Back in 1999, Julian Van Winkle III posted on the Straightbourbon.com message boards that he was looking to sell barrels of 10-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon, equaling about 60 bottles, for $1,200. That’s $20 a bottle. Back then, few were interested in the proposal. Nearly 25 years later, however, a new bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle sells for about $800 each—if you can even find it.
The funny thing is, Old Rip Van Winkle actually has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $69.99, according to the most recent press release. So why the major uptick in price? Old Rip Van Winkle is an allocated whiskey, meaning retailers or vendors are only issued a certain amount of bottles to sell. In other words, these bottles are rarely on the market.
So how do you actually find these bottles? When it comes to hunting down allocated whiskey in America, it will likely be bourbon. It will also usually hail from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, whose portfolio has some of the most coveted bourbons in the business, such as the entire Van Winkle line, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), Blanton’s, E.H. Taylor and many other rare findings. Other bourbon distilleries have their own LEs—collectors’ parlance for limited edition releases—such as Heaven Hill’s Parker Heritage Collection, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.
Many tactics for hunting down these rare whiskeys that worked 10 years ago—or even five years ago—likely don’t work anymore. For one thing, everyone knows them by now, or can at least Google countless listicles offering the same tactics. Let’s bring things up to date and assess where these tips and tricks for finding rare whiskey currently stand.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #1: Make Friends with the Liquor Store Owner
Does it Work? Not exactly
So many continue to act like the key to getting rare bottles is like the key to getting a good job: networking. (Is there a LinkedIn for bourbon?) Maybe it was true in the recent past that if you hung around your local liquor store and shot the shit with “the guy” behind the counter, they’d stash a bottle of Pappy for you when it was released in November. The problem is twofold: Lots of people started schmoozing up the person behind the counter and eventually they—or, more likely, their boss—realized their ability to make $1,000 on a single bottle trumped low-level friendship.
“You don’t need to be the liquor store guy’s best friend, you just need to be his best customer,” says Kevin Burk, a spirits collector in the Boston area. “Spend a ton of money on your ‘daily drinkers’ all year long, and maybe come allocated time, you’ll be rewarded for your loyalty.”
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #2: Ask the Liquor Store Owner if There’s “Anything Good in the Back”
Does it Work? No.
Are you insane?
Whisky-Hunting Trick #3: Call Every Store in Town
Does it Work? Hell, no.
Okay, you’re really insane. And annoying everyone.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #4: Make Friends with Online “Taters”
Does it Work? Potentially
Come to think of it, there is a LinkedIn for bourbon: Facebook. And for the last decade or so, a slew of private groups have popped up in which allocated-bourbon-obsessed collectors (sometimes dubbed “taters”), spend all day talking and debating bourbon. They also buy, sell, trade and raffle away desirable bottles. Join some of these groups if you haven’t already. Then maybe, after you’ve made some legitimate online connections, one of them will hook you up with a great bottle for a “friend rate.”
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #5: Line Up and/or Log On
Does it Work? If you’re early enough
Allocated bourbon became more desirable as brands and distributors began to release it across a wider swath of the country. Many liquor stores, as well as the distilleries themselves, decided one of the only fair ways to sell it was by asking customers to line up for it.
If you truly want that bottle of Willett Wheated 8-Year-Old at retail price, get to the seller early and be prepared to stand in a parking lot for hours. The same is true for many online retailers, like Seelbach’s, which will release certain rarities like The Maryland Heritage Series at exact times and sell them to whoever is fastest at processing their e-shopping cart.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #6: Enter State Lotteries
Does It Work? If you’re lucky
In the U.S., there are 17 control states, meaning liquor is sold exclusively by the government. Many have chosen to hold lotteries to determine who gets to buy their allocated bottles. The most notable is probably Pennsylvania’s lottery. Last year, 1,590 bottles of rare whiskeys, 1,440 of them from the Van Winkle line, were sold at retail via a November lottery that anyone could enter.
Some lotteries may be easier to emerge from victorious than others. “In some states, you have little to no chance of winning a bottle of Pappy or Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC)—but not New Hampshire,” says Joseph Mollica, chairman of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. “We go to great lengths to offer our customers from across North America the chance to purchase allocated spirits at MSRP—we never price gouge. What good is overpricing these products to only have them sit on a shelf or create chaos?”
These state lotteries are not without problems: In February of 2023, six Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission officials unethically used their positions to acquire Pappys from a state warehouse.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #7: Check Duty-Free
Does It Work? Sometimes
Even with a flight factored in, duty-free allocated bottles end up being less expensive than at liquor stores or online marketplaces.
Jonah Goodman, a collector and dealer of rare whiskey, has flown to certain country’s airports specifically to buy allocated Macallan at duty-free prices. “I have noticed that a lot more Macallans have started going to the Middle East and the ’Stans [former Soviet Republics] since Edrington [Macallan’s parent company] has withdrawn from Russia,” he says.
A year or two ago, I was flying to Europe, and I popped my head into the duty-free store at JFK, only to see the motherload: hundreds of bottles of Blanton’s, priced at retail. The only way to access them was by having an international ticket in hand, which I luckily did.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #8: Have Cash and Be Willing to Spend It
Does It Work? Always
Like with Old Rip Van Winkle, many of these supposed “rare” bottles are not in as short of supply as we are sometimes led to believe. Thus, finding them is not the problem; paying for them might be. But if you’re willing to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on 750 milliliters of brown liquid, then you will have no problem accessing any allocated bottle out there.
Whiskey-Hunting Trick #9: Realize There’s a Lot of Other Good Stuff Out There
Does It Work? Always
There are plenty of bottles that aren’t rare, allocated or all that pricey. However, they’re often just as delicious as allocated rare finds. For instance, look for options like Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Before spending all the time and money to hunt down an allocated whiskey ask yourself: Do you want rare whiskey because it’s rare, or because you think it’s the most delicious option there is?