Unicorn bottles of bourbon are beyond just “special” or “unique.” We’re talking about bottles that are so rare, they’re really made almost exclusively for investing. Obviously, you can crack open any of the bottles I’ve listed below, I’m not going to stop you. But in some cases, you might be pissing away a year’s college tuition or a down payment on a house or a new car ten, 15, or 20 years from now. Whether we like it or not, unicorn bourbon bottles are unicorns because you’ll likely never see them in the wild; and if you do, you’re probably a very rich whiskey investor/collector.
That’s just the reality we live in. Bourbon is booming.
For this list, I’m calling out ten bottles that I’ve been lucky enough to try that are also bottles that I’d invest in if I were able to snag them at MSRP. “If” is the keyword in that sentence. I’m also only calling out bottles that were released in the past year or so (a lot of special bourbons are released between September and December to gear up for the holiday buying season). That leaves out unicorn bottles like 1960s Old Fitzgeralds, 1970s Old Crows, 1980s Japanese Blanton’ses, 1990s J.W. Dants, and pre-Buffalo Trace Pappy Van Winkles. This is about current releases that you might actually see open at a high-end whiskey shop or bar, which means the closed bottle you find on a shelf will be even rarer (and gain value).
As for this ranking, I’m going purely off the taste. I’m not, in any way, projecting the investment value of these bottles. Some of them will be worth a hell of a lot more than others down the road and sometimes there’s little rhyme or reason to why. This is simply about what tastes good in the world of ultra-rare bourbon whiskey.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
This is the Pappy that made “Pappy” what it is today. The wheated bourbon rests for 20 long years without any meddling. And since everything moved to Buffalo Trace in 2002, we know that this is pretty much modern Pappy and not the rare stuff from the Stitzel-Weller Distillery days (though there might be a barrel or two still in the mix).
There’s a subtlety to the nose that draws you close with wisps of soft cedar, Christmas cakes filled with dried and candied fruit, nuts, and dark sweetness and spice next to an old leather pouch of very dry tobacco with a hint of cherry bark. The palate opens with an apple pie filling vibe alongside oily espresso beans and vanilla pods with what almost feels like maple bars fresh from the oven on the mid-palate. The finish is a very slow fade that melts through bitter dark mocha espresso, sweet cedar planks, spicy cherry tobacco, smoked applewood, and a final note of that old leather tobacco pouch.
This is probably the best place to start this list. This whiskey is goddamn delicious and kind of deserves all the hype it gets. If you can win this in a raffle for MSRP ($199.99), then you’ll be ahead of the game. Otherwise, I’d spend $200 for a pour at a whiskey bar or shop and move on.
Every year, Old Forester releases their most anticipated whisky, Birthday Bourbon. 2021’s release was a 12-year-old blend created from 119 barrels of the good stuff.
Berries really drive this nose with raspberries in cream next to blackberry compote, Luxardo cherries, and a touch of cranberry bread with walnuts, plenty of spice, and a moist, buttery, vanilla-laden cake vibe. The palate holds onto the syrupy cherry notes but veers more towards vanilla cream with woody spices, buttery toffee, marzipan, and a touch of green pepper pretty far in the background. The mid-palate has an old cigar box feel to it that dries everything out from the cherry to the vanilla, creating a sort of thin pecan cookie vibe with dry spice, tobacco, and berries in the mix.
This is a bottle you always see at whiskey auctions — sometimes you see the whole Birthday Bourbon set from 2002 to the most recent release. Overall, I’m not a huge fan of these as they’re a little too fruity-sweet for me. That’s not to say it isn’t delicious, it just feels more like something that would make an insanely good old fashioned than a thousand-dollar sipper.
This is the most interesting expression from Weller. A few years back, Buffalo Trace asked hardcore Weller fans to “Craft Your Perfect Bourbon.” C.Y.P.B. was born according to those fans choosing their favorite bourbon recipe, proof, warehouse location, and age. A consensus shook out that pinned the ideal whiskey to a wheated bourbon aged on the highest warehouse floors for eight years that’s then bottled at 95 proof. Today, that manifests yearly as a very limited release that’s part fan service and part special limited edition bourbon.
There’s a nose of dried orange peels that have been loaded into an old cedar box and left in the back of a cupboard for years. Then a creaminess arrives that’s kind of like the halfway point between a vanilla flan with caramel sauce and spicy sasparilla. As the taste rolls towards the back of your mouth and settles in, you get this warming sense of eggnog spice next to soft tobacco leaves and dark chocolate-covered marzipan.
This is one of those bourbons that’s just nice. Plus, any whiskey with a “dark chocolate-covered marzipan” vibe is going to win my favor. The only reason this is a little lower on the list is that this list is nothing but hardcore bangers and this is middle-of-the-road among these standouts.
This whiskey was made by Master Distiller Eddie Russell to celebrate his 40th year distilling whiskey with his dad, Jimmy Russell. The juice is a collection of a minimum of 13-year-old barrels that Eddie Russell hand-picked. Those barrels were married and then bottles as-is with no proofing or filtration.
Sweet and dried fruits invite you in the nose as a touch of Black Forest cake mingles with mild holiday spices. That dark chocolate and cherry fruit drive the palate as a hint of charred cedar lead towards vanilla tobacco with more of that dark chocolate and a small touch of honey. That honey leads back to the warmth and spice with a whisper of smoke lurking on the very backend with more bitter chocolate, buttery vanilla, and dark cherry.
This is a whiskey I truly wish there was more of. Wild Turkey truly hit it out of the park with this release. If this wasn’t so rare, this might be a go-to end-of-week pour and Manhattan base.
This year’s LE Small Batch is a blend of four bourbons. Four Roses is renowned for its ten distinct recipes with two mash bills and five yeast strains. This whiskey marries four of those recipes with two from Mash B (very high rye) and two from Mash Bill E (high rye). The yeasts at play are “delicate fruit,” “spice essence,” and “floral essence.” The barrels ranged from 12 to 16 years old, making this a fairly old bourbon, all things considered.
The nose has a mix of honey next to buttery biscuits, rich vanilla, a touch of tart red berries, dry cedar, and a very faint hint of dry mint. The palate dives into a dark plum jam with a spicy edge of allspice and nutmeg. That fruit gives way to a spritz of orange oils next to a light touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate that leads to a rich finish. That finish leaves you with warming spice, more of that orange/choco vibe, and another mild hint of green, dry mint.
This really is a great bourbon. It’s equal parts classic and comforting. It’s not pushing the genre forward (by any stretch) but it’s truly one of the best limited releases that are dropped every year.
This whiskey is a blend of Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky bourbons. Each barrel in that blend is a minimum of 16 years old. The barrels were specifically chosen for their cherry, nutty, high-proof, and chocolate profiles. Half of those barrels were then finished in new American oak for a final touch of maturation before vatting and bottling as-is.
The nose opens with a sense of wet oak staves (think rained on barrels) next to freshly pressed sugar cane juice, damp, almost still unharvested cherry tobacco leaves, the seeds from a vanilla pod, rainwater, stringy cedar bark, and fresh apricot next to Bing cherry. Next, dark cherry leads to candied ginger on the opening of the taste as orange marmalade mingles with toasted sourdough, sticky yet subtle fir resin, and creamy key lime pie filling with just a hint of the butter in the crust of that pie. The mid-palate leans into the sugar in that pie filling as the cherry kicks back in with a sliver of tartness next to overripe peaches, dried hibiscus, mild anise, allspice berries, sassafras, and dried cacao nibs. The finish gently steps through a field full of orange blossoms as that cacao dries out more, leaving you with dried choco-cherry tobacco that’s been inside of a cedar box that’s wrapped in decades-old leather.
Okay, now this is anything but “classic.” This bourbon is special both as a limited edition release and with a flavor profile that does push the whole genre of bourbon somewhere new. These Barrell special releases can be a lot and are, admittedly, for advanced palates. That all aside, this is great bourbon that deserves your time to really dig into. That also makes this a good mid-point. From here on out, we’re looking at bottles that hit such high marks that mood dictates where they fall on the ranking more than anything else.
Distilled back in the fall of 2009, this barrel-strength bourbon skips the Minnesota rye and instead uses North Dakota wheat with that NoDak barley and Kentucky corn. The juice spent 12-and-a-half years mellowing in warehouses C, D, K, L, and Q on floors one through three. While maturing, 64 percent of the whiskey was lost to the angels before it was small-batched and bottled as is.
The creaminess of the vanilla on the nose is extraordinary. Imagine the softness and richest crème anglaise with a touch of salted caramel syrup, eggnog spice, and a towering croquembouche with all the spun hard sugar holding the whole thing together. That light yet buttery cream puff drives towards a slight shortbread vibe with toasted cinnamon sticks, moist cherry tobacco, more vanilla cream, and a soft echo of dried smoked stone fruits. The finish drives back towards the sweetness of that salted caramel but this time it’s covered in dark chocolate and sitting inside an old cedar box that once held fistfuls of menthol-laced tobacco leaves.
I just retried this a week or so ago and it’s just so goddamn delicious. There’s really nothing else to say besides I hope you get to try it too one day.
The base of the spirit is Heaven Hill’s classic bourbon mash of 78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and a mere ten percent rye. This particular whiskey is built from several barrels from four warehouse campuses in the Bardstown area. In this case, three different ages were pulled with 17 years being the youngest. The whiskey is made from 28 percent 20-year-old barrels, 44 percent 19-year-old barrels, and 28 percent 17-year-old barrels. Once those barrels are vatted, the bourbon goes into the bottle as-is, without any cutting or fussing.
The age is apparent from the first nose with old glove leather next to a soft hint of cobweb-draped cellar beams leading towards a dark and thick cherry syrup that’s laced with cinnamon, clove, and allspice. The nose then grows with an almost cherry-maple syrup with a buttery base pushing it toward a toffee creaminess. The palate leans into those spices with a winter-spice-laced chewy (almost wet) fistful of tobacco leaves jammed into an old cedar box. The mid-palate bursts with spiced cherry crumble with baked brown sugar and nutmeg nuts, creating a velvety texture. The finish carries the spice from that mid-palate towards a sweet finish that feels like a marrying of toffee syrup and cherrywood tobacco with that dry cedar tobacco box echoing on the far backend.
This is one of my favorite releases of 2022, so far. It’s classic yet fun and surprising. Even now, I want to pour another dram just thinking about it. That’s a powerful bourbon, which is why it’s top three.
Master Distiller Dan McKee personally selects these 20-year-old (at least) barrels from their rickhouses based on, well, excellence. The juice is bottled as-is with no cutting with water. This is whiskey simplicity at its best and creates an exemplary product.
Imagine dark and sweet cherries smothered in rummy molasses with a touch of dried roses, fatty nuts, and wet cedar all leading towards the soft — almost wet — tobacco leaf. That’s just the nose. The palate doesn’t veer too far from those notes but adds in a touch of burnt ends from vanilla pods with a light spice that leans more towards that tobacco with a dusting of woody brown spices. The finish really embraces the cherry but more towards the stem and seed as the nuttiness leans marzipan and the tobacco takes on an ever-so-slight chewiness with an echo of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans infused into a string of cotton candy.
This might be my perfect bourbon. It’s really that good. The only reason it’s not number one is that there’s a rarer — more “unicorn” if you will — bourbon next.
This whiskey ups the Eagle Rare game up in two ways. First, this is “double” aged, meaning that the whiskey spends 20 years mellowing in Buffalo Trace’s warehouses — or twice as long as standard Eagle Rare. That makes the barrels that go into this expression super rare. The second aspect is the decanter. The crystal decanter has two eagles, one as a stopper and one that is blown into the bottom of the bottle. It’s a striking bottle and only 199 were produced.
The nose on this gently draws you in with mellow hints of cherry liqueur, dry cedar tobacco boxes, rich vanilla pods that feel oily, and a buttercream toffee candy that’s more sticky than brittle. The nose then leans towards a woody spice matrix of cinnamon sticks soaked in cherry syrup next to a slight note of anise that’s more absinthe green than licorice dark. On the palate, very dark cacao dust opens up your taste buds as dates soaked in floral Earl Grey create a base for a moist and very sticky toffee pudding with a small dollop of the silkiest vanilla ice cream you’ve ever had. The spices in that date-filled cake slowly rise after the sweet mid-palate veers into a soft and velvety finish that echoes with the woody spices but doesn’t carry forward the heat from them. The very end leaves you with this dry cedar box that once held allspice berries, anise, and cinnamon but now holds a very dry leaf of cherry-choco tobacco.
199 bottles. That’s it. I’ve seen two of these open. That means 197 (or less) are actually left. That’s a unicorn right there. This also happens to be one of the best bourbons made in the modern era. It’s a double threat of the category! If you do want to try this, I suggest hitting up The Ballard Cut in Seattle. It’ll cost you, but it’s worth it before you commit to $20-plus-k for this bottle.