WESTBOROUGH — How do you open a $10,000 bottle of bourbon?
At Julio’s Liquors on Sunday, where about 30 whiskey fanatics gathered for the mother of all bourbon tastings, owner Ryan Maloney had delicately portioned out seven bottles — the Magnificent Seven — into small samples, terrified of spilling more than a drop or two.
Here, anyone willing to pony up $250 could try small samples of a handful of rare bourbons, including perhaps the most sought-after brown liquor to come along yet: a new version of Old Rip Van Winkle aged for 25 years that incited mass hysteria in the whiskey world when it was announced this spring.
Somewhere on its journey from bottom shelf to top of mind, bourbon crossed an event horizon of some sort. Old bottles from formerly unfashionable labels are hunted like 30-point bucks. New releases of dubious provenance are selling for astronomical sums. The best of them are so rare and precious that they’re described as “unicorns.”
They are sought by an ever-growing number of enthusiasts, speculators, and more than a few suckers who cultivate relationships with particular packies or race from store to store on release day. But whether all of these new whiskies are actually worth the effort and the cash is something of an open question. There’s a lot of snake oil out there these days.
“The story of the emperor’s clothes has never been truer than it is now,” said an influential Massachusetts bourbon connoisseur and collector who blogs under the pseudonym Lloyd Christmas and uses the handle Bourbontruth on Twitter. “Buying whiskey can instantly turn a rational, smart person into an irrational dumb one.”
How else to explain spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on whiskey of unknown provenance or quality?
To take the measure of just how bonkers bourbon has become, look no further than Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, the producers of the now very well-known but still rarely obtained Pappy Van Winkle line of bourbons. The 25-year-old bourbon is the oldest they’ve ever released.
Eleven barrels were blended to produce 710 bottles, each poured into a crystal decanter and packed in a sturdy, wooden case made from the barrels in which the whiskey was aged. The retail price was $1,800, but outside of winning a statewide lottery someplace where liquor sales are state controlled, you’ll never find it at that price. During Kentucky Derby week, Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville offered an ounce of each regular Van Winkle bottling plus the 25-year for $5,000 per group of four drinkers — $1,250 a person for 7 ounces of bourbon. The Foundry Bar in Times Square got a bottle, and is selling it at $315 an ounce.
As for a bottle to call your very own? Get ready to fork over somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 in a secret Facebook group you’ll be lucky to beg your way into. Short of holding Julian Van Winkle himself for ransom, nobody without an alarming amount of pocket money and a vast network of connections is going to get their hands on this thing.
“Prices on the secondary market have gotten ridiculous, Maloney told the small crowd assembled in the downstairs tasting room. Indeed. So for more than a few of us, the tasting at Julio’s was going to be our best shot to try it. (The $250 entry fee technically bought you a bottle of perfectly average Yellowstone Select that retails for about $50; “It’s the most expensive Yellowstone you’ll ever buy,” Maloney joked.)
Julio’s is one of the best liquor stores in the country — particularly if you’re a whiskey fanatic. It was Whisky Magazine’s single-outlet (non-chain) store of the year in 2015, and placed highly each of the last two years. The store’s “private barrels” — individual barrels chosen by Maloney from rickhouses in Kentucky and beyond and bottled just for the store — have a well-earned reputation for excellence.
“When we started doing this, no one picked barrels,” Maloney said, and some of the picks that came out of the Loch & K(e)y Society, the store’s whiskey group, have been legendary.
But rather than unload the one bottle of Van Winkle 25-year to a single eager buyer, Maloney decided to crack it open — along with several other four-figure bottles from recent years. He said he caught some flack from people who couldn’t believe he’d dare to open such a rare bottle, as if, finally freed of its barrels, it ought to sit on someone’s shelf for the next 25 years.
Such is the bizarre state of bourbon: If you get your hands on one of these unicorn bottles, you best not open it.
The tasting began with a sturdy, triple-distilled barrel pick from John J. Bowman in Virginia.
Contrary to popular misconception, bourbon does not need to be produced in Kentucky. In fact, a lot of those boutique bourbons popping up on shelves — some of which are quite good — are made at the massive MGP of Indiana distillery and bottled elsewhere.
But that was just a warm-up: A high-rye Four Roses release from 2015 was fruity and spicy and complex. A special bottling of Eagle Rare, 13 years old, put the off-the-shelf version to shame — mellow and sweet with a powerful nose.
Then came three bottles from Willett Distillery, each from a single barrel between 11 and 21 years old. Until fairly recently, Willett was not distilling its own spirits, but rather buying up choice barrels and bottling them when they were ready. Bottled at barrel proof, the two oldest on offer, nicknamed Wheated Warrior and Wheated Patriot, each clocked in at around 70 percent alcohol. Only 69 bottles of Wheated Warrior were ever produced.
Somehow, they hid their high alcohol content with honey and oak on the nose and thick, syrupy texture. Despite being similar in age, proof, and recipe, they were different — Patriot was punchier and sharper, Warrior was more mellow. Both were remarkable: A good reminder of what got so many of us into this stuff in the first place.
Finally, it was time for the Van Winkle 25, delivered in the hand-labeled vials that Maloney had filled so carefully.
Old Rip Van Winkle, curiously, is not actually a distillery. It currently contracts with Buffalo Trace to buy barrels of whiskey that match its specifications. All bourbon must be distilled from at least 51 percent corn, but the bourbon that bears the Van Winkle name substitutes wheat in the mash for rye, lending sweetness and, to my taste, a pleasant richness and roundness in flavor. And wheated bourbons that have been aged more than a decade are rare, so it’s hard to even suggest a comparable product you can track down at the liquor store.
I poured the amber whiskey into a small tasting cup and prepared to be amazed.
I was not.
Slightly thin and woody, with a somewhat dusty character that many very old bourbons seem to acquire. It lacked the robustness of the overproof Willett single barrels, and the intense sweetness of some younger Pappy Van Winkle expressions. It was certainly the least magnificent of the seven, and particularly suffered next to the two older Willett barrels.
Maybe we’ve finally hit peak bourbon: ornate packaging, expert marketing, and limitless hype in service of wildly expensive whiskey that’s . . . just OK.
Good thing nobody who’s paying $10,000 for these bottles will ever open them.