Hoping to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon? Hope on. The wildly popular ultra-premium bourbon is legendarily difficult to find and when it is spotted — there's even a Pappy Tracker app for that — it's quickly sold out.
And Pappy isn't the only super-sought-after spirit. Other elusive bourbon brands include the 17-year-old iteration of Eagle Rare, William Larue Weller, Stagg Jr. and Angel's Envy Cask Strength, all part of a bourbon renaissance that has seen a new appreciation of American whiskey, as well as the birth of a new class of cult spirits.
"It seems like that quality and variety and hand-crafted story is finally starting to be appreciated," says Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which sells the Stagg and Weller brands. Buffalo Trace also produces Pappy Van Winkle in association with the Van Winkle family.
Jess Novak, Drink Editor at food and drink website The Daily Meal, credits the rise of cult bourbons to the overall trend of eating and drinking better, along with the nostalgia-driven interest in creating hand-crafted products.
"Bourbon really feels like it hails from our grandfather's or great-grandfather's era. It's something you have to learn how to drink and it's deeply American," she says. "It's the kind of thing you drink when you're making your own footstool. So, there's these small-batch, cult bourbons. They're crafted, they have this focus and warmth that comes through in the taste."
And producers are looking for new ways to impart that hand-crafted flourish. Hard-to-find Jefferson's Ocean, for instance, was aged in barrels at sea. "The bourbon takes on many interesting flavors on its voyage that it could never pick up by maturing the way other premium bourbons do," says Jefferson's founder Trey Zoeller.
Bourbon as a whole has become a big player on the liquor scene in recent years, but part of the special appeal of cult bourbons — on top of their craft quality, of course — is their exclusivity. Cult bourbons aren't made in huge quantities, so some of the pleasure is in the hunt. Not surprisingly, that hunt comes at a cost; these bourbons often run two, three or many times more the price of more common bottles.