Pappy Van Winkle is the unicorn of bourbons, known for both its quality and its rarity. The whiskey is one of the hardest-to-find bottles out there, and it’s cherished worldwide as the ultimate example of quality. One New York bar even sold shots of Pappy for $315 each.
The coveted Kentucky bourbon brand has a rich flavor — a spicy-sweet blend of nutty oak, with notes of honeyed citrus, maple, and vanilla — and an even richer history. So if your pockets are feeling deep, or if you’re a whiskey connoisseur looking to achieve nirvana, read on for 15 things you should know about the holy grail of bourbons: Pappy Van Winkle.
It started as a bourbon buy-back business.
Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle sold whiskey for W. L. Weller starting in 1893, eventually becoming president of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. So did his son. But the distillery hit rough times and was eventually sold in 1972. To keep the family name and attention to quality alive, Julian Van Winkle III began buying back barrels of bourbon and bottling it as Old Rip Van Winkle —a pre-Prohibition label he’d resurrected. Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle didn’t actually hit shelves until 1994, when the 20-year bottle was first released.
Pappy Van Winkle is rare — really rare.
When we compared it to a unicorn, we weren’t kidding. The distillery only releases around 7,000 cases a year, which is approximately 84,000 bottles. The distillery’s motto for its whiskey production is, “at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.”
There’s such a thing as a Pappy Tracker.
The brand only releases bottles once a year. But since the folks at Pappy want to make it as easy as possible for people to get a taste, they offer a list on the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery website of all the stores that receive an allocation of Pappy. But because of the limited quantity, it turns out that “as easy as possible” isn’t all that easy.
When you do find it, it’ll cost you.
Bottles can go for thousands of dollars each. One bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23-year-old bourbon began auctioning at $20,000 in 2018.
Pappy was at the center of one of the largest alcohol heists.
The Bonnie and Clyde of alcohol— Gilbert and Julia Curtsinger — stole around $100,000 in whiskey from 2008 to 2015. The total heist included 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle. Worst of all, much of the bourbon had to be destroyed after it was found in 2015.
Some states resort to a government-instituted Pappy lottery system.
Julian Van Winkle has some alternatives for you.
Julian Van Winkle says you don’t have to drink Pappy. It’s hard to get and he knows it, so he offered some other options during an interview with GQ: 7 year old W.L. Weller, Maker’s 46, and Four Roses single barrel. “If that’s not available, then I’m gonna go drink vodka,” he said.
It hasn’t always been this way.
The Pappy craze didn’t start until 1996, after the Beverage Testing Institute rated the 20-year Pappy Van Winkle a 99 out of 100 — the highest rating for a whiskey ever given by the institute.
The secret is in the mash.
Pappy Van Winkle is made with a higher percentage of wheat than most bourbons. To be a bourbon, it must have at least 51 percent corn. Then, Pappy uses wheat instead of the typical rye, creating a whiskey that’s sweeter and fruitier.
The rest of its value is owed to time and scarcity.
It takes 53 gallons of whiskey to make three gallons of Van Winkle 23. The rest is what’s known as the angel’s share, or the portion that’s evaporated and soaked into the barrel.
Age is more than just a number.
On average, Pappy is aged longer than most bourbons — it’s aged twice as long as Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, which are both aged for four years. Pappy’s available in bottles aged for 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23 years. In 2017, the brand released only 710 bottles of a super limited edition 25-year-old bourbon. It retailed for $1,800 dollars, but bottles can be found on the secondary market now for upwards of $30,000.
Pappy fans can rep their devotion to the bourbon brand by wearing Pappy-inspired threads.
The lifestyle brand Pappy & Company is owned by fourth-generation Van Winkle sisters and offers everything from Pappy-themed bow ties to children’s clothes. Hardcore Pappy fans can even indulge in Pappy brand cigars or douse their pancakes in Pappy bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup.
Some Pappy bottles may contain bourbon from another distillery.
As for which ones, it’s a mystery. Since Pappy joined a joint partnership with Buffalo Trace in 2002, the source of every bottle’s contents has been a point of contention among whiskey aficionados. Some claim that it’s impossible for Buffalo Trace to perfectly replicate the same bourbon that was produced in the Stitzel-Weller distillery and won the 1996 award.This belief is one of the reasons that people are willing to fork out far more cash for an older bottle of Pappy. After 2002, whiskey produced at the Buffalo Trace distillery was mixed with old Stitzel-Weller stock before being bottled — so some Pappy 23 year as recently as 2015 may have traces of Stitzel-Weller in it.
Anthony Bourdain was a mega-fan.
In 2011, Bourdain tweeted, “I am considering a full back Pappy Van Winkle tattoo.” If the culinary legend liked it enough to consider getting inked, you know it’s good.
It was the inspiration for Maker’s Mark.
Pappy’s granddaughter Sally Van Winkle Campbell revealed in her book “But Always Fine Bourbon” that Bill Samuels Sr., the creator of Maker’s Mark, sought Pappy’s advice when developing his brand. That’s probably why Maker’s Mark also uses wheat instead of rye in the production of its bourbon.