Believe it or not, bourbon was once an unpopular spirit – with many opting for vodka, gin, rum, or a tamer whiskey choice. For better or worse, the bourbon industry has exploded in recent years, largely due to a mix of clever marketing along with (some) really solid bourbons. As a result, there are tons of bourbon choices from distillers wanting to cash in.
What this growth has done is drive up the price on established premium bourbons that are now harder to find, water down (literally) the selection of higher proof bourbons as companies look to increase the volume of output by decreasing the proof, make age statements largely disappear, and clutter the shelves with startup brands that vary wildly in price ranges.
If you’re looking to get into the bourbon game for the first time, it can be overwhelming when trying to figure out where to start. How do you know if that $150 bottle behind the counter is really better than the $30 bottle on the bottom shelf? To save you some time and money, I’m going to tell you which ones to keep an eye out for – and which of those you’ll probably never see. But if you do, you’re in for a real treat (if the liquor store doesn’t gouge you on the price).
In terms of liquor store etiquette, here are a few tips that may increase your odds of landing something good. Whatever you do, don’t walk into the liquor store and ask for “Pappy”. For the rare bottles, you’ll see them on the shelf if they were lucky enough to receive an allocation. If you want to have a better chance of getting your hands on a bottle of George T. Stagg or Pappy, you’re going to have to be a regular that spends a lot of money there. The proprietors will often reward their most loyal customers by setting “the good stuff” off to the side for them instead of putting it on the shelves. If you want to ruin all credibility with your liquor store, refer to Pappy as “Pappy’s”, Weller as “Wellers”, or refer to Jack Daniels as bourbon (it isn’t).
If you’re willing to spend some money, keep an eye out for these premium and elusive bourbons later this year.
- Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC)
- Includes George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare 17-year, William Larue Weller, Sazerac, and Thomas H. Handy
- Pappy Van Winkle Collection
- Includes Old Rip Van Winkle (10 year), Van Winkle “Lot B” (12 year), Family Reserve Rye, Pappy Van Winkle 15-year, Pappy Van Winkle 20-year, and Pappy Van Winkle 23-year
Here’s the thing about the bourbon’s listed above: if you find them (you likely won’t), you’ll probably pay an exorbitant price far beyond what they’re really worth. I’ve had virtually all of them over the years, and while they are good, none of them are worth overpaying. Is Pappy 20-year good? It sure it. Is it worth $1000 or more? Nope. It isn’t even worth $300. The retail price is around $170, so if you ever see it for more than that, just know you’re getting ripped off.
I am not saying these are better bourbons, but if you want some alternatives that are excellent bourbons for a great value and can generally be found, try looking for these instead.
- Weller Special Reserve – Sadly this is becoming harder to find due to its association with other famous Buffalo Trace bourbons (Pappy) and the distiller’s difficulty in keeping up with demand, but if you can find it for its MSRP of $25-$30 you should pick it up. It is a wheated bourbon, so it has a sweeter taste. And at a lower 90 proof, it is palatable for most. Weller also offers an “Antique” and “12-year” version, but those are exponentially harder to find.
- Booker’s – If you like higher proof bourbons, there are very few available options out there unless you want to overpay for a startup distiller’s subpar bottle. For a high proof bourbon that has an exceptional value and is commonly available, Booker’s from the Jim Beam distillery is hard to beat. Batches generally range from 120-130 proof, and regularly have an age range between 6-12 years. Booker’s can generally be found for $70-$80.
At the end of the day, there are no shortage of quality bourbons. It really comes down to availability and price. Let’s not forget that personal preferences play a big part in what constitutes a “good” bourbon. Some people like to drink Makers Mark, while I deem it only worthy of cooking with. Do you like high rye? High corn? Wheated? High proof or low proof? Take time to figure out what you like.
Whatever your preference, don’t overpay for anything. If you really have to own a bottle of Pappy or some other unicorn, please find a bar where you can pay for a glass to try first. If you do and still think it is worth paying $1000 or more for that bottle on Craigslist, then go for it.