The subject line looked promising: “Thank you for entering the 2022 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon Sweepstakes.” I clicked open the email. “Unfortunately, you did not win a chance to purchase.” I should have known. Scoring a rare bourbon at its suggested retail price is on par with hitting the Powerball these days. The bourbon boom has only heightened the allure of landing a highly allocated release, especially during bourbon-hunting season—the stretch from September through year’s end when many distilleries schedule their most sought-after bottles. And while I won’t pass up an opportunity to add these coveted bourbons to my collection, staying curious and tasting a variety of offerings reveals more widely available bottles that punch well above their weight. Here are details on six of this fall’s high-profile releases, paired with suggestions for similar sips to try.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Old Forester releases its limited-edition Birthday Bourbon each year on September 2, the birthday of company founder George Garvin Brown. The barrels selected for this year’s batch—each from the same production day—matured for eleven years and were bottled at 96 proof. It’s also the first year Birthday Bourbon is primarily available via national sweepstakes, an option several distilleries have embraced to eliminate long lines at the gift shop and make the process more democratic.
Comparable Taste: Old Forester 100 Proof
While Old Forester 100 proof can’t match the age and singular character of Birthday Bourbon, this high-proof workhorse is as versatile, consistent, and well-constructed a bourbon as you’ll find at an excellent price.
2022 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
Four Roses’ annual limited-edition offering is set for a September 17 national release of 14,100 bottles. Master Distiller Brent Elliott selected fourteen-, fifteen-, and twenty-year-old stocks of four recipes from the ten the distillery produces for this year’s blend, which is bottled at 109 proof and touts tasting notes of “creamy vanilla, clove, and allspice.”
Comparable Taste: Four Roses Small Batch Select
While not boasting the age or the one-and-done nature of the limited-edition release, Small Batch Select embodies the nuanced flavor and mellow presentation Four Roses is known for. The bourbon is blended from six recipes, each aged at least six years, and bottled at 104 proof, with a similar interplay of sweet aromatics and spicy undertones.
Little Book Chapter 6
Freddie Noe, the eighth-generation master distiller at the James B. Beam Distilling Co., created the Little Book series to explore the many flavors found in whiskey. Though not technically a bourbon, the sixth annual release, titled “To the Finish,” features a batch of four-year-old straight malt whiskey that was split into four portions and each finished using different types of wood before being blended back together, along with a five-year-old Kentucky bourbon, in various proportions.
Comparable Taste: Hardin’s Creek
Noe’s blending talents are also on display with Hardin’s Creek, an ongoing limited-edition series named after the water source family patriarch Jacob Beam drew from to make whiskey. The second release, called “Colonel James B. Beam,” is a two-year-old bourbon that showcases Noe’s talent for coaxing mature flavors from relatively young whiskey.
George T. Stagg
The big boy of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection—which usually releases around early October and also includes William Larue Weller, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old, and Eagle Rare 17-Year Old—George T. Stagg typically uses barrels aged fifteen years and is bottled at barrel proof, often near 130 proof or higher. It’s expected to return this year after Buffalo Trace declined to release a version in 2021, citing a lack of mature barrels meeting its specifications for the brand.
Comparable Taste: Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon
Stagg (Buffalo Trace dropped the “Jr.” from the name beginning with this year’s release) has long been seen as a worthy substitute for the older and burlier George T. Stagg—so much so that it’s nearly as difficult to find. Another option: Redemption 10 Year Barrel Proof High Rye Bourbon. Blended from sourced barrels, it splits the difference in age between Stagg and George T. Stagg, with a hefty proof and depth of character that reveal rich candy aromas and layers of peppery flavor.
Russell’s Reserve Single Rickhouse Camp Nelson C
Wild Turkey, which makes Russell’s Reserve, tapped into its considerable history for the inaugural release of its new Single Rickhouse series. Each installment features barrels taken from a single aging warehouse and is meant to showcase how location and environment affect bourbon as it ages. Slated to drop in October, the first entrant mingles 72 barrels, each aged at least ten years, taken from the heart of a warehouse known as Camp Nelson C—built in 1946 atop a hill overlooking the Kentucky River and dismantled in 2021—and bottled at cask strength of 112.4 proof.
Comparable Taste: Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon
The more broadly available Russell’s Reserve 10-Year Bourbon is also blended from barrels selected from the “sweet spot” in the center of aging warehouses and remains one of the best values on the shelf. But I’m giving the edge to Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Made from the same mash bill as Russell’s Reserve (and all of Wild Turkey’s bourbons), it’s bottled at barrel-proof with delicate layers of honey and vanilla over a lingering, spicy finish.
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Years-Old Lot “B”
Released around early November, the arrival of the Van Winkle lineup is like Christmas come early for collectors who manage to snag a bottle. The collection includes fifteen-, twenty-, and twenty-three-year-old versions of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon, as well as Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-year, and a 13-year-old rye. For me, the 12-year Van Winkle hits the sweet spot for its age, balanced complexity, and mid-range proof.
Comparable Taste: Larceny
Suggesting Larceny, a widely available bourbon from Heaven Hill, might seem like heresy to Pappy aficionados, but the brands share some DNA. Both have ties to the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Stitzel-Weller’s flagship brand was Old Fitzgerald, which Heaven Hill acquired in 1999 and introduced an off-shoot in Larceny. All three bourbons are made with wheat as a secondary grain. While nowhere near as revered, Larceny is modestly priced and exhibits a similar soft sweetness that rounds out layers of oak and spice.