Whiskey producers are always looking for the next new thing, which sometimes happens to be an old thing: Extra-aged whiskey is having a moment.
“When I got into the business 20 years ago, I would go to Kentucky for holidays, and I knew there was all this old bourbon being blended into four-year-old whiskey or evaporating into nothing,” says Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon. “Back then, there wasn’t much appetite at all for it.”
Times have changed and more brands sell old whiskey than ever. But many of them are sourcing inventory from established distilleries, so a ready supply is becoming tougher to come by. “Demand has grown so dramatically you have to look hard and far to find it,” says Roy Danis, CEO of Clyde May’s Whiskey. “But it’s out there.” With that bit of encouragement, we searched high and low for 10 exciting aged bourbon and rye bottles to recommend. (Nota bene: Some of these bottles are expensive. Like, insanely expensive. The rarest bourbons are in high demand, people!)
Diageo launched Blade and Bow in 2015, inspired by the defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery in Kentucky and designed to appeal to younger bourbon fans. As it released its flagship bourbon, it also pushed out a limited edition 22-year-old expression. Reminiscent of the Orphan Barrel 22-year Rhetoric, also from Diageo, it sold out quickly.
Though wood is a dominating force, you’ll find a lightly sweet undertone, with notes of candied plum and banana. There’s a gentle spice note and strong caramel flavors, with a faintly astringent finish. If the price on the 22-year-old seems out of reach, consider that a 24-year-old expression of Blade and Bow sold for more than $95,000 at Christie’s auction house in 2016.
Clyde May’s launched in 2001 with an intriguing “Alabama style” take on traditional bourbon, infused with essences of apple, cinnamon and vanilla, and inspired by a technique used by 1940s moonshiner Clyde May. “Consumer palates have become more refined, and they’re looking for special entries to sustain their desire,” says Danis, the Clyde May’s CEO.
The whiskey was released as an eight-year-old expression, and Danis says to expect a 10-year-old and hopefully an 11- and 12-year-old. “I want to have a whole vertical lineup.”
This is the oldest expression from George Dickel. “We’re definitely in new territory,” says brand ambassador Brian Downing. The 14-year-old remnants of a private-barrel program were moved from the top of a hill at the brand’s rickhouse to a warehouse near the distillery at the bottom, a 600-foot elevation difference, where the remnants sat for another three years until their discovery. The barrels exhibited a wide range of proofs; they were brought down to 86.8 proof for the finished product.
“We want you to taste the grain itself, not necessarily the barrel,” says Downing. The lovely deep-amber juice does display its oak maturation in a rich nose of caramel, oak, dark molasses and chocolate. On the tongue, it opens sweet with baking spices and moves into spicier pepper notes.
This is the youngest expression in the Presidential Select series, which launched in 2012 and features whiskeys aged up to 30 years. “Certainly, in the last seven years, there have been a number of older bourbons that have come out,” says Zoeller.
This limited edition is unusual in that it isn’t finished in previously used sherry or port casks. Instead, the Kentucky bourbon spent 10 years in a No. 3 char new American oak barrel, then an additional six years in another No. 3 char new American oak barrel. The results are pleasing: a bourbon with a bright, rich nose, clean fruit and caramel notes. On the palate, it’s round and smooth, with hints of chocolate, oak, fresh tobacco and a lingering sweet finish.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
Founder Dixon Dedman’s great-great-grandfather owned a still in the late-19th century and produced a bourbon called Kentucky Owl—until Prohibition. In 2011, Dedman revived the brand, sourcing extremely high-quality and hard-to-find bourbons to blend into batches. Ryes followed.
For batch No. 1, he brought the cask strength down from 132.6 proof to a more manageable (but still exciting) 110.6 proof. The result is a wonderfully sippable, rich rye with complexity that goes well beyond wood and spice. “I will probably hang on to some of the rye and let it age,” he said when it first came out. And he did. “I personally like that 8- to 12-year range. There’s so much character in this rye at that range.”
When distiller Rob Cooper released his 13-year-old straight rye back in 2014, it was an instant hit. He followed in 2016 with a 16-year-old that was brasher and woodier, and just as lauded.
Cooper passed away unexpectedly that same year, but Cooper Spirits continued the journey with an 18-year-old expression. Billed as one of the oldest rye whiskeys on the American market, it’s the moody 16-year-old two years later. At 54.5% ABV, it’s still a “hot,” brash rye, but with a beautiful balance between wood, rich toffee, cooked apple and peach, raw tobacco and a bright, spicy finish.
Michter’s 25 Year Straight Bourbon ($6,000)
Michter’s began life as a 1970s brand name for a Pennsylvania distillery that existed in one form or another since the mid-1700s. It closed in 1990. Joe Magliocco and his team revived the brand, beginning with carefully sourced bourbon and rye whiskeys and, later, the opening of a distillery in Kentucky.
Despite talk of shortages and allocations of its flagship US*1 sour mash whiskey, the brand occasionally releases an extra-aged bourbon (10 or 20 years old)––but only when the distiller deems it ready. The company is currently at a rate of one 25-year-old expression released per decade. So, yes, you might say it’s tricky to lay your hands on a bottle.
Much of Diageo’s Orphan Barrel program consists of bourbons from Kentucky, mining its extensive stock of ex-Stitzel-Weller. With this release, the company dips into its Canadian whisky reserves (Diageo owns Crown Royal). The 25-year-aged liquid hails from the “leftovers” from spirit laid down in barrels in 1992 and earmarked for blending into Crown Royal Deluxe.
Not a rye (even by Canadian definitions), this whiskey has a mash bill of 97% corn and 3% malted barley. The corn sweetness comes through, even after all the decades on wood. On the nose is a heavy vanilla-toffee-plum character. On the palate, it’s slightly nutty, with a tobacco bite and a stewed plum finish.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
Redemption started in 2010 with a focus on sourcing and bottling outstanding orphaned barrels of rye and bourbon from Indiana and Kentucky. The 18-year-old is part of Redemption’s new Ancients Collection, limited-edition extra-old whiskeys. (There’s also a 36-year-old bourbon going for upwards of $10,000!)
Laid down in 1998 at the old Seagram’s distillery (now MGP), this rye is all oak on the nose, but on the palate it avoids being overly tannic and woody. Instead, expect a rich canvas of cooked apple, dark chocolate, oak and baking spices that finishes long, with a lovely balance of rye spiciness and the mellow fruit sweetness that comes with age.
Founder David Szlam comes from the culinary world of Charleston, South Carolina, and his whiskeys reflect it. For this bottle, he used ex-pinot-noir barrels from Oregon, which then cradled Oregon wild farmhouse ale before holding eight-year-old sourced bourbon for a couple of months.
“We are flavor fanatics,” says Szlam. “When we were able to find a funky eight-year-old sour mash bourbon that was super spicy and corn-forward, we were excited to do something with it.” The bourbon is mild and soft, with distinctive notes of cooked tart cherry, butter and caramel and a long toasty finish that reveals a hint of spice.