Bourbon Jungle

Bourbon Jungle

Bourbon is having a moment—a messy one, sipped neat.

Bourbon fans have multiplied more quickly than the products they want can age. Certain bottles are now called “unicorns” for being so elusive. Retailers who manage to acquire unicorns often set them aside for themselves, their friends or their biggest spenders or display them high or behind glass with huge markups. The unicorns that make it to the shelf at a reasonable price are rarer still and snapped up immediately, leading to a fun if also frustrating quest to be the person doing the snapping—what bourbon fans call “the hunt.”

But it pays to be smart about it. It pays to track down and sample a pour of something before spending so much effort and money on a bottle that might not suit your tastes. And you can do that right here in downtown New Haven. Inspired by a shocking find, I went bar-hopping for unicorns and, one by one, found a herd.

My journey began at Elm City Social, where, tucked next to a bottle of regular Blanton’s, I spied an elixir I’ve been hunting for more than a year: Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel. It’s ostensibly the finest bourbon to emerge from the rickhouses where Blanton’s is aged—the stuff so tasty that the practiced, at least, can joyfully sip it even at an undiluted proof approaching 130. SFTB is almost impossible to find stateside, even though it’s barreled and bottled here. And yet, for as long as the bottle lasts, you can find it at Elm City Social, for a very reasonable $18 a pour.

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My next stop was Harvest, where a bottle of Booker’s, also barrel strength, was even more special than I first realized. Released in small batches four times a year, each with its own theme, proof, age and character, every batch is expected, by reputation, to be a flavor bomb with a rich, nutty profile and goes quickly at retail, where MSRP is about $90. Bottles older than a year are almost impossible to find, and a prized bottle from several years ago might be listed for $500 or more on the secondary market. So my eyes widened when, at Harvest, I inspected the label and found a 2018 vintage. At 127.4 proof and a mere $13 a pour, with that characteristic nuttiness and unique batch notes of dark, ripe fruit, you won’t get a better bourbon deal in New Haven—maybe anywhere.

The next evening I popped into Atelier Florian, where a strong selection included Rock Hill Farms, a renowned variety I’d only seen once before (in a liquor store asking a cool $400 for the bottle). Florian had it for $17 a pour. It was solid but quite sweet, with a strong forward note of agave syrup, which taught me a valuable lesson: that my palate, for one, prefers E.H. Taylor Small Batch, another elusive bourbon you can find right now at Florian.

Later, at Olives and Oil, I found something else to celebrate: a bottle of Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon, a once-a-year release as unique as it is rare. Subtle to start and bold in back, notes of cotton candy and salty buttered popcorn were delightful and justify, at least once, this unicorn’s $45 price per pour. Others seem to agree, as the bottle was more than 80% empty by the time I got to it.

A block up and block-plus over at Union League Cafe, I found one unicorn on my list and another so special I’d never even heard of it. The first, for $30, was the 10-year single-barrel from Michter’s, which expertly blended complicated notes of maple, cocoa, smoke and peanut. The second, for $50, was a special one-off release from Booker’s celebrating the brand’s 30th anniversary. Unlike a typical Booker’s release, which carries an age statement of roughly seven years, the 30th was a blend of uncut bourbons aged for nine and 16. The aroma was pristine, smelling of rich caramel, dried fruit and bubblegum without singeing my nose, and yet, at 125.8 proof, the same notes all but sizzled on my tongue.

My biggest splurge, though, occurred at The Owl Shop, downtown’s foremost whiskey bar (and only cigar lounge). There I tried a $69 pour of something I’d never seen in person: a 20-year release from Heaven Hill’s Heritage Collection. Technically a corn whiskey, not a bourbon, and about as scarce as similarly aged Pappy Van Winkle, it was round and balanced like you’d hope from something allowed to mingle in barrels for two decades. Getting a nose like a buttery patisserie, I tasted red licorice and hard candy as the whiskey opened up, with apple, pear and spice on the finish. The “Kentucky hug”—the hopefully smooth warmth you feel in your chest when sipping whiskey neat—somehow started in the mouth. There was smoke in there, too, and not just because I was drinking at The Owl Shop.

You know what, though? I prefer, on the merits, that $13 Booker’s—another valuable lesson from and for the hunt.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Images feature bourbons at The Owl Shop, Florian, Union League Cafe, Elm City Social and Harvest, respectively.

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