Hunting the Big Beasts of Bourbon

The Van Winkle Bourbons represent the top of the tree for many collectors, but they aren't the only big game out there.
© Old Rip Van Winkle | The Van Winkle Bourbons represent the top of the tree for many collectors, but they aren't the only big game out there.
As Bourbon Heritage Month swings into action, we look at tracking down the trophy bottlings.
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Wednesday, 08-Sep-2021

September is a big month for Bourbon and not just because the US government says so.

While most wines get a day to themselves each year, Bourbon's place in the American psyche is reflected by an entire month in the spotlight. Back in 2007, the US Senate passed a bill declaring September to be National Bourbon Heritage Month, but Bourbon lovers get excited at this time of the year for much more than just some political flag-waving.

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September is the month that many of the world's most sought-after Bourbons are released, usually sparking a frenzy among collectors and, in recent years, investors. Finding them is a challenge and finding them at an affordable price an even bigger one, but that's where Wine-Searcher comes in – it's what we do, after all.

We thought it would be an opportune time to take a closer look at some of the more collectible Bourbons – particularly the Old Rip Van Winkle portfolio and the idiosyncratic releases under the Parker's Heritage Collection banner. (The Van Winkle whiskeys don't get released until November – but, hey, it's Bourbon Heritage Month after all.)

The Van Winkle whiskeys have always been collectors' items and have played a leading role in the revival of Bourbon among both Bourbon aficionados and investors. Produced at the Buffalo Trace distillery in a joint venture with Sazerac, there are two main streams: the Pappy Van Winkle bottlings and those under the Old Rip Van Winkle label. The whiskeys are all made to specific recipes and some of them have attracted huge price tags.

The Parker Heritage collection is a different beast entirely. Created by the late master distiller Parker Beam at Heaven Hill distillery, each release is completely different to the last. Releases so far have included straight Bourbons, ryes, wheat whiskeys and even malts. The bottlings are released at relatively low prices, but their popularity among collectors means that the secondary market for them has pushed the prices skyward. They don't reach the giddy heights that some of the Van Winkle whiskeys do, but they are no slouches when it comes to increasing in value.

The 19 Van Winkle whiskeys listed here on Wine-Searcher range quite spectacularly in average price – from the 10-year-old straight Bourbon at $1058 to the Van Winkle Special Reserve 18 Year Old at $45,000. However, they don't all necessarily stick to a set formula for price rises.

Ups and downs

While all the Van Winkle whiskeys have increased steadily in price over the past five years – they've all doubled in value in that time – but two in particular bear more examination. The Old Time Rye was on the shelves back in 2016 for $2131 before disappearing from view in December 2017. When it reappeared in March this year, it was sitting at $4433 before surging forward in June, as supply dwindled. We currently have just one offer for it and that will set you back $6784.

The Pappy 17 Year Old is another interesting one. It hit the shelves at a global average price of $10,000 a bottle back in 2018, but as recently as May 2020 it had slumped to just $4874. Don't be down-hearted if you have a bottle, though, because it has since rallied to sit at $19,084.

The Parker whiskeys are in a different price stratosphere, but are still worth a close look, as all the bottlings currently listed on Wine-Searcher have appreciated tidily in value. Not many have reached the giddy heights of the Van Winkles, but the entry price isn't as high either, so it's possible to acquire what will be a valuable bottle of Bourbon for a relatively low price.

Take the First Edition bottling – in March 2018 it had a global average price of just $549. Today it sits at $4295. Similarly, the Fourth Edition sat happily at a steady $1200 average price for about three years before dipping as low as $500 in April this year. It has since recovered to sit at $2598. The Seventh Edition (titled The Promise of Hope) is another one that deserves a closer look; in October 2016 it could be had for an average of $235, while today's global average price is $1958.

Beyond those two, there are plenty of other collectible Bourbons roaming the range. The latest Buffalo Trace Antique Collection emerges this month, too. This collection of big-name bottlings like WL Weller, Geroge T. Stagg and Eagle Rare among others always gets snapped up. The current collection has an average price of $5249, but previous releases have reached twice that amount.

For those with a slightly more constrained budget, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch release also comes out this month. With a release price of around $150, some older bottlings have reached high enough prices to drag the average price up to $611. 

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon also gets released this month. The top range of the oldest continuously producing distillery in Kentucky, this whiskey has a unique flavor profile, coming from a single day's production. While it generally debuts around the $130-$150 mark, its current global average price is $1400. Many happy returns indeed.

The big beasts are out there, roaming the landscape right now and Wine-Searcher is a handy place to start your search. Happy hunting.

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