Put Down The Jim Beam: Your Guide To High-End Bourbons
When the conversation turns to "the best of the best," more often than not, spirit connoisseurs discuss tequilas, scotches, wines, and champagne. More often than not, vodkas and bourbons are left out of the discussion, with "very good" being good enough for everyone. With bourbons, I'm talking about Knob Creek, Booker'ss, Baker's, Blanton's, H.G. Weller, and myriad others. With vodkas, it's generally Stoli Elite, Ultimo, and perhaps a few more. I'm not as interested in vodka because the best vodkas strive to taste like...nothing. Not the most fascinating study in the world.
Bourbons, however, certainly taste like something, and there is a tier above those great brands I just listed. While bourbons present a value in that you can get an eight-year bourbon like Jim Beam Black for about $18 bucks, there is another echelon that is both very rare and very expensive. Let's take a look at those and find the sixth gear of bourbons that many may never have known existed.
Pappy Van Winkle
Being a fan of the TV show 'Justified', I found that this past season's antagonist, Robert Quarles (played by Neal McDonough) kept ordering a the bizarrely named Pappy Van Winkle bourbon when he would step into bars. At first I thought the name was a little too ridiculous to be real, but upon hearing it a half-dozen times or so on the show, I got curious. Sure enough, Pappy Van Winkle is a real bourbon and serves as something of a white whale among bourbon enthusiasts. The lowest end of Pappy is aged for 15 years, and released in very small increments to liquor stores. So stingy is the Van Winkle family with their product that I couldn't find a single bottle in the Los Angeles area at any price.
Calling up one of the highest-profile liquor stores in the city, I asked if they had any on hand. The salesperson refrained from laughing, but told me they get about 24 bottles in twice a year, and they're gone in a matter of minutes because over 500 people are on a waiting list. He told me finding a bottle of the stuff is "pretty much impossible." And this is a guy that deals in fine spirits for a living. Not a good sign.
An Internet search wasn't much more helpful, though I was able to find some bottles on eBay for about $175. To read more about the prestige of the Van Winkle family and its brand, check out this Grantland article that examines the mystique.
This bourbon is off the radar largely because it's too rare to even be prestigious. Martin Mills is a fictituous distillery, but the bourbon is very real, costing $100 per ounce at bars, making it the most expensive pour on the list. As the label would indicate, the bourbon is 24 years old, and is best served with water, which opens up the bourbon and changes the complexity of the spirit into something that most regard as more palatable.
Strangely enough, one reviewer said he was able to get the bottle for $150 plus shipping from Japan, which means the markup on this bad boy must be pretty nice for Char No. 4, the bar in Brooklyn that serves it.
George T. Stagg
George T. Stagg is a name you might not be familiar with, but one taste of this borubon would probably burn it into your brain. The proof varies from year to year, but it seems to hover around 130, which means this bad boy is about 65% alcohol. Might wanna cut it with some water, dude. It's only released once a year, after it has aged for around 15 years. I haven't had any luck tracking this one down in stores either, but I have foudn some online outlets selling this for between $90 and $150 per bottle. I know it flies in the face of bourbon snobbery, but you might want to get a chaser for this one. Or a bucket. Better yet, cut it with water. Even the pros don't get after this one.