Bourbon season is year-round. Neat, mixed, on the rocks–it’s all good, and you can adjust based on the weather, the occasion, or the mercy of your taste whim at the moment. You can easily get some great bourbons for less, but the range can span from $8 and into the stratosphere of thousands. Of course, there are times when you want something truly special, so you’re willing to pay more. You have to be careful, though, because a pricey bourbon might be severely overrated, so you have to know how to sort through the chaff to get to the truly good stuff.
What Makes an Expensive Bourbon Good?
A really good bourbon isn’t necessarily indicated by a high price. The secondary market has made many already expensive bourbons almost completely out of reach for ordinary drinkers. What once cost a few hundred bucks retail might now command thousands for a single bottle of small-batch bourbon, and that’s if you can even find one. There are numerous reasons why they command a high price, some related to the product while others more related to hype. Exclusivity, however, may be the most important factor that causes the price to skyrocket.
Everything that factors into a great bourbon goes hand-in-hand. First of all, an experienced distiller is imperative. Nobody who’s fresh out of the gates is going to create a great batch of bourbon. A master distiller has a wealth of experience and can oversee the creation of spirits, including bourbon. From sourcing the raw materials to quality control and product testing, only a master distiller has the ability to create a truly special bourbon. Those raw materials chosen by the distiller should also be of premium quality including grains, yeast, water, and the all-important new American charred oak barrels used for aging (and in the case of some premium bourbons, particularly long periods of aging). Quality can be more easily controlled this way, and consistency is better maintained.
If you want to a great bourbon, the distiller will have also taken a proper cut for the small batch produced. Rather than taking everything from the aging process, the proper cut diminishes the amount of what’s known as the “head” and the “tail” which typically have more impurities and less favorable odors. Premium bourbon should, as a result of the proper cut, be more flavorful, more complex, and better to drink. There’s less of it to bottle, but the color, nose, mouthfeel, palate, and finish will benefit tremendously from this process as a result. High-end bourbons will also purposely avoid using colors or preservatives that would negatively affect the product in the pursuit of volume and appearance. Excellent distillation and proper aging can never be substituted by these artificial approaches, and no premium bourbon would be caught dead using them.
Finally, remember that just because a particular bourbon is pricey doesn’t mean it’s great. Some of the price is driven by aesthetics, exclusivity, or hype. For example, a bottle of Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition can cost over $2,000 a bottle. Sure, it’s a good bourbon, but it’s not worth the high price. You’re paying for a very nice-looking bottle, a nicely colored bourbon, and probably quite a bit of marketing costs. In terms of flavor, there are better premium bourbons out there that cost quite a bit less. Then there are the true magic elixirs like Pappy Van Winkle that seem overblown, but they consistently rank among the best bourbons in the world. That said, Pappy tends to go for prices that make unattainable. The good news is that there are other superb premium bourbons out there.
The Best Expensive Bourbons
Prices may vary depending on where you’re purchasing. As some of these picks are limited editions, the after-market price is often higher than the suggested retail price.
Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
The regular iteration of Blanton’s bourbon is seriously smooth and very drinkable, but sometimes it’s a bit too smooth. If it’s character and complexity you want without totally draining the wallet for a premium bourbon, Blanton’s SFTB is remarkable. For a bourbon that’s only aged about six years, there’s a lot to love here. The high ABV is apparent, but it’s not off-putting at all. The strength on the nose is also accompanied by caramel, cinnamon, apricot, orange, and some mild toasted oak. The palate is full of vanilla, spice, toasted nuts, and honey for a positively delightful experience. The unfiltered and uncut bourbon is single barrel, so nothing gets blended out. Tons of character and strength make for rich sipping, and it’s best consumed with a few drops of water or just plain neat.
Distiller: Buffalo Trace
Age: about six years in new charred oak barrels
ABV: 63.1 percent
Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel
Level up to Elijah Craig’s 18-Year Single Barrel and you’re in for something truly incredible. For what should be a very hard-to-find premium bourbon, it’s a surprise that you can get this Elijah Craig iteration without looking too hard. The drinking experience is easily commensurate with the price–18 years of maturation has imbued it with complexity rather than a simple mellowing. Fruit, spice, chocolate, honey, roasted nuts, oakiness, and even a bit of mint show up in various combinations that surprise you at every sip. Also consider the fact that Elijah Craig, himself, was the first to age bourbon in new charred oak barrels back in 1789, which is almost reason alone to grab a bottle for yourself.
Distiller: Heaven Hill
Age: 18 years in new charred oak barrels
ABV: 45 percent
2022 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
The flagship Four Roses is a quality affordable bourbon you can find just about anywhere, but this bottling is special. Four of the 10 Four Roses bourbon recipes were blended to create the 2022 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch. It uses two 14 years, one 15, and one 20. The result is a bold and complex combination that expresses the four recipes in a new way. Vanilla, raspberry, and butterscotch show up on the nose, followed by a taste of cocoa, brown sugar, apricot, and cinnamon. The mouthfeel is velvety and rich. The finish could be better because it’s a bit dry and short, but most of the journey is delectable. It’s a different experience than most of Four Roses offerings, but it’s well worth it based on the intensity and complexity.
Distiller: Four Roses Distillery
Age: Blend of 14, 15, and 20-year-old whiskey aged in new charred oak barrels
ABV: 54.5 percent
Old Forester 2022 Birthday Bourbon
Every year, Old Forester celebrates George Garvin Brown’s birthday as the founder of the original distillery. It sells out quickly via lottery, but you can still get bottles on the internet that are marked up because of the sheer exclusivity. Every year is different, and for 2022 it’s about as impressive as it gets. The deep golden color is inviting and leaders to a bold complexity of flavors such as sweet vanilla pudding, banana cream, pound cake, smoke, oak, coffee, and dark chocolate. The long finish leaves tinges of cocoa, cinnamon, and dark chocolate for one of the most pleasurable ends in bourbon-dom.
Distiller: Old Forester Distilling Co.
Age: 11 years in new charred oak barrels
ABV: 48 percent
George T. Stagg Bourbon 2022
This cask strength bourbon isn’t for the faint of palate, but its high proof does not necessarily equate to an ethanol punch in the face. GTS’s reputation certainly precedes itself in bourbon circles, despite the fact that Pappy often overshadows this gem. The 2022 follow-up to the superb 2020 distillation is just as good, if not better. The rich red color is backed by spice and heat on top of the sweet cherry pie, vanilla, black coffee, and oak on the palate. The complexity isn’t lost even with such a high ABV, but you should definitely try cutting it with a tiny bit of water to see it open up. The powerful and very long finish is one to remember and revisit time and again.
Distiller: Buffalo Trace
Age: 15 years in new charred oak barrels
ABV: 69.35 percent