If you are a whiskey drinker, you’ve heard of Pappy. Hell, even if you aren’t a whiskey drinker, you might have heard of Pappy. Declared by some to be the greatest bourbon in the world, Pappy Van Winkle is definitely the most sought after. On eBay right now, empty Pappy bottles are selling for $50 and up, with collections going for hundreds of dollars. You read that right, empty bottles.
So what is this unicorn beverage that causes a frenzy, demands sky-high prices, and even makes the rich and famous weak in the knees? If you think I’m kidding, consider: there is an app to help you find Pappy (http://pappytracker.com,) lines wrap around buildings to participate in lotteries for only the chance to buy a bottle, and in 2011, Anthony Bordain (famous lover of Pappy) tweeted his desire for a full back Pappy Van Winkle tattoo.
“Van Winkle has become something that rich guys line up with their other possessions in the never-ending ‘whose is bigger?’ competition with other rich guys. It used to be just a very good bourbon, something that was a little more expensive than the rest. Now it’s what bourbon enthusiasts call ‘a unicorn.’ You can rarely find it, and when you do, you can’t afford it.” – Charles K. Cowdery, Drambox
To claim there is hype and spectacle around the brand would not be an exaggeration.
But at the end of the day, it’s just bourbon, right?
Really expensive, but bourbon, nonetheless. And bourbon is whiskey, derived from a fermented mash of grains, such as barley, rye, and corn. In the US, Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, must not be distilled at more than 160 proof, must also spend at least two years in charred oak barrels at not more than 125 proof, and bottled at not less that 80 proof. Besides the grain mash, only water is allowed in bourbon. And while many bourbons are made from corn, rye, and barley, Old Rip Van Winkle leaves out the rye and uses corn, wheat, and barley in its reserve product. This “wheated” recipe gives the whiskey a softer, sweeter profile.
So it’s “wheated” bourbon, we get it. But what makes Pappy so special and so expensive? Other wheated styles include Maker’s Mark, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell, not to mention W.L. Weller. So what makes Pappy different?
It’s all about the story, and yes, the bourbon is good too…
The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery is a multi-generational family business. Right now, they do no actual distilling of their own – the Sazerac Company currently produces Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon at its Buffalo Trace Distillery using the original recipe – but that wasn’t always the case.
It started with Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. He originally worked at W.L. Weller & Sons as a traveling whiskey salesman and eventually as the President of Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Today, Julian Van Winkle III and his son, Preston, operate the family business in a suburb of Louisville, KY.
Pappy died in 1965 and Julian Jr. sold the business in 1972. Not wanting to end the family business entirely, he bought back some of the whiskey reserves from Stitzel-Weller, which he then used to start the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey brand. Julian Jr. died in 1981 and Julian III took over. The 80s were not a great decade for whiskey, vodka and rum were outpacing the demand, so most of of the family supply wasn’t selling, but rather maturing in barrels located in warehouses all over Kentucky. With aged bourbon at his fingertips, Julian decided to imitate the Scotch industry (which has a long history or releasing aged whisky,) and released a 10-year bottling of Rip Van Winkle and then, in the mid-nineties, a line of 20-year-old bourbon he called Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. He charged about $50 per bottle while most bourbons on the market were sold at $20 or less. Pappy wasn’t hard to find. In fact, it pretty much sat on the shelves until 1998.
In 1998, the Beverage Tasting Institute awarded the 20-year Family Reserve a score of 99 out of 100. Press followed. Celebrity fans started touting their love of Pappy, bartenders and connoisseurs started seeking it out, and the company’s fame and reputation grew. With that kind of bottle aging and high praise at every turn, people were eager to jump on the bandwagon because Pappy seemed so affordable compared to rare Scotch. You could get a pour of the bourbon everyone was talking about for less than a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue, and people were hooked.
The problem with aging though, is that you can’t increase production drastically in a short period of time. This year’s release was distilled 20 years ago. So as the fame exploded and demand grew, production stayed relatively small. And while production has increased with the joint venture with Buffalo Trace, they aren’t moving the needle much. While I couldn’t find a definitive production answer in my research, it looks like production is between 7,000 and 8,000 cases for the entire family of whiskeys. That’s a drop in the bucket, so don’t hold your breath that you’ll be finding Pappy on a store shelf anytime soon.
The story is great, but how does it taste?
Now we get to the crux of the matter. What does Pappy taste like? Is it really worth the expense and the hype? I’ve had the pleasure to taste several of the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons over the past few months, and I must say, every Pappy I’ve had has been exceptional. But first, we have to talk about wheat, and the matter of flavor preference. For a while now, I’ve been a fan of rye whiskey, I love that spicy heat. Bourbon went on the back burner for me because the corn brings out sweeter, less spicy notes. Wheated bourbons tend to go even softer and sweeter, probably why Maker’s Mark is such a popular entry level bourbon. Wheated bourbons, especially when they are young, feel much too soft for me. Oak itself though, lends spice, and the more time a wheated bourbon stays in oak, the spicier it gets. And this is why I find Pappy so delicious.
First off, I drank all my Pappy neat. Room temp, no water, no ice. I did try a couple of drops of water the first time, but found I preferred this elixir as is. To this day I have not had the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yr or the Van Winkle Special Reserve Rye 13, although I hope my future has these in store for me eventually.
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 yr – This is a lovely bourbon. A great entry to the line, and rounder than other aged wheated styles I’ve tried. You got the honey, vanilla, spiced peach and tobacco on the nose with a really soft finish that I found very pleasant. I’d happily sip this bourbon neat any day of the week.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 yr – This is the first Pappy I ever tasted. The nose was lovely and quite special, fruity, with floral vanilla and caramel notes. The palate had a hint of spice, but there was something peppery green and herbaceous. I had it alongside Blanton’s (both their standard and a limited release high proof bottle) and while the Pappy 15 was nice, I preferred the Blanton’s. In fact, I would have to say that I preferred the Van Winkle 12 to the Pappy 15.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 yr – This is where Pappy got me hooked. There is a huge jump from the 15 to the 20. All of that herbaceous green was gone, the sweet and floral nose gained real spicy notes and a core of sweet baked apples and pears. Underneath, candied citrus with caramel dried fruits. This was what I hoped Pappy would taste like, warmer and richer than most bourbons, but with a well balanced finish that did not feel especially hot, but silky smooth with flavors that lingered for quite some time.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 yr – I felt a little like Homer Simpson with the 23. I drooled just smelling it. The flavors of caramel cream, soft oak and tobacco, even leather, envelop you. Crazy complexity, I loved the nutty flavors with soft sweet spice, bruised apples, and even maple syrup singing through. Really special stuff.
Across the board, I would call Pappy the best smelling bourbon I’ve ever had. If there was Pappy perfume, I’d wear it every day! And I will flat out claim that at MSRP, every bottle is definitely worth the price tag and probably considered a deal. If I am ever lucky enough to find a regularly priced bottle, I’d jump at the chance to buy it. But with the crazy markups people are willing to pay, I just don’t see how it’s worth it. I’d much rather buy 10-20 bottles of other really delicious whiskey or wine.
So how much does Pappy really cost?
The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery releases six whiskies a year. At this exact moment, all six are available for purchase, if you are willing to fork over the cash.
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yr – MSRP $59.99: On average, you are looking at a starting price of $500
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 yr – MSRP $69.99: Starting around $700
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 yr – MSRP $119.99: Averaging around $1400
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 yr – MSRP $99.99: Averaging around $1500
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 yr – MSRP $169.99: Averaging around $2000
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 yr – MSRP $269.99: Averaging around $2500
I’m Never Going to pay that much, any other options?
There are lotteries for bottles, the Pappy tracker app can help you there, and who knows, you may get lucky.
If you are a serious whiskey drinker with serious whiskey drinking friends, you might already know someone with Pappy that is willing to share. I’ve gotten to know Pappy through an extremely generous friend who was lucky enough to score several bottles at reasonable prices. You can bet your bippy if I’m ever lucky enough to score a bottle, he’ll be the first person I call.
Another option, and one to seriously consider, is purchasing it at a bar or restaurant. New York City has at least 10 places where you can get a 2 oz pour of Pappy with prices ranging from $25 to $200 depending on which you choose. If you are thinking this route, I’d look for the 20 yr, you should be able to find it in the $50-$60 range. Expensive yes, but I’d say well worth it.
If Pappy the name and brand isn’t important to you, there are some other options to consider…