Collectible Bourbon

Collectible Bourbon
Photo/Jeff Harris
The market for rare, collectible Bourbon is growing ever hotter, with some whiskeys selling for thousands of dollars per bottle

Suppose your rich uncle—or distant great grandfather—had been a liquor dealer with the foresight to lay in cases of Bourbon and rye just before Prohibition made them illegal to buy. And then imagine that almost 100 years later, hidden behind bookshelves in his house, you discovered his secret bank vault containing a huge part of that cache. That was the windfall that greeted the heirs of the California builder, banker and liquor merchant Jean-Baptiste Leonis when his secret trove was discovered in 2017. Many would have dipped straight in, but instead these historic pours made it to Christie’s auction house. What happened next made the market stand up and take notice. An auction of the goods in December saw most of the lots attract prices that stunned the experts. Nine quarts of Old Style Brookhill Sour Mash, distilled by J.H. Beam, an uncle of Jim Beam, sold for $26,950. Three quarts of Old Crow went for $9,188. Just two quarts of Old Taylor matched that price. The auction opened with five quarts of a bygone rye whiskey, named Hermitage, selling for $22,050.

“We put some estimates on them that we thought were quite normal,” says Chris Munro, the head of the spirits department at Christie’s.  “And then the market went crazy for them.”

The market has been heating up for collectible whiskey for years, especially after spirits auctions were legalized in New York in 2007. But the hot action had long centered on Scotch, which for reasons of aging conditions can offer eye-popping age statements, reaching into six decades. Today, that ardor has spread to Bourbon as well—and not only those from the days before Prohibition.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve dominates the collectible Bourbon category, especially since it comes in age designations of 20 and 23 years (ancient by Bourbon standards) and has become all-but-impossible to find in retail shops, bars and cocktail lounges. When Pappy shows up at auction, the prices soar. A recent sale saw the gavel fall for $1,872 and $2,964, respectively, for Van Winkle 20- and 23-year-old Bourbons, whiskeys that would sell at retail for $150 and $250—if one could find them.

A treasure-trove of Prohibition-era whiskey that sold for eye-popping prices in December.
A treasure-trove of Prohibition-era whiskey that sold for eye-popping prices in December. Photo/Courtesy of Christie's

Daniel Lam of the Wine & Whisky Department of Bonhams’ Hong Kong location, says that while historic Bourbons are still very important, sales of modern, hard-to-obtain bottles are up. And while you’re unlikely to inherit a stash of old Bourbons, you’ll find that major distilleries have limited-edition offerings (some only available at the source) that can anchor a Bourbon collection to give your guests a unique experience.

Pappy Van Winkle, bottled with the distinctive image of an old man in a suit and vest with eyeglasses, smoking a thin cigar, is the most celebrated Bourbon to be made at the Buffalo Trace distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Operating since (at least) 1812 under various names, the facility holds some of the most storied brand names in Bourbon—including E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller. It also never shuttered for Prohibition, as it was licensed to make the “medicinal purposes” bottlings that are now so collectible. Van Winkle is now made and stored here by contract. The brand originally was developed by procuring extra-old barrels that were unused by other distilleries, one of them presumably being Buffalo Trace.

But Van Winkle is hardly the distillery’s only notable product. The distiller has become well known for its experiments, among them the Single Oak Project, in which consumers voted on casks made from 96 oak trees of different origins and ring densities. With a retail price of $46 a half-bottle, some of the singular expressions have been auctioned for nearly triple that amount.

Not as well known as Van Winkle, but able to tout similar age statements—and similar attention at auction—is Michter’s. Its limited-edition bottles with age statements as old as 20 and 25 years are particularly collectible, reports Lam. A 20-year-old Michter’s sold for $2,340 at auction in Hong Kong last August. But that pales in comparison to the brand’s priciest offering—Michter’s Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey, an extremely limited edition. The last edition, released in 2016, was priced at $5,000 per bottle, with only 256 bottles released.

Back in the 1990s, Michters didn’t have a distillery. Instead, it procured select casks at a time when Bourbon and rye were not in great demand. Soon, however, it began having its whiskey made by other distillers according to its specified recipes. In 2015, Michter’s opened its own distillery in a converted GM auto parts plant in Louisville, where it controls all aspects of production. In a sense, the brand has ties to an old Pennsylvania rye distillery, dating from 1753, because whiskey of the same name had once been made at the site. (That facility closed in 1989, and the current iteration of Michter’s was never made there.) The parent company of the new Michter’s chose to move production to Kentucky because of the state’s concentration of suppliers. As well as having state-of-the-art equipment, the distillery keys on using high-quality barrels and pays a premium for them.

A lineup of once forgotten Bourbons, from the Orphan Barrel line.
A lineup of once forgotten Bourbons, from the Orphan Barrel line.

The “lost barrel” story is one that is tossed around quite a bit in the whiskey world. It refers to a cask that was somehow mislaid in the warehouse and then discovered when it reached a ripe old age—presumably in peak condition. The Orphan Barrel project from spirits giant Diageo is a version on that, except that the barrels that created it were not lost, but more accurately abandoned. The whiskey’s wending history begins in 1935 with the founding of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, just outside of Louisville. Among other brands, it made Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller. The distillery was sold in 1972, and passed through a number of owners before being shuttered in the early 1990s, a time when Bourbon was underappreciated in the United States, and a time when old barrels of the whiskey were not the coveted items they are today. Diageo bought the property, and with it came a wealth of aged whiskey that had been left unwanted. In 2014, Diageo began bottling those old, forgotten barrels under the brand name Orphan Barrel. Limited releases were made under various subtitles with ages ranging from 19 to 28 years. Orphan Barrel Rhetoric, for example, has come out in several versions, each of them at least 20 years old. The Orphan Barrel 24 launched last summer, with a suggested retail price of $130. A limited-edition collection of six Orphan Barrel bottles, representing 132 years combined age, was released in 2017 for $1,500.

Another distillery that is drawing the attention of collectors is Louisville’s Bernheim distillery, which has been owned by Heaven Hill since 1999. Two special releases from Bernheim—Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (12 years) and Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond (13 years)—have become highly sought after. Heaven Hill 27, made at the company’s old distillery, debuted at $400, but has already sold at auction for double that, $800.

Many date the trend of superpremium Bourbon to the early 1990s, when brands like Booker’s, Knob Creek and Blanton’s debuted with small batches and single barrels. But as early as the 1950s—long before the term “small batch” was coined—Maker’s Mark bet that people would spend more for a better product. Besides refurbishing an antique distillery in a pastoral location, the company introduced a wheat recipe and intensely rotated casks in the warehouse for uniform aging. For decades, Maker’s had only one standard release in their portfolio, except for a high-strength version (95 proof) available only in Asia, which draws auction interest. Today, customers can buy a cask strength version (108–114 proof, $50) and retailers have the option of the Private Select program, whereby retailers buy an  entire barrel ($13,000) at cask strength and then customize finishing from a selection of five stave wood types. The per bottle suggested retail price is $70.

For Jim Beam, the world’s largest Bourbon distillery, rotating barrels throughout the warehouses is impractical. After all, they add a half million casks a year to their inventory, storing close to 1.9 million at any time. So years ago when distilling legend Booker Noe was asked to come up with superpremium products, he simply set out to find the warehouse crannies that aged the best liquor. He did this by locating the hoses that workers had hidden to sneak sips out of the best casks: a crude, but effective, focus group. It turned out they were stored mainly in the center of north-facing warehouses. He passed the knowledge to his son, Fred, who is now master distiller in charge of picking those “honey barrels.” The company now annually adds further limited releases of uncut and unfiltered Bourbon, called Booker’s Batch Collection. There’s also a market for collecting vintage Jim Beam decanters that were made in the shape of cars and trains and even Elvis. But those who take the Jim Beam American Stillhouse tour, representing a bit of brand history that’s not to be overlooked,  can buy a 375-mm bottle of Old Tub, a tribute to a pre-Prohibition brand that is only available in the visitor’s center.

Departed legends Parker Beam (left) and Elmer T. Lee (right) saw the ups and downs of Bourbon.
Departed legends Parker Beam (left) and Elmer T. Lee (right) saw the ups and downs of Bourbon. Right Photo/Mark Cornelison/Herald Leader

A handful of legendary master distillers like Noe, Parker Beam at Heaven Hill and Elmer T. Lee at Buffalo Trace acted as links to the time when Bourbon was king. The men also lived through the spirit’s down times, which started in the 1970s, and the whiskey’s resurgence in the 1990s. Still reminding us of that heritage is Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey. As much as his friend Booker was an outsized personality, Russell is a beatific Buddha overlooking his domain even as he chalks up his 65th (and counting) year at the same distillery where he started working as a 17-year-old. Never flashy, but always amicable, he and his son Eddie are now co-master distillers. Some of their most collectible productions include the Master’s Keep series ($150). It currently numbers three releases, the latest version of which is a nod not only to Jimmy’s long career, but his long championing of the 101 proof standard that so many of his whiskeys have upheld. The second, called Decades, showcases Eddie Russell’s skill with a melding of whiskeys between 10 and 20 years old.

The Four Roses distillery in nearby Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, possesses a long history that was long obscured. When Seagram’s bought the plant in the 1940s, it ceased selling its standout straight Bourbon whiskey in the United States, replacing it with a subpar blend. In the 1990s, it resumed sale in small allotments in Kentucky, but the Bourbon was still by definition a collectible. Finally, the Japanese brewery Kirin bought the distillery and started widespread sales in America. The whiskeys are delicious, but there’s one collectible iteration that’s particularly hard to get: the barrel-strength Four Roses Single Barrel Private Selection, which is something that can only be bought at the distillery store.

Woodford Reserve is made at the same site where the sour-mash process was pioneered, as the distillery has roots that reach far back into the history of Bourbon. The present owner is still innovating, using three copper pot stills, the kind of thing you expect from Scottish single-malt whisky makers, not Bourbon men. Woodford’s think-outside-the-box culture has done nothing but grow, and there’s a particularly collectible whiskey produced by its sister brand Old Forester in Louisville. (Both companies are owned by spirits giant Brown-Forman.) Once a year, Old Forester remembers the founder George Garvin Brown with its Birthday Bourbon, a melding of casks distilled and barreled on one particular day. Obviously, that condition makes it a highly limited release. And while this whiskey sells for a relatively affordable $60 a bottle upon release, a set of three from separate years recently sold at auction for the considerable sum of $2,500.

As it turns out maybe you don’t need a rich uncle to get your hands on unique Bourbon.