
This was damn near number one today. It’s so freaking good — by that, I mean amazingly well-built whiskey that delivers layer after layer of depth and nuance that takes it well beyond the ordinary.
If you’re looking for a great yet kind of fun and fresh Kentucky bourbon sipper, get this ASAP.
2. Rare Character Single Barrel Select Series Straight Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength Helix Liquor — Taste 7
Average Price: $79
This rare release was distilled all the way back in May of 2016 in Indiana. That barrel was then sent over the Ohio River to Kentucky to age for six long years. Finally, the barrel was bottled 100% as-is.
This is beyond good and is more transcendent as a pour of bourbon. There’s just so much going on that you need to really take your time, add water, go back and forth, and you’ll be deeply rewarded for your effort. The only reason it’s not number one is that the end is really hot and there’s no getting around that fact. You can easily adjust that with a little water or a single rock. And then this whiskey will bloom even more, offering a wild ride. But I tasted this one neat against other neat pours so here we are.
1. Doc Swinson’s Hand Selected Exploratory Cask Series Rare Release Aged 15 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Release No. 008 — Taste 8
Average Price: $294
This rare whiskey was distilled in Kentucky from a unique mash of 78.5% corn, 13% rye, and 8.5% malted barley. 27 of those barrels rested in Kentucky for 15 long years before heading to Washington state for blending and bottling 100% as-is at cask strength.
This is a “F*ck, that’s delicious!” bourbon. It’s so deep and funky and fun. The pour gives you this layer of classic and dark bourbon and then just keeps going into new corners and nuances and they all make sense until you have a palate that’s filled with pleasure.
Yes, this is an expensive and rare bottle of bourbon. Hell, you probably can’t even get this batch anymore without paying a massively marked-up secondary price tag. I don’t care. This is one of the best bourbons out there right now.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Rare Bourbons
Obviously, rare bourbons can be special, unique, and expensive. Like I said above, that’s just not the basis for what makes them rare. The specialness comes from the people behind those rare bourbons taking the time to release something truly special that goes beyond the average, and I think there are plenty of examples of that above.
In the end, rare doesn’t automatically mean good or even special. Moreover, special or expensive doesn’t automatically mean rare either.
When it comes to this panel of whiskeys, you can’t really go wrong with any of them. Still, the top four are where you want to focus your time and money. And if you’re in Washington State, go your ass over to Doc Swinson’s right now and get yourself some of that 15-year-old juice before it’s all gone forever.