Terrific whiskeys, all these, but there are so many other great ones out there.

Tis the season to be waiting—a long time—for a bottle of Van Winkle whiskeys.

This week, Kroger Wine & Spirits announced its local stores are holding drawings to see which 250 lucky drinkers get to buy a bottle of Van Winkle whiskeys—for somewhere between $59 and $235 each.

Doubtless thousands will apply to purchase some of the most limited and popular Kentucky made bourbons and ryes that some will drink, gift to others or sell on the secondary market for seven to 10 times what they paid.

Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca
Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

What’s kind of crazy, however, is all the attention given these great Van Winkle whiskeys when there are so many equally outstanding (and many would say better) choices on the market. I abide that sentiment wholeheartedly, and I have some freaky-good bottles on my shelf that I’d put next to any Van Winkle sipper in a blind tasting.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Van Winkle whiskeys. The last time I tasted the full line in order of age, I recall thinking, “There’s zero negative I could say about these. They’re excellent.” Sure, I think their prices are too high, but that’s partly the product of my modest income. You can’t blame Buffalo Trace (which distills and ages them) or the Van Winkle family (who owns the brand). Retailers and secondary market resellers have ratcheted up the hype surrounding this historic line, and prices have followed. Supply and demand, just how it happens.

This year—and beyond—I’m focused on “store picks,” the name given to single-barrel selections chosen by liquor retailers, restaurant and bar owners who go to a distillery, sample whiskeys at barrel strength, select one or more barrels for a private bottling, and sell them through their outlet.

These are one-of-a-kind whiskeys that will taste noticeably different—sometimes dramatically different—from distilleries’ mainline shelf products. And that’s the fun of that uniqueness; you never really know what you’ll get unless the retailer holds a sampling. And unless you buy multiple bottles, you’ll never get that one again.

That’s exciting because it makes whiskey picking an adventure, and over time, you learn which retailer’s preferences you trust most. Some retailers so suit my palate with their Four Roses Bourbon picks that I’ve not gone back to the standard shelf bottles. (Prospect Party Center’s Four Roses OBSQ is one of my favorites.)

Depending on the brand and the yield of the barrel, store picks range in cost from $40 to $80, and you don’t have to wait in line for them—yet—though some sell quicker than others. Westport Whiskey & Wine’s Maker’s Mark 46 Private Select barrel ($75) sold out in three days (partly because it was well marketed, and it was really good), while The Party Mart’s Private Select barrel ($69) lingered on shelves for months. Ironically, to my palate, that whiskey was better than WW&W’s—and even better than the MMPS barrel I helped choose for Prospect Party Mart!

A retailer in Paducah partnered with the Paducah Bourbon Society to choose a 15-year-old Knob Creek barrel. Price? $50. Yes, $50 for one of the most complex and boldly flavored whiskies I’ve ever had. Bargain of the year in my book, and the PBS nicknamed it “The Beast of Bourbon.” (The Haymarket Whiskey Bar sells bottles of its extensive list of private barrel selections, and soon The Pearl of Germantown will do the same.)

The point is there’s so much great and affordable whiskey on the market right now—and the best supply and prices are in the Bluegrass State—that you needn’t pine for an overpriced bottle of Pappy. (Even Julian Van Winkle has said he’d not pay what others are paying for his whiskey.) So visit your local liquor store and ask for their private barrel bottlings, and then prepare yourself for something really different.