The Elusive Pappy Van Winkle Explained
The other day I read that an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle sold for as much as $100. Why would someone pay that much for an empty bottle? To fill it with a different whiskey and post it online to show everyone that they are drinking one of the most famous bourbon whiskies one could get their hands on. Its a trophy, a status symbol and people like this are posers who only drive up the price, scarcity and madness of all those who seek it out.
Let’s start from the beginning. Julian Van Winkle I “Pappy” was a salesman for Stitzel-Weller, and by some sort of series of events, he became the owner. The bourbon they produced is known to have a high wheat ratio in its mash bill. The whole history of bourbon is can be hard to follow and tends to get confusing. You can read books on it, even get a free sample off iBooks, look for “Always Fine Bourbon” which chronicles the life and times of The Van Winkle Family.
Today the company is in the hands of Julian Van Winkle III, the grandson of “Pappy”. The bourbon they source comes from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Julian Van Winkle III himself says that Old Weller itself is basically the same bourbon, the only difference being that they taste, test and blend every barrel that becomes Pappy Van Winkle, where as the former simply pours from the barrel to the bottle without any true scrutiny or control. Old Weller by the way is about $25 per bottle, but any of the Van Winkles start at $100. On the black market or secondary market the 23 year old goes for as much as $2,000.
The obvious question is why. Well, the obvious answer would be because it tastes fantastic and is not massed produced, which makes it rare. Other reasons for the prices being driven sky-high is because its the choice of noted food and drink celebrities. One year there was even a massive heist (which turned out to be an inside job), which not only made it more scarce but contributed to high prices.
The really question is does it taste so fantastic that its worth nearly 10 times the price of most other bourbons of equal quality? I am guessing not for most. Even if you had a relationship with an honest retailer who you frequently buy from, there is still a waiting list, so often the secondary or black market is the only way to go. And it gets worse as time goes on since its only released once a year around Thanksgiving. Of course you have the opportunists who will buy a bottle for $300 and turn around and sell it for $900, and those who buy it try to sell it online or at a private online auction for even more.
So what is a bourbon lover to do when everyone on social media are plastering images of their trophy on social media as if to say “Ha ha I got mine, you got nothing”? Well, there are options. The first being to ignore it, however often that is hard because anyone you ever come in contact with who shares your passion is going to ask “Every have Pappy?” And like being asked if you are a virgin, its going to be awkward to lie or pretend you have when you haven’t. Its one of those things (like having sex for the first time) you just need to do, just to get it over with, even if it sucks. In that case, my suggestion is to taste a variety of better known bourbons to form a knowledge base of flavor profiles. Try some Maker’s Mark which is under $30/bottle. Try some Jack Daniels (yes, it is technically bourbon though they prefer to call it Tennessee Whiskey). Also try Buffalo Trace since thats the distillery Pappy comes from. Once you’ve done your “research” head over to a bar who carries Pappy by the ounce. It can get expensive, but not nearly as expensive as $1-2,000 and can literally take months or years to find not omitting failure, heartbreak and yes, even counterfeiting. You should be able to find any age of their whiskies within a $100 price range. I’ve heard of the 15 year going for $125 for 2 ounces, but I managed to find it for half that price locally. And, quite frankly, while I was happy to pay $40/ounce (30ml), I was even happier to learn that while it was good, its not nearly as good as other 15 year old bourbons at a fraction of the price. Eventually I made it to the Grand Pappy of all Pappy, the 23 year old.
So here are my findings:
- Old Rip Van Winkle (10 years), good, but I personally prefer Willett Pot Reserve side by side.
- Van Winkle Family Reserve (12 years) was honestly a bit harsh on some notes, try Orphan Barrel Forged Oak which goes for about $75 instead.
- Pappy Van Winkle 15 year – Retail this bottle goes for $200, and some claim this one is the best. The argument is whether the 15 year or 20 year is better, and its strictly a question of your personal tastes.
- Pappy Van Winkle 20 year – I personally feel the 20 year is best and goes for about $300/bottle.
- Pappy Van Winkle 23 year – The most experienced bourbon drinkers will automatically tell you the most expensive and prized of the product line is way too “woody”, some even say its like sucking on a dried out wooden stick. I shelled out $80 to taste an ounce of it and honestly have no regrets. I did not find it too woody or leathery or too much of anything really, other than great. I am not a big cognac fan but the finish was much like the very finest cognac one might ever imagine. Yes, I did have some dry oak and tannins on the tongue, but in lack of the proper terminology, there is this fantastic middle note that is unbelievable. You take a sip, and there is a bit of heat, a bite, a very sweet smooth note, then a dry finish. I took a sip of Voss spring water (it could be any spring water, that is just what the bar had on hand), took another small sip, let it sit on my tongue and repeated. Again, you feel the heat in your throat, those are the polyphenols, but that sweet spirit on your palate is really unbelievable. Again, its good, but not $2,000 per bottle good, so if you have anywhere from $100-200 to spend just for the bragging rights, by all means, do it, enjoy it, get it out of the way so you can say “been there, done that”.
If you are looking to impress people, you are better off paying $1-2,000 for a bottle rather than take the time to develop a relationship with a retailer and spend thousands of dollars each year in their store so they give you preferential treatment. If you want to see what its all about, just find a bar that serves it, and prepare to spend moe for a mere taste than what an average meal out costs. Even that is a task at times.
Here is the bottom line, if you love bourbon, the name on the bottle is nonsense. There are so many brands who use various distilleries, recipes and claim its from one place yet produced in another. So don’t even bother with the hype. Drink what tastes good. Many liquor stores even have tastings before you buy.
Here is my personal analysis, of the very best 3 bourbons I’ve ever had, Michter’s 20 year won over Pappy Van Winkle 20 year and Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet 22 year. But all 3 of these today are very hard to find and in excess of $200/bottle. While bourbon, like wine, will vary from year to year here are some alternatives to great tasting bourbon so you don’t feel like you are missing out if you can’t find the elusive Pappy Van Winkle, and even these might be hard to find. These range from most to least expensive:
- Michter’s 10 or 20 year Bourbon, I’ve had yet to taste anything better, more complex or flavorful.
- Orphan Barrel Barterhouse, Forged Oak, Rhetoric, Lost Prophet, Old Blowhard
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- Colenel E.H. Taylor
- Rock Hill Farms
- Willett Pot Reserve
- Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel
- Old Weller 12 year and/or Antique
- Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (yes, at $25/bottle its what most will turn to when they want something easy to find that will satisfy their tastebuds)
- Buffalo Trace
I know there will be many who will criticize this list, but decide for yourself. At the end of the day, its just whiskey and meant to drink, not to be resold, not to be held up as a trophy or status symbol, it is to drink like the cowboys and revolutionaries of early America intended. It’s just whiskey, not a rare car or piece of memorabilia. Drink it, enjoy it, look for other genuine bourbons to try next.