Bourbon doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. But a whole hell of a lot of it is very expensive these days. Expensive bourbon whiskey is everywhere, from the top of the shelf to behind glass cases in liquor stores to behind the bar at your favorite watering hole. There’s so much of it that $100+ bottles are slowly becoming a sort of norm in the industry, to the point where complaining about the price basically falls on deaf ears. Suffice to say, bourbon whiskey isn’t going away any time soon, so I figured let’s taste some blind and see which actually justify the price tag.
Of course, that sounds easier than it is. This blind tasting was great. These whiskeys were all stellar. Ranking them, on the other hand, was nearly impossible. Each of these whiskeys has a deep and complex flavor profile that might simply speak to one mood over another or time of day or pairing ability. There are no faults in these whiskeys. But there are some major differences in those flavor profiles. So I did rank these according to which bottle I actually wanted to drink instead of just taste. That’s the only way I could find a way to differentiate these.
Going a little deeper, I also made sure these are actual expensive whiskeys and not simply expensive because of a secondary or aftermarket price hike thanks to hype. These are all whiskeys that have an MSRP between $100 and $500 before they hit secondary retail shelves and get that markup. So a $40 bottle of Weller 12, which retails for a few hundo (at least) didn’t make the cut. Sorry, Weller heads.
Our lineup today is:
- Bomberger’s Declaration 2022
- Knob Creek 18
- Kentucky Owl Takumi
- Heaven Hill Heritage Collection 1st Edition Aged 17 Years
- Barrell Craft Spirits Gray Label Bourbon 15 Years
- Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade
- Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon Aged 10 Years
- Rare Hare 1953
Okay, let’s dive in a taste some seriously amazing whiskeys that come at a steep cost.
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Part 1: The Tasting
The nose opens with a hint of sourdough mashed grains next to well-spiced sticky toffee pudding with black-tea-soaked dates and plenty of good cinnamon and nutmeg, old leather tobacco pouched, orange oils, dark chocolate, and old broken-down oak staves. The palate is super supple with a creaminess like a crème brûlée next to creamed honey, tons of wintry spices, more of that orange and dark chocolate with a flake of salt, and an underlying sense of dried chili pepper flakes. There’s warmth on the mid-palate that slowly fades toward rich marzipan and more dark chocolate next to meaty and leathery prunes and dried figs with a touch of hot tobacco spice.
This was a tad hot, all things considered (I’m really stretching for things to ding here). That said, there’s so much good going on, it didn’t matter. It all made perfect sense and was delicious.
Dark molasses and pecan clusters with salted dark chocolate lead to brown butter, old figs, and salted caramel with a woody sense of cherry and apple bark next to cinnamon-laced cedar sticks with burnt orange. The palate is full of lush vanilla notes next to singed cherry bark and apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks, star anise, salted black licorice, and dark chocolate-covered espresso beans with a hint of dried red chili spice turning up the heat on the mid-palate. The end has a floral honey sweetness that balances everything toward orange blossoms and bruised peaches, cherry tobacco, and clove tobacco.
This is really nice, well-rounded, and just freakin’ tasty. Though I would say it was more “interesting” than just “delicious.”
There’s a nice leatheriness to the nose that leads to rich salted caramel sauce, old pear skins, peach pits, Mounds Bars, and a hint of candied cherry next to cinnamon-laced tobacco leaves with a hint of root beer. The palate leans into some rye sourdough vibes as lush vanilla and caramel lead to fresh grapes and apples with a hint of pear and plum in there. The end has this wonderful fruitiness that’s almost like an ambrosia fruit salad with heavy vanilla cream and fresh mixed fruit with a sweet sense of fruity Jell-O gelatin.
Wow, this got so fruity at the end. This doesn’t really feel too much like bourbon, to be honest.
The nose opens with a sense of old garden gloves next worn out oak staves, dark cherry syrup, old woody winter spice barks and berries, and a mild sense of umami with a hint of tartness — think tomato paste cut with citrus. The palate leans into cherry-infused maple syrup over pecan waffles with a dash of blackberry jam over raisin scones with brown cinnamon butter and sticky toffee pudding-flavored chewing tobacco in an old cedar humidor. The end has a nice warmth on the mid-palate thanks to that mild spice and tobacco that leads to rich and buttery toffee with cedar bark, cherry bark, and old porch wicker braided with black cherry pipe tobacco and drizzled with plum and fig syrup.
This is an incredible pour of whiskey.
This is obviously a Tennessee whiskey from the jump, with honey-dipped Graham Crackers next to cherry Necco Wafers and vanilla wafers with a hint of nougat, pear candy, and a minor salted note. The taste is cherry-forward with a mix of berry multivitamins next to woody winter spice, wet brown sugar, and Earl Grey tea bags. The end leans into the blackness of that tea with a hint of salted dark chocolate next to figs mixed with pinenuts and dosed in olive oil and orange oils with a hint of old pine boards and woody pear tobacco lurking at the very end.
This is pretty good. It feels like there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, it needs some water to open it up a bit, I think.
The nose opens with a limber sense of old leather tobacco pouches next to older oak barrels in a cellar, toffee covered in crushed almonds, sultanas, whole nutmegs, mace, cardamom pods, hot cinnamon, and dried wild sage with a hint of hazelnut shells. The palate opens with a luxurious vanilla base layered with rum-raisin, dried fig, meaty dates, gingerbread, and prune brandy spiked with mulled wine spices and a hint of grape must. The end has an orchard bark vibe next to soft winter spices, more dried dark fruits, and a feel of old natural tobacco leaves drying in a barn on a drizzly day.
This is beautiful whiskey.
There’s a leathery sense of sweet cedar bark next to tart berries, burnt orange, salted caramel, and a big slice of sticky toffee pudding with a dollop of brandy butter on the nose. The palate has a mix of vanilla tobacco spiciness next to salted dark chocolate, rich marzipan, and the cream from the top of a well-made espresso. The end has this whisper of black peppercorn next to dark chocolate pecan nut clusters with blackberry jam and minced meat pies alongside soft tobacco leaves pressed into an old cedar box with the faintest hint of lightly singed marshmallow on the very back end.
This is just a classic pour of pretty much perfect bourbon.
There’s a sense of dark fruit leather on the nose with brandy-soaked raisins, tart cherry, and plenty of Tennessee graininess, kind of like old Biscoff crackers. The palate holds onto that Tennessee vibe with a sweet sense of cinnamon candy, Starbursts, and black licorice ropes next to vanilla and cherry Necco Wafer. The end has a sense of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans with a hint of eggnog next to peach pie, which ultimately ends up very fruity/sweet on the finish.
This was nice but really sweet by the end.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Rare Hare 1953 — Taste 8
Average Price: $500
The juice in the bottle is a blend of 17-year-old bourbons from undisclosed sources. Those 17-year-old barrels were blended and then re-barreled into XXO Cognac casks (barrels that held brandy for at least 14 years in Cognac, France) for an additional 12 months of mellowing. Finally, that juice is vatted and bottled as-is into 1,953 bottles.
I really liked this until the end when it just got too sweet — for me. If you’re looking for a sweeter bourbon with a bit of patina on the palate, then this might be your exact jam.
7. Kentucky Owl Takumi — Taste 3
Average Price: $126
This whiskey is a collaboration between Kentucky Owl Master Blender John Rhea and Nagahama Master Blender Yusuke Yahisa. Kentucky Owl whiskeys were sent over to Yahisa to create a blend that bridges Kentucky bourbon and Japanese whisky. The final blend ended up being a mix of four, five, six, and 13-year-old barrels with a four-grain mash bill that was just touched with water before bottling.
This was really nice. The only reason it’s lower is that it was the least “wow” whiskey on the list. It has a fruity vibe that was nice. But if you’re looking for a stone-cold classic bourbon profile, you might be a little irked to find all that fruit salad on the flavor profile.
6. Barrell Craft Spirits Gray Label Bourbon 15 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $250
Barrell Craft Spirits is another craft blendery that’s sourcing some of the best barrels in the game and expertly marrying them. This expression blends 15-year-old bourbon from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee into a final product that reaches new heights for blended bourbon.
This is another winner. I really like these releases as they’re so bold and deeply hewn. There’s so much going on with the flavor profile that you really need to take your time tasting — which can be a turn-off for someone looking just to have an easy-sipping time with a nice whiskey.
5. Bomberger’s Declaration 2022 — Taste 1
Average Price: $110
This whiskey heralds back to Michter’s historical roots in the 19th century before the brand was even called “Michter’s.” The juice in the bottle is rendered from a very small batch of bourbons that were aged in Chinquapin oak, which was air-dried for three years before charring and filling. The Kentucky bourbon was then bottled in an extremely small batch that only yielded 2005 bottles this year.
Okay, now we’re in quintessential classics territory. This whiskey is just delicious. It’s simple and straightforward with a great bourbon flavor profile.
4. Knob Creek 18 — Taste 2
Average Price: $170
This limited-edition release celebrates the 30th Anniversary of Knob Creek, which started back in 1992 during the darkest days of bourbon. The juice is Beam’s standard mash bill that’s distilled at a slightly different temperature and treated with a little more care during aging by placing barrels in very specific locations throughout their vast warehouses. After 18 long years, the best of the best barrels are small batched, and just proofed before bottling.
This was a shock, I thought this would be number one for sure. I really, really like this. Yet today, it just didn’t pop quite as much as the next three.
3. Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon Aged 10 Years — Taste 7
Average Price: $216
The juice in this bottle is a little under wraps. Michter’s is currently distilling and aging its own whiskey, but this is still sourced. The actual barrels sourced for these single barrel expressions tend to be at least 10 years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old (depending on the barrel’s quality, naturally). Either way, the juice goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.
This is a perfect bourbon.
2. Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade — Taste 6
Average Price: $160
This bourbon is a blend of 12-year-old, low-rye bourbon from Kentucky and 10-year-old, very-low-rye bourbon from Tennessee. The whiskeys were re-barreled into Armagnac casks from the famed Chateau de Laubade. One set spent two years mellowing on the bottom floor of the rickhouse while another set spent 16 months mellowing on the top floor. After that, the barrels were vatted and bottled as-is.
This really hits well. It’s a great bourbon that’s finished with a barrel that really elevates everything that’s going on with the palate already. It just works.
1. Heaven Hill Heritage Collection 1st Edition Aged 17 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $275
The base of the spirit is Heaven Hill’s classic bourbon mash of 78 % corn, 12% malted barley, and a mere 10% 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% 20-year-old barrels, 44% 19-year-old barrels, and 28% 17-year-old barrels. Once those barrels are vatted, the bourbon goes into the bottle as-is, without any cutting or fussing.
This shit is wildly delicious. It feels both vintage and fresh. This is going to really hard to beat as one of the best of 2022.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
If you want to spend some serious cash on bourbon whiskey, you can’t go wrong with any of these pours. Seriously. Just find the tasting notes that speak to you and go with god.
If you want my recommendation, the Michter’s 10 and Knob Creek 18 are going to be the easiest to find on this list (but only barely). If you can, at least try the Bardstown Chateau de Laubade at a great whiskey bar. It’s divine.
As for the Heaven Hill Heritage Collection 1st Edition, it’s really special and rare plus it tastes really good. That’s the perfect storm for the hype machine to take over. That means that the price is going to be outrageous ($1,500 range) if you do find it on a retail shelf these days.