This Is the Hardest Whiskey to Find in the U.S., Experts Say
Everything you need to know about America's most hard-to-find bottles—and whether they're worth it.
If you're a true whiskey lover, there's probably a long list of bottles you'd love to get your hands on, but don't know if you ever will. While other spirits like brandies and grappas have become extremely limited in stock due to low crop yields, the "bourbon bro" mentality is a different game entirely. "[They're] absolute animals," says Philadelphia-based wine and spirits specialist Riki Noar. "I really feel for anyone who is genuinely into bourbon and has watched so many bottles go from easy-to-find to unicorn status because of the secondary market and such. I have not seen any wine or other spirit be as sought-after as these bourbons."
At its core, modern bottle rarity is all about the psychology of supply and demand. "The number of bottles released is limited, and the vast majority of times they are found at secondary prices," says Steven Gonzalez, a bartender based in New York City. But there are other factors that contribute to smaller whiskey producers' cult followings, too.
Some say this particular issue is not caused by the distillers, but the professional reviewers (proactively and reactively) who consistently give awards to bottles that most consumers will never be able to buy. Bartender Ben Wald believes there are inherent issues with the way these coveted whiskeys are written about. "Whiskey writers continue to give [awards to] highly allocated whiskeys in a non-blind setting," he says. "The reviewer rates bottles knowing what they are, and that the only reason the reviewer got the bottle was [for it] to be reviewed."
Whiskey entrepreneur and author Nico Martini says that the recent boom in limited spirits production has only exacerbated things. "The increase in craft distillers and independent bottlers has created a marketplace that, while largely based on hype, is incredibly real," he notes. Now, with that in mind, read on to see which whiskeys have become the most coveted products on the market.
Pappy Van Winkle
If you're into spirits, you've almost certainly heard of Pappy Van Winkle, which is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. The sought-after bourbon is coveted by collectors everywhere, and was the subject of 2021 Netflix docuseries Heist, which explores the story behind the distillery's chain of insider thefts beginning in 2013. Superfans of American whiskeys commonly refer to the scandal as "Pappygate," which arguably bolsters the brand's reputation for exclusivity even further. "The mystique behind [Pappy] is extreme," Gonzalez says plainly.
Wald says Pappy's following is an example of the aforementioned issue with press coverage. "I think there's something morally wrong for big spirits publications to say that Pappy 23 is the best whiskey of the year when the bottle was given for review," he adds.
Whiskey expert Aubrey Slater, who was recently named co-owner of high-end moonshine brand Saint Luna, says there are other comparable options out there. "My suggestion for the Pappy is to just get a bottle of Eagle Rare and enjoy the same juice with a little less aging," she says.
William Heavenhill 12-Year Barrel Proof
Aside from Pappy Van Winkle, Heaven Hill is the first to come to mind for Slater when talking about ultra-exclusive bottles. "William Heavenhill 12-Year Barrel Proof is damn near impossible to get, no matter who you know," Slater says.
It comes as no real surprise, though, that Heaven Hill shares this commonality with Pappy given that the two share historical and familial ties (in 1999, Heaven Hill acquired the Old Fitzgerald brand, which had historically been produced by the Van Winkle family).
William Larue Weller
Slater also calls out William Larue Weller, which is "as rare, if not more so, than the Pappy line," she says.
W.L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle are also related in that the award-winning Buffalo Trace Distillery owns and produces both brands.
Here's how to get the most hard-to-find bottles of whiskey.
As hard as these whiskeys may be to find at your local or even specialty liquor store, Martini says "it's become quite simple" to get your hands on one of these bottles—simple being a relative term here.
"You get a friend to vouch for you so you can be accepted into a hidden Facebook group, you wait and hope that the hard-to-find whiskey you seek comes available," he says. "You try to be the first one to type BIN (buy it now), you pay a substantial amount over the MSRP [manufacturer's suggested retail price], and you hope the person you bought it from both knows how to properly (and likely illegally) ship you whiskey and simultaneously is not a scammer."
Of course, ultimately, it's up to you to determine whether or not a particular bottle is worth the hunt and the secondary price, and whether or not you want to perpetuate the game.