For many drinkers, the most popular American bourbon brand names are synonymous with the term "table whiskey"—the stuff sold at every bar and liquor store for 25 bucks or less. Yet few people realize that the distillers cranking out this adequate booze are actually some of the most skilled in the world, capable of producing aged whiskey that can stand up to the finest Scotch, Irish, Canadian or Japanese drams in the luxury market.
To this point, Wild Turkey has just released Russell's Reserve 1998, a phenomenal whiskey aged for more than 15 years. With only 2,070 bottles released and retailing at $250 each, this is Wild Turkey's rarest and most expensive product to date. And just a few months earlier, Wild Turkey released Master's Keep, a 17-year-old whiskey aged both in stone and wood warehouses that retails for $150—still quite a jump in price compared to its typical offerings.
But why after decades of producing only a few modest whiskeys are distilleries such as Wild Turkey aiming so high? Wild Turkey's Eddie Russell (co-master distiller with his dad, Jimmy) suggests that Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve is probably responsible for kicking off the trend of "luxury" bourbon in the early 2000s. In addition to producing a great product, "[Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery] had so little whiskey to put out," Russell explains. Consumers began spending so much on the stuff, because of the hype surrounding its scarcity, and a bourbon retailing for $100 or $200 began to fetch up to $2,000 on the secondary market.
The collector's race doesn't end with Pappy. As Russell explains, "I'm hooked up with a few of these sites where they buy and trade whiskey, and [the other distillers and I] are just amazed at the price that they pay for them . . . I noticed on one site last week, there were a few people already asking twice the price for the [Russell's Reserve] 1998. For me, the price is already too high!"
With demand for rare whiskey increasing, all of the leading American bourbon distillers have begun producing their own. Jim Beam, for one, now offers Distiller's Masterpiece, a 10-year-old bourbon finished in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks that retails for $199. But Beam master distiller Fred Noe claims that the craze over such a product goes beyond rarity: "Folks are looking for new things, not just the same old bourbons that their grandfathers drank," he says. Russell agrees that a different generation of imbibers is steering the ship: "For years and years, our consumer was an older gentleman. Now what's grown our market [are] 21- to 45-year-old males and females."
Noe points out that a younger, more curious consumer is more willing to explore when out at a restaurant or bar, and mixologists are all too willing to experiment with different products. "Cocktails—the Manhattan and the old-fashioned [in particular]— have really grown this brand," he says.
Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott sees the renewed American interest in classic cocktails and more extraordinary bourbons as a larger trend over the last decade of consumers rejecting that which is "polished or mainstream" in favor of more authentic, rare handcrafted goods—whether food, tools, art or beverage. "Bourbon has a lot of history and tradition. It fits into that [trend] very well," he explains.
To support this shifting consumer landscape, Four Roses now releases an annual limited-edition small-batch bourbon made up of exceptionally aged whiskey. The product retails for over $100—quite the steep increase from its regular range of bourbons, which retail from $20 to $50. Elliott recalls that when Four Roses first started offering such higher-end products just a few years ago, only the hardcore connoisseurs were interested. However, "the educated fan base is so wide now that you could call a lot of [people] bourbon connoisseurs," he says.
Consumers are not only more numerous but now more passionate and inquisitive than ever before. To satisfy this demand, Four Roses also invites retailers to select older barrels of one of its 10 different recipes from the warehouse. Today's "connoisseurs"—most of whom are younger than whiskey drinkers of previous decades—want to isolate ingredients and understand their differences.
Understanding this need as well is Jim Beam, which offers a Harvest Collection of bourbons, each featuring a unique grain, such as rolled oats, triticale or brown rice, and retailing at about $50 for a 375ml bottle. Fred Noe believes that such premium products are "the future of bourbon," and that these days, "people want to drink less but drink better." Different age statements, wood finishes, proofs and, of course, ingredients all appeal to casual consumers—as does the story of how each product came to be.
Does this mean $400 bottles of bourbon are on the not-too-distant horizon? Perhaps. "Twenty-seven years ago, when Dad released Booker's [small-batch bourbon], there were people who thought the $50 price barrier on a bottle of bourbon was crazy," Noe says. "You know, a $400 bottle of bourbon's not common right now . . . but 25 years from now? Shit, it could be!"
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