If you are a bourbon drinker, you probably know of the legendary Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. It is allegedly one of the world's greatest bourbons, produced in extremely limited quantities by the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery Company. I say allegedly, as I have not had the privilege of tasting it. In fact, the chances of me ever getting a taste of this magical spirit are close to zero.
This elusive brand is offered in 15, 20, and 23-year varieties, and is one of the most highly prized and sought after products on the market. First released in 1992, and available only in the fall in painfully limited quantities, this legendary bourbon sets off an annual frenzy of activity as bourbon hunters seek out the rare spirit.
Ben Bowers, in The Complete Guide to Pappy Van Winkle quoted celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain from an episode of On The Table as calling Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year, the "the most glorious bourbon on the planet."
"There's Pappy Van Winkle, then there's everything else," said chef John Currence in this Huffington Post article.
"The taste is softer and milder and allows for longer aging, connoisseurs say," wrote Trip Gabriel in this New York Times piece.
Gabriel went on to quote Wine Enthusiast Magazine: "The nose is intensely fruited but also bears a tantalizing citrus zest note. The body is huge and almost chewable and the palate is tremendously buttery with some sherry notes, a dash of dried fruits and some rich, creamy vanilla. The finish is long and elegant."
"It's the most complex bourbon you've ever tasted, but it's smooth as silk," said Sean Brock, of Husk Restaurants in Tennessee and South Carolina, in Trip Gabriel's story. "That's why people go crazy for it."
But money buys everything, doesn't it? Not Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Some of the richest, most resourceful people in the world cannot get a bottle. It's not because they can't afford it – it's because Pappy is so rare.
"We have people with literally billions of dollars who can't find a bottle. They could buy a private jet in cash. They'd have an easier time buying our company," said Julian P. Van Winkle III, in a Louisville Magazine article, quoted in this Wall Street Journal story by Tom Gara.
The roots of this legend began in the 1890's when Julian Proctor 'Pappy' Van Winkle began working for William L. Weller, a liquor wholesaler. He and a partner bought the company from Weller's sons in 1909, and became part owners in the Stitzel Brothers Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. When Stitzel merged with Weller, becoming the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Julian became the boss of the company that produced bourbon including Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell.
When the family was forced to sell in 1972, they retained the rights to the Old Rip Van Winkle name, one of the original company products. They also hung onto barrels of aging bourbon that would become the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve brand, first released in 1992.
In 1998, their 20-year old bourbon received a score of 99 out of 100 in a blind tasting by the Beverage Tasting Institute, according to Paul Wachter's 'How Pappy Van Winkle Became King of the Whiskeys', on Grub Street.com.
Thus began the rise in popularity and the legend of this fine spirit – one that is nearly impossible to find.
"You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquefied, barrel-aged unobtanium," wrote Tom Gara in the Wall Street Journal.
Bowers also noted in his article that PVW bourbon first produced in the Stitzel-Weller distillery must have changed after that distillery closed in 1992. Julian III moved the operation to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and Bowers opined:
"There is no possible way that Buffalo Trace could produce the exact same bourbon that had won Pappy awards in the past."
Even with such uncertainty, the mystique of the brand remains. I visited a favorite liquor store and asked Ron the manager, if he ever received any Pappy in his store.
He laughed. "Never. You have to be on the list of preferred outlets to get any, and we're not even close."
I asked him what he thought about the future of the brand.
"They're never going to catch up. With the 20 and 23-year aging, there's no way they can fill the demand. Back when they started that stuff they had no idea it would be so sought after all these years later. So what little they produce never filters down to stores like this one."
Nima Ansari, of Astor Wines & Spirits in New York told Josh Ozersky in Bourbon Mania! in the Wall Street Journal: "The best bourbons generally take more than 15 years to age, and no one saw the current bourbon boom coming in the '90s; if anything, demand was down at the time."
Why don't they just make more now?
"You can’t make 20-year bourbon in less than 20 years," Van Winkle said in the Trip Gabriel/New York Times story.
Van Winkle told Tom Gara: "They legalize marijuana, and nobody is drinking bourbon anymore. I don't want to get caught with a bunch of whiskey."
What that means is Pappy Van Winkle bourbon (15, 20, and 23-year) is extremely rare, and wildly expensive.
It's one thing to buy for investment purposes, like rare bottles of fine wine, but those that have tasted this bourbon swear by it. They're willing to pay steep prices because it is one of the best tasting bourbons on the planet. Or so they say – I'll have to take their word for it. It is the unique combination of scarcity, flavor, reputation, and history that drive up the price.
Insider Louisville's Kevin Gibson wrote that according to Wine-Searcher.com, "the average selling price in the United States for a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year is now $2,699."
According to Trip Gabriel's story, the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington will serve you a shot of 20-year-old Pappy for $65. For just $10 more, you can enjoy an ounce and a half of 23-year-old Pappy.
"You'll find people offering to sell bottles for two to five thousand dollars each," said liquor store manager Ron.
Is it worth it?
Van Winkle told John Ozersky, "If they're dumb enough to pay that much," he said, "that's their prerogative."
Even if I could find a bottle for sale, I'm not dumb enough to pay that much – at least only to drink it. Then again, what is the point of owning such a rare, prized commodity and not using it for its intended purpose – savoring the taste?
"It's a little like buying a Ferrari and never driving it," said whiskey enthusiast Kenny Long. "Or having a '59 Gibson Les Paul and locking it away. On the other hand, a guitar doesn't go away the first time you use it. It'll be there for years to enjoy. Spending thousands of dollars for a bottle of bourbon though – I'm not sure I could make myself open the bottle if I bought one."
According to Josh Ozersky in The Idiot's Guide to Not Drinking Pappy Van Winkle, Jefferson Presidential Select is the closest thing to "old Pappy" (i.e. 20 and 23-year-old) and may actually be real Pappy. The Jefferson company responded to my tweeted question with this:
"Only the 17 and 18 year old [Jefferson Presidential Select] contained bourbon from the same distillery, Stitzel-Weller, where Pappy was made."
Of course, Jefferson's top of the line whiskey sells for close to $1000 a bottle, nearly as expensive as bourbon bottled as Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. That is far above my pay grade. It appears that even though you may find a bottle of Jefferson's, the iconic PVW is the Holy Grail of bourbon, and people are willing to pay heftier prices for the real thing (as opposed to bourbon labeled as Jefferson's that may actually be the same thing).
Ron: "If you're a collector and looking to invest, then sure, go for it. If you're looking to drink it, you'd be crazy to spend that much. There are plenty of great bourbons for a fraction of the price for drinking."
And that's where my bourbon search has brought me. My favorite is W.L. Weller 12-year, which can be purchased in my area for about $25 - if, that is, the stores have it.
"That's about as close as you're going to get to Pappy style wheated bourbon at an affordable price." Ron told me when I bought my first bottle of Weller 12-year.
Weller bourbon is distilled at the Buffalo Trace facility, where Julian Van Winkle's bourbons are distilled, aged, and bottled (since 2002). According to Josh Ozersky in The Idiot's Guide to Not Drinking Pappy Van Winkle, Weller 12 is "the closest thing to the younger Van Winkle bottlings on the market." (i.e. Pappy 15 year.)
That's good news for those of us unlikely to ever luck into obtaining a bottle of the rare Pappy.
"Even the Weller is sometimes difficult to get," said Ron.
"When we do have it, it doesn't stay on the shelves for long."
At least it's not as difficult to find as the elusive Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve; one of the world's most intriguing spirits.
Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.
He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.
He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.