You’re in a high-end liquor store, the kind with shelves full of impressive bottles of whiskey and cognac, each adorned with heavy cork toppers and gilt-edged labels sporting double-digit age statements.
At eye level, in a locked glass display case, sits a large silvery box whose sliding doors open to reveal a slope-shouldered bottle nestled gently in velvety lining. It is filled with a mahogany colored liquid surrounding a glass bird with outstretched wings, suspended as if discovered in a piece of amber. The price is a cool $14,999.
For years, this truly top shelf was dominated by super deluxe single malt Scotch whisky. But the bottle displayed before you isn’t a Glen or a Johnnie; it is a bourbon. To be specific, the 20-year-old Double Eagle Very Rare from Buffalo Trace.
When I first began drinking whiskey at the start of the last decade, the idea of a $1,500 bottle of bourbon (let alone a $15,000 bottle) would have seemed downright laughable. At the time even Pappy Van Winkle had the reputation of being a very good bourbon, probably worth the $100 or so for a bottle at retail and $12 for a pour at the bar. Bottles of George T. Stagg collected dust months after their annual release. Blanton’s was often bought in ignorance, clueless customers gravitating toward its pudgy grenade shape and cute horse topper. More or less all bourbon was sold in ignorance; no one could foresee the cult status these whiskies would shortly attain. At the time, Scotch whisky’s light shone so bright that all other whiskies were in its shadow.
But even 10 years ago, change was afoot. Scotch prices had been rising for a few years as distillers tried to balance increased demand for well-aged single malt with shrinking stocks. As the decade went on, prices shot up even more, some by more than 100 percent, and once-common expressions began to disappear.
Scotch makers were optimistic about continued demand and produced more whisky each year. But single malt needs years and years of aging to reach maturity, and meanwhile, there was plenty of bourbon available for little more than the cost of dinner for two at Applebee’s.
As our homegrown whiskey, bourbon has always outsold Scotch whisky in the U.S., in large part because it has historically been far less expensive. It uses cheaper ingredients, spends less time aging and has rarely been marketed as a luxury good the way scotch has.
Yet, quality wise, bourbon and scotch are often equals; bourbon was simply undervalued by comparison. A decade ago, 12-year-old Elijah Craig cost $30 and was available everywhere. Special releases, like Old Forester Birthday Bourbon at $50, were rarer but still relatively easy to find upon release. To a regular bourbon drinker at the time, these might have been accessible splurges. To a scotch drinker, they were great deals.
And just as scotch drinkers, fed up with scotch prices, began gravitating toward bourbon, newcomers were entering the fold, discovering the joys of bourbon for the first time.
Increased demand has, predictably, created supply pressure and bourbon is now following the same path as scotch. Ryan Maloney, owner of whiskey destination Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, sees the trend in his own store, with longtime bourbon fans starting to get priced out. “You go to another part of town or a place that’s not as built up, right?” he says, comparing the trend to buying real estate. “And you get in there and then everybody builds it up so no one can afford to be there again. So even you, if you were going to look for it again, couldn’t afford to live where you now live.”
Although bourbon’s under-valuation has been justifiably corrected, the pendulum, in many cases, has swung too far in the other direction. And price inflation is out of control with many retailers and illegal resellers pushing prices to extremes far beyond what the distillers themselves consider fair. Take the obvious example of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. The distillery lists a recommended retail price of $100 a bottle, but desperate bourbon bros pay several times that on the secondary market. Retailers would be crazy to leave such a profit for the flippers, so they price accordingly. In fact, many stores list other in-demand bottles—not just whiskies like Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, but everyday drinkers such as Henry McKenna and Wild Turkey Rare Breed—well above SRP, assuming they will move. And they do.
Compounding this landscape are the pressures created by the craft distilling movement and a gold rush of brand ownership. With several million dollars sunk into startup costs, new distillers can’t afford to wait more than a few years for their bourbon to age, and they can’t afford to price it in line with the likes of Woodford Reserve or Jim Beam White Label. They need cash flow as soon as possible, and that’s how you end up with two-year-old bourbon selling for $80.
In addition, everyone and their mother seems to be starting their own bourbon brand these days, either bottling excess barrels from craft producers or buying aged liquid from brokers. This has been going on for years but, according to Lisa Roper Wicker, president and head distiller at Brooklyn’s Widow Jane Distillery, the field has gotten much more crowded and prices for barrels of aged bourbon have risen dramatically.
These new brands are hitting shelves with prices that would have seemed outrageous only a couple of years ago: $200 for Sweetens Cove, $230 for Blue Run and $1,500 for a limited-edition Rabbit Hole. Years in the barrel might serve as a justification for such eye-popping price tags, but age isn’t a guarantee of quality, especially for bourbon.
Bourbon prices are now so extreme that scotch seems downright reasonable by comparison. I don’t mean the stratospheric stuff—the 50-year-old Balvenie at $40,000, the Bowmore 30-year-old at $2,500 or even Macallan 18 at $330—but the flagship, age-statement single malts that have stood the test of time and can be had for less than what you’re paying for Booker’s Bourbon. All that spirit Scottish distillers began laying down in the mid-to-late aughts is coming of age—more than ever before in the history of Scotch. As a result, there are plenty of high-quality Scotches in the 10- to 15-year-old range that seem like a relative bargain.
These whiskies aren’t glamorous by the standards of the bourbon bros, but they’re well made, well matured and delicious. They’re certainly worth a spin in your glass. Bourbon drinkers who never began with scotch will find new worlds of flavor to explore, while former scotch fans can rediscover whiskies they once loved with the benefit of a more seasoned palate.
Below are six of my favorite single malt scotches that are $60 or less at retail. Next time you’re out shopping, put back that overpriced single barrel bourbon and pick up one of these instead.
This Highland single malt stands out for its consistent high quality and is full of flavor. It has a decade of age and enough complexity to satisfy demanding palates without alienating a newcomer.
Built in the 1960s, this distillery has two types of pot still—the traditional “swan neck” and “straight neck” pots topped by columns with rectifying plates. Plus, Loch Lomond works with three peat levels in its malt and ferments about double the usual time with wine yeast, all of which creates a whisky dripping with tropical fruit, honey and a compelling malt base.
Glenfarclas is one of Scotland’s last family-owned distilleries, which makes characterful, rounded, deeply flavored whiskies. Many of them, including this one, are fully aged in oloroso sherry casks. Up your budget by $7 and you can snag the 12-year-old.
Its tagline is “the maritime malt” and the salty sea air that whirls around this northern distillery has permeated the whisky, melding seamlessly with nut and spice flavors. Pulteney is famous for its squat, bulbous stills—including one with a sawed-off neck—proving that beautiful whisky can come from even the unloveliest vessels.
Master blender Rachel Barrie debuted a new recipe for this Speyside distillery’s entry-level single malt in 2020, placing as much emphasis on texture as flavor. The result is a silky, unctuous caress of a dram, scented with stone fruit and toasted nuts. Like a pinch of peat in your Scotch? Try The Smoky Ten for just $6 more.
This whisky’s meaty, oily character derives from old-fashioned production techniques and equipment, including an oil-fired malt kiln and worm tub condensers. An unusual age statement, just a step above the more common 12-year-old, lends added charm and complexity.