Pappy Van Winkle: The World’s Most Coveted kentucky Bourbon
Pappy Van Winkle bourbon—known to connoisseurs simply as “Pappy”—is one of the most difficult whiskeys for consumers to get their hands on. Stories of people camping outside of liquor stores overnight in an (often thwarted) attempt to secure a bottle are commonplace, as are tales of frenzied fans resorting to shady Craigslist deals or attempting to bribe bartenders into selling them an already-opened bottle. For those not deep into the world of whiskey, this seems like absolute madness. If you’ve ever wondered why people risk breaking the law for this Kentucky liquor and how you can (legally) get your hands on some—spoiler alert, it’s at auction—read on.
Three Julian Van Winkles
There are three generations of Van Winkle men who play a part in the history of this spirit, but the story begins with Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. In 1893, at the age of 18, he began working as a travelling whiskey salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons, a liquor wholesaler. Ten years later, Julian and another Weller salesman combined their finances to buy the firm. In 1910, they were able to purchase the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, which was the major supplier of whiskey for the Weller business. Unfortunately, the merger coincided with Prohibition however the company was able to stay afloat due to having been designated as one of the few distilleries able to provide medicinal alcohol.
Julian passed away in 1965 and control of the company went to his son, Julian Jr. The bourbon business began to wane as consumer tastes shifted towards spirits like vodka; bourbon was seen as antiquated and unrefined. This decline in sales, coupled with a disagreement between stakeholders, forced Julian Jr. to sell the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1972. However, Julian Jr. insisted that his family retain control of the “Old Rip Van Winkle” name and brand, which had been introduced prior to Prohibition.
After the sale of the distillery, Julian Jr. formed J.P. Van Winkle and Son, which produced quirky, customizable commemorative whiskey decanters, with universities being his main clients. On the side, he continued to bottle Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon using old whiskey stocks purchased from the Stitzel-Weller distillery.
His son, Julian Van Winkle III, inherited the business upon his father’s death in 1981. Over the decades, consumer tastes had been slowly shifting back towards an appreciation for bourbon, and the Van Winkle family project began garnering an audience once more. Many credit Julian III’s excellent palate for taking Pappy to even greater heights and ushering in a new golden age of bourbon.
What makes Pappy so desirable?
Pappy was arguably the first bourbon to break the Scottish domination in the high-end whiskey category. To understand what makes Pappy so sought after, it is perhaps worth comparing Bourbon whiskey to Scotch whisky.
Bourbon, under U.S. Federal Regulations, must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Comparatively, scotch is aged in already-used barrels, meaning that much of the wood flavour has been leached out already. The climates where scotch and bourbon are produced also differ wildly: Scotland’s cold temperatures help to slow down the alcohol’s interaction with the wood, while the hotter climes of the Southern United States result in bourbon taking on oak flavours very quickly. In short, this means that bourbon ages much quicker than scotch does, and explains why traditionally, bourbon was not left to age for the long stints that is customary in the making of fine scotch. Yet it is these long aging periods that make scotch so special, and why collectors rarely bother with young whiskys.
Before Pappy emerged in the 1990s, older bourbons were often tarry and overly oaked—not very desirable. Julian III was able to produce an aged bourbon that was smooth, buttery and not too oaky, one which was good enough to compete alongside Scotch and the world’s best whiskeys.
Legally, bourbon products can be sold as young as three months old. Commonly found brands of bourbon like Jim Beam, Jack Daniels or Bulleit are typically aged from 3 to 5 years, with some special select reserves having 7 to 10 years of age. To put that in perspective, Pappy’s youngest offering is 15 years old, followed by a 20 and 23-year-old.
The Van Winkle family recipe also plays a part in Pappy’s success. To be legally classified as bourbon, the liquor must be made with a minimum of 51% corn. The remaining percentage is typically made up of a combination of rye and barley. The Van Winkle recipe omits the rye in favour of wheat, which some claim is the reason why Pappy has a softer, silkier profile and a gentler aging process.
Pappy vs. Van Winkle Whiskey
The Van Winkle Distilling Company produces several whiskeys, but strictly speaking, not all of them can be referred to as Pappy. Any Van Winkle whiskey with less than 15 years of age is not technically known as Pappy, and connoisseurs can be very rigorous on this point. An easy way of knowing what can be called Pappy? Look for the picture of Julian Sr. smoking a cigar on the label.
Nomenclature aside, Van Winkle’s related offerings are made with a very similar recipe at the same distillery—the main difference is that they have spent less time sitting in oak. They are a wonderful entrée into the world of Van Winkle whiskey at a more accessible price point. These sister products are known as Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Kentucky Straight Bourbon (10 years old), Van Winkle Special Reserve “Lot B” Straight Bourbon (12 years old) and Van Winkle Family Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey (aged 13 years).
Why is Pappy so hard to acquire?
Tom Gara, writing for the Wall Street Journal, famously wrote of Pappy: “You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium.” It seems inconceivable that for years there was little to no market for Van Winkle whiskey (remember those university decanters?) while nowadays it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on a bottle.
The tipping point happened in 1996 when an employee of Julian Jr. submitted a bottle of Van Winkle 20 Year whiskey to the Beverage Testing Institute, where it received the highest rating ever given out: 99/100. Demand skyrocketed. Add to that the endorsement of mega-celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang—even Pope Francis reportedly called it ‘very good bourbon’—and Pappy was launched into the stratosphere.
One of the most fundamental reasons why Pappy is so hard to acquire is its limited supply. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery releases around 7,000-8,000 cases only once per year. To put that in perspective, Jim Beam produces 7,000,000 cases of bourbon annually. Liquor stores and restaurants only receive a small allotment from the distillery, and the size of this allotment can vary from year to year. In an attempt to keep things fair, many liquor stores and agencies, such as the LCBO, distribute the bottles through a computerized lottery—”winning” simply means that you have the right to purchase or pass on a bottle—which they hold early in the year when the bourbon is released.
To put the relationship of supply and demand in perspective: Christine Sismondo at Moose Milk writes that the LCBO’s 2020 “Bourbon Masterworks” release received 63,000 entries, while the 2019 allotment was estimated to contain only 30 bottles of Pappy 15 years old—not great odds.
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