They say the fastest-evolving creature on Earth is the New Zealand tuatara, Sphendon punctatus, a so-called “living dinosaur” whose DNA changes at a faster rate than any animal ever measured. Of course, molecular biologists have never examined the evolution of the bourbon unicorn, Barreldon taterus, which didn’t even exist two decades ago, yet continues to develop at an insane rate.
The first unicorns were the Van Winkles, then the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), then the major yearly LEs (limited editions) from the other competing Kentucky heritage distilleries — your Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Heaven Hill’s Parker Heritage Collection, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and anything Willett (except Pot Still, of course).
In 2021, as all of the above became either unfindable in the wild, or way overpriced, I attempted to predict where the next unicorn evolution was headed. Some of my prognostications weren’t quite accurate — the Buffalo Trace Kosher Wheat Recipe never seemed to catch on: “Hmmm…” ponders this Jew — and Smokewagon fever has tempered down a bit, while Wild Turkey Master’s Keep has quietly decided to end its run.
But more distilleries continue to open, more brands continue to emerge, and more companies continue to try to capture taters’ attention and almighty dollars, even as oversupply perhaps foretells the end of an era.
Unicorns, Class of ‘23
Launched by spirits expert Pablo Moix and Peter Nevenglosky in 2021, this brand has quickly drawn comparisons to Willett. It makes sense. Like early Willett releases, Rare Character offers exclusively sourced bourbon and rye single barrels, uncut and unfiltered; they’re packaged in handsome bottles meant to evoke a previous era of private labels. Despite the rarity of each release (maybe 180 bottles max) and the difficulty of scoring them, completist collectors have popped up trying to catch them all. Of particular interest are any Exceptional Series releases or amburana-finished bottlings. The brand’s upcoming Wild Turkey-sourced Pride of Anderson County is all but guaranteed to become an insta-unicorn.
Maker’s Mark ‘Cellar Aged’
If, in 2021, I predicted the yearly Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series was headed to unicorn status, that didn’t prove quite right. Connoisseurs sure loved the quality of the releases, but they mostly remained easy to find on store shelves (and 2023’s “BEP” release would prove to be the end of the line). But Maker’s is back with something even more likely to become a unicorn: a well-matured bourbon (made of 11- and 12-year-old barrels) bottled at barrel-proof. Though just hitting shelves (if you can find it!), it is already receiving stellar reviews and the $150 MSRP has already ballooned to over half a grand at some retailers.
Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Collection
Likewise, if Wild Turkey’s Master’s Keep never quite ascended, this slightly more esoteric yearly release seems to have a shot. Last year’s inaugural offering, dubbed Camp Nelson C, was a small- batch bottling of barrels exclusively aged on the third and fourth floors of the aforementioned rickhouse — it was my favorite bourbon of 2022. If many taters were asleep at the wheel for that one — it admittedly was not promoted particularly well — they seem primed to pounce on this year’s release, Camp Nelson F, with barrels coming from floors four and five of that particular warehouse. While not cheap at $249 retail, it’s a whole lot cheaper than many unicorns that taste a whole lot worse.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Collaborative Series: Foursquare
A good gambit throughout recent spirits history has been to mature your spirit in a barrel that previously held a unicorn (see: Sazerac’s Corazón). The unicorn of unicorns for rum — often dubbed the “Pappy of rum” — is the Barbados-based Foursquare, loved for well-aged rums matured in a variety of spirits and wine barrels. Released earlier in the summer, it was no surprise this Bardstown cask-finished release quickly sold out on name alone. And, once buyers tasted it, they found this blend of 7-year-old rye and 17-year-old bourbon beautifully melded with the rich flavor of the Foursquare rum. A rare finished release that was greater than the sum of its parts and has drinkers champing at the bit for more batches to come.
You could argue any number of recent Barrell releases are headed to unicorn status, from Dovetail to the oddball-finished Seagrass (or even the more mature 16-year version). But Vantage seems to have the most movement on secondary markets. That’s perhaps because this bourbon’s three-prong barrel finish includes Mizunara, the Japanese oak guaranteed to get taters in a titter. Hardly a gimmick, however, like all Barrell releases it was well balanced and accentuated the whiskey; many industry publications put it near the top of their best, most exciting whiskeys of 2022 list.
Thirteenth Colony Double-Oaked
While hardly a household name, this Georgia brand, packaged in an odd, squat bottle, has exploded online over the last year. “People are going crazy over this bottle,” Blake Riber, owner of online retailer Seelbach’s tells me. The distillery, located in Americus, Ga., has been around since 2009 and, you might be surprised to learn, actually makes its own distillate, using locally grown grains. This yearly release is near-HAZMAT proof, finished in maple wood, and released at under 2,000 bottles — all catnip for taters who have bumped its secondary market price to an inexplicable $800. A slightly larger release is slated for the fall and retailers like Riber are already scrambling for allocations.
This upstart Kentucky brand (est. 2021) is another label that has seemingly taken off out of nowhere and sells out immediately once bottles post online. Started by seasoned barrel picker Jonathan Maisano, his blends of Kentucky and Indiana bourbons and ryes, small batch and high proof (natch), have fans greedily snapping up each new release. While hardly a mainstream name just yet, many are predicting it could be the next big thing. Now you’ve heard it, tomorrow it’s a unicorn.
And a Tequila, to Boot
If bourbon taters seem to favor the sweet-tasting Don Julio 1942 and Clase Azul — both a certain kind of unicorn themselves — more sophisticated palates have gone all in on this agave-forward line started in 2005 by a Sauza scion. So much so, in fact, that the brand’s añejo is almost unseen on shelves anymore. Meanwhile, its blanco has experienced a sort of a Blanton’s phenomenon: What was once an easily findable, well-priced spirit in a handsome bottle has now ballooned in cost, with some stores hawking the $50 release for upwards of $300. It’s great stuff, sure, but even longtime fans have begun to ask themselves: At what cost?