The price leap is not just at the luxury level. Everyday bourbons like Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare, which once sold for about $35, now often go for twice that.
“Today, $75 is the new $35,” said Dixon Dedman, who created Kentucky Owl, one of the first luxury American whiskeys not called Pappy. Mr. Dedman and his partners sold Kentucky Owl to Stolichnaya for an undisclosed sum in 2017, and he just introduced a new brand, 2XO, with a retail price starting at $95.
The craze drives collectors to extreme lengths. Like music fans eager to snag tickets to an upcoming show, some will camp overnight outside liquor stores, hoping to grab a limited release from cult distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Four Roses.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the bourbon boom went into overdrive. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, says sales of all American whiskeys have grown at a steady pace over the last decade, from 16 million to 30 million nine-liter cases.
For most of that time, the volume of sales was consistent across all price categories, from cheaper to so-called super-premium bottles costing more than $50.
Then, around 2016, sales of super-premium whiskey took off, while those of cheaper whiskey slowed. Over the next five years, sales of so-called value whiskey, priced under $20, rose just 4.2 percent, while sales of super-premium rose more than 129 percent.
Bourbon fans were becoming better educated, and with that education came a willingness to pay more for higher quality and, even more important, exclusivity. In response, distilleries began to offer limited-release bottles with unusual qualities — drawn from a single barrel, for example, or bottled at high proof — which fueled interest.