Hunting season nears, not only for wild game but the rarer prey of domestic small-batch whiskey. In a matter of weeks, the frenzied search for that most American of spirits and elusive of brands will begin anew.
Only 7,500 cases of aged Van Winkle bourbon will ship from a warehouse in Frankfort, Ky., to distributors, before arriving at select liquor stores and watering holes fortunate to score a few bottles, with a pronounced emphasis on a few.
The search for Van Winkle has inspired a song, a blog, an app and a delirious secondary market where a bottle has fetched as much as $2,600.
From now until the bourbon arrives at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, most likely in November, “we’ll get 15 to 20 calls a day asking for Pappy,” said general manager Joseph Prebble, referring to the most coveted older (15, 20 and 23 year) expressions of the wheated whiskey.
The calls are useless. Pappy, which ships just once a year, will never grace the shelves there or at many other stores, as supply is limited and top customers get priority. Many enthusiasts, who would gladly pay the $80 that the 15-year-old should sell for, will never get their hands on a bottle.
The drought is all the more confounding because only six years ago it was possible for anyone to score a couple of bottles, even at a charmless Pennsylvania state store. Now the whiskey has vanished — poof! — like a bourbon Brigadoon.
President Julian Van Winkle III spent much of his 65 years trying to get the world to notice the whiskey that bears his grandfather’s name and cigar-puffing likeness. “Bourbon was really nothing back then when I started. It was perceived as something just the good old boys were drinking down South,” he said.
“It’s basically been the same recipe for 120 years, more or less, with a few tweaks.” said Preston Van Winkle, Julian’s son. The bourbon didn’t change; it was consumers’ tastes, driving an international market mad for American whiskey and Pappy in particular. Preston has less than half a bottle in his Louisville home.
The reason for Pappy hysteria is older than the bourbon: Extraordinary demand and limited supply that could not have been predicted when the whiskey was first barreled during the final gasps of the 20th century.
The bourbon revival is part of a craving for luxury goods, all things American, especially from the South, along with a DIY appreciation for craft businesses, and a desire for richer-tasting liquor — small-batch gin, rye and bourbon. (Contrary to myth, bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the nation, not just Kentucky.) “Bourbon is the hottest spirit in the world, the top category in spirits from London to Japan for the past five years,” said Tom Fischer, who runs BourbonBlog.com.
Unlike many elusive objects of desire, there is little dispute about the bourbon’s quality. Even critics confounded by the chase concede that Van Winkle makes very, very good whiskey.
In 1996, the 20-year-old Pappy received an unprecedented 99 whiskey rating from the venerable Beverage Tasting Institute, but all six expressions — the three Pappy productions, Old Rip Van Winkle (10 year), Van Winkle Special Reserve (12 year) and Family Reserve Rye (13 year) — have collected superb ratings and multiple awards. Today, there are other bourbons as highly ranked (Four Roses Limited Edition, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection), but Pappy continues to be the most difficult to find, the Holy Grail of a luxury-mad cocktail market that has migrated to such pre-Prohibition whiskey drinks as the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sazerac.
The unquenchable quest for Pappy, already difficult, became criminal last October, when almost 200 bottles of the 20-year-old Pappy van Winkle and 27 of the 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye were purloined from the warehouse. An inside job was suspected, and the bottles have not been recovered.
Said Julian Van Winkle III: “We got $10 million worth of free advertising we didn’t need at the time.”
However, it is possible to purchase a $108 bottle of 23-year-old Pappy on eBay.
The bottle is empty.
There’s no secret what the Van Winkles think of the secondary market. They hate it.
“It’s horrible. It infuriates me because it shows just a complete and utter disrespect for the customer and for us,” said Preston Van Winkle. “There’s plenty of money to be made off our products. Just take a fair markup. But sellers do it because they can.”
Many stores, such as the four Wine and Cheese Place locations around St. Louis, sell at the suggested price but conduct a lottery, which the Van Winkles believe is the fairest approach. Last year, 1,400 people entered the Missouri lottery for a score of bottles in the double digits.
Kyle Buza’s Pappy Tracker app posts sightings, like paparazzi stalking celebrity prey, though once a bottle has been photographed, chances are it has long been sold or drained to the last caramel-colored drops. “Every year it gets worse, because every store knows how valuable it is,” said Buza, a Menlo Park, Calif., software engineer, who recently drove to a secret location, six hours by car, to score another bottle.
There have been Van Winkles in whiskey since 1893, beginning with the original Julian Van Winkle, known as Pappy, a consummate salesman and character. The Van Winkle label was launched after the family was forced, by stockholder pressure in 1972, to sell the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery, producer of the W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still labels. For the past dozen years, Van Winkle whiskey has been produced as a joint venture with the Sazerac Co. at the Buffalo Trace distillery.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the family was basically in the gewgaw business, pushing fancy decanters as retirement gifts and collectors items that just happened to hold the whiskey. Bourbon had lost its buzz. When Julian Van Winkle III first entered the business, his father told him: “If this doesn’t work out, you might want to talk to some bankers or insurance companies about a job.”
The son poured more than phone calls and whiskey into the business: “It took a lot of my money to keep this thing going.” He continues to adhere to his grandfather Pappy’s motto: “We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must. But always, fine bourbon.”
Today, the third-generation Van Winkle sits in the Louisville office that he shares with his son, the firm’s two sole employees, turning down ardent buyers from all over the globe.
No to Brazil. No to Korea. No to Russia.
There are 10 states where you cannot score a bottle.
Which gives the third Julian Van Winkle no pleasure: “It took a lot of time to get here. I’m the kind of guy who likes to please people, not make them angry.”
Among those people who dream of Van Winkle bourbon is Chris Brantley of Savannah, Ga.. Two years ago, he launched the Pursuit of Pappy blog, which has 4,000 monthly visitors. He composes paeans to Pappy. “It’s the character, the taste,” he said. “The scarcity of it that drives the interest.”
He should know. Brantley hasn’t had a sip of Pappy since February. Of last year.
“Possibly that is the charm in Pappy Van Winkle,” Brantley observed on his blog. In an Uber culture of instant gratification, on-demand clicks and same-day delivery, Pappy fans have to wait.
The rise of Pappy occurred when that scarcity mashed up against increased demand in a global quest for specialty goods: With a multiyear, even multidecade production, the Van Winkles can anticipate market demand only so far in advance. Said Preston Van Winkle: “We could double production, and still sell out.” As a reflection of evolving taste, Schneider’s last year transferred its selection of American whiskey to the front of the store, a fifth of the spirits inventory, and pushed to the back the vodka, its moment so over.
Chefs have certainly played a part in driving the Pappy mystique: David Chang, Anthony Bourdain and Sean Brock of Charleston, S.C., the South’s most celebrated cook and arguably Pappy’s greatest crusader, who begged Julian to adopt him and dubbed the bourbon “America’s finest product.”
Professional hunters like the Pappy Tracker’s Buza have amassed large stashes. Buza has 15 bottles. Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Adams Morgan, with 450 types of bourbon and 2,000 different whiskeys, still has plenty. The 20-year Pappy goes for $45 an ounce. How does the place have so much so close to the next release season? Said Jack Rose’s Katie Williams: “We know the right people.”
Last month, Julian Van Winkle III discovered two bottles of 20-year-old Pappy in a bar in Milan, a city known more for design than for whiskey. “I paid dearly for them, probably $200 a piece,” a steal, and plans to auction them for charity.
His three 35-year-old daughters — yes, there are Van Winkle triplets — decided that there was more money to be distilled from the family elixir. Last year, the sisters launched Pappy & Company (pappyco.com) promoting the whiskey lifestyle: belt buckles, needlepoint coasters, shirts, ties, bourbon balls as well as a limited edition Van Winkle signature gift set with a crystal decanter and glasses, yours for $825.
The Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, it will come as little shock, is not included.