Autumn is almost upon us, and the season brings with it more than fall colors, Halloween, and cooler temperatures. For American whiskey fans, fall is the prime bottle-hunting season of the year, when most of the hottest names in American whiskey hit store shelves — only to disappear almost instantly. Enthusiasts call in favors, camp in liquor store parking lots, and sometimes drive hundreds of miles chasing tips, all to secure these scarce whiskies, which are then breathlessly posted to whiskey forums and Facebook groups.
It’s more than just the whiskey diehards who chase these bottles, though. Pappy Van Winkle is a famous name, but the others are becoming known beyond the aficionados. And many casual drinkers enroll in raffles and lotteries just to see if they get lucky. Moreover, scoring one of these ardently sought-after bottles is often a matter not of choice, but of taking what is available (and affordable). Getting lucky at the liquor store means a buyer could very well go home with something they aren’t all that familiar with. Pappy Van Winkle is part of the season, with an October release, but there’s plenty more to explore. Going beyond Pappy, here’s the lowdown on everything else in America’s autumnal whiskey crop, with context for why people want those bottles so badly.
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When to expect the annual batch of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon has a pretty easy tie to remember it by: It’s pegged to the birthday of brand founder George Garvin Brown, Sept. 2. The series dates back to 2002, making it one of the best-established releases of the season. Every year, Old Forester’s top hands (these days those belong to master distiller Chris Morris and master taster Jackie Zykan) select several dozen barrels from a single day’s production and bottle it as a special offering, with age and proof varying from year to year.
It’s the top expression for Old Forester, but beyond that the long track record and special selection of whiskey stock give Birthday Bourbon that something extra. Mike Vacheresse, owner of Brookyln’s Travel Bar, says the annual Birthday Bourbon “makes for such a fun, insightful conversation with fellow bourbon enthusiasts, comparing memories of past releases and where the current release ranks in your personal view.”
Although Elijah Craig 18 Year Old is much sought after, Parker’s Heritage is usually seen as the top annual whiskey release from Heaven Hill Distillery, which functions as a showcase for all the whiskies the distillery makes. As far what makes it so prestigious, “It’s a noble experiment ,” says Kurt Maitland, who runs New York’s Whiskey Selections club.
On top of the fact that the proceeds go to fight ALS, it’s nice to see a bourbon distillery show off its vintage stock. Parker’s has come out with some releases over 20 years old, but they also try some new things, such as the 8-year-old malt whiskey and the recent Orange Curacao cask-finished release.
Among bourbon fans, Four Roses has a special reputation, and this is due in large part to its 10 individual stocks of bourbon. These are made by fermenting batches with five distinct yeasts and two separate grain recipes. To create the annual Small Batch Limited Edition, the distillery draws on a handful of these stocks (some of them quite old), with each year representing a new composition. Steve Beal, a noted whiskey consultant and Keeper of the Quiach, describes it as the “perfect bourbon storm.”
“First, it’s in limited supply,” says Beal. “Four Roses also has a unique following of devoted fans who are ready to travel miles and spend a fortune to get their hands a bottle. It’s considered a collector’s item to some, almost to the point of obsession.”
Little Book Bourbon
A relatively new name among the fall releases is Little Book, which will see only its fourth batch this year. Maggie Kimberl, content editor of American Whiskey Magazine, attributes its popularity to the way “it plays off the popularity of Booker’s Bourbon by handing the reins to Booker’s grandson, Freddie Noe, whom he referred to as ‘Little Book.’ Booker’s and Little Book are similar in that they are special releases that are the labor of love of their respective namesakes, but the liquid inside is quite different. While Booker’s is always a small-batch bourbon, Little Book can be any whiskey it wants to be.”
The past iterations of Little Book included a combination of rye, malt, and bourbon whiskeys with a 13-year-old corn whiskey; a blending of Beam’s rye whiskey with two Canadian ryes, one of which was 40 years old; and a version that married Jim Beam’s traditional and high-rye bourbon recipes together.
Also known as BTAC, the five whiskeys of this collection are almost as in demand as Van Winkle bourbons. The five releases consist of the George T. Stagg, W.L. Weller, and Eagle Rare 17 Year Old bourbons; and the Thomas H. Handy and Sazerac 18 Year Old rye whiskeys. Crowning this group is George T. Stagg, a cask-strength bourbon that is always at least 15 years old, and sometimes older. “George T. Stagg is easily one of the most sought-after bourbons I know of,” says Daniel Marlowe, owner of Lexington, Ky.’s Whiskey Bear bar. “It seems that almost all bourbon lovers I’ve talked to have a “Stagg Story” and a favorite [year]. To me, the mark of a great high-proof bourbon is in its balance, mouthfeel, and finish. George T. Stagg always nails it in those categories and I think that’s why it remains a crowd favorite year after year.”
Just behind Stagg in the pack is W.L. Weller, the cask-strength wheated bourbon that tops the ladder of Weller bourbons. Buffalo Trace distillery remodeled the Weller brand in 2016 and has built on it in the years since, adding more luster to Weller, but it was already pretty popular with whiskey fans. “This was because of the popularity of Pappy [van Winkle], which shares the same source barrels,” says Kimberl. Thus, the rule for many is that if you can’t get Pappy, get Weller instead.
As for the others, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon and Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye both have high age statements, a point that always attracts buyers, while Thomas H. Handy is the only regular source for a cask-strength version of Buffalo Trace’s rye whiskey.
Speaking of high age statements, Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Bourbon is pretty much the oldest whiskey Heaven Hill releases with consistency. That makes it a crowning statement for the venerable Elijah Craig brand, and eagerly sought after by that brand’s legion of fans.
“It’s hard to call yourself a collector without one of these,” says Cary Ann Fuller, a whiskey blogger and Certified Spirits Steward. “These single barrels are a quintessential example of a properly (over-) aged bourbon, showing off the oak without the wood overpowering the characteristic rich vanilla and honey notes. Scoring one can be tricky at retail, but a few visits to Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown should pay off.”
This relative newcomer to the autumnal release scene comes from America’s top-selling whiskey brand, a brand that paradoxically didn’t get much attention from the enthusiast scene. “That is,” says whiskey blogger Bobby Childs, “until their release of Heritage Barrel.”
Childs boasts he has used Heritage Barrel to convert Jack Daniel’s haters into fans. “It’s Jack Daniel’s nod to making whiskey the old way. Slowly toasted barrels, lower entry proof, maturation on the upper floors of their highest elevated warehouses, and bottling at 100 proof. The result is a richer, more robust and nuanced version of Jack Daniel’s.”
Experimental whiskeys are rarely thought of as prestige items, but Woodford Reserve built its top series around trying new things or reviving old practices. The distillery has brought out a different whiskey under this name every year since 2006. So it’s a showcase, but unlike Parker’s Heritage, it’s a showcase of what Woodford Reserve can do rather than what it is doing.
“I think what makes the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection offers a great expression of Chris Morris’s mastery over mash bill and the flavor that can be achieved from it,” says P.J. Wagner, lead bartender at Guild Row in Avondale, Ill. “The use of the chocolate rye in last year’s release was fantastic and absolutely perfect for the American palette. When it comes to limited releases that are too good to sit on your shelf as a showpiece, Woodford Reserve’s Master’s Collection is one of the most consistently delicious yearly releases there are.”