On a recent Tuesday evening at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, the oldest and largest art museum in Kentucky, well-dressed guests gathered among exhibits that included Black avant-garde artwork. They had each paid $3,000 per table for the opportunity to bid on rare bottles known as the “Art of Bourbon.” The proceeds from the hammer prices would benefit the non-profit museum.
There was a George T. Stagg Distillery Prohibition-era bottle as well as a 20-year-old A.H. Hirsch, supposedly “the best bourbon you’ll never taste.” Both went for low five figures.
But the marquee lot at the auction was a Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year from 1998, the inaugural release of the now most famous bottle on the American whiskey market. It sold for an astonishing $35,000, a great fundraising boon for the nearly 100-year-old art museum.
“This auction fires on all cylinders,” claims Tom O’Grady, a bourbon collector who serves on the museum’s board of trustees and has regularly put some of his own bottles up for auction. “Proceeds support an important institution in our community, and I get my hands on ridiculously rare bourbons.”
Forget government assistance, and step up your game GoFundMe: If you want to raise money for people in need these days, you have to deploy Pappy the Philanthropist. In fact, it seems that as of late, the only way to get one’s hands on Pappy Van Winkle, that ridiculously rare unicorn of unicorns, is to bid for it at charity auctions.
Last summer, when biblical flooding pelted Eastern Kentucky, destroying thousands of homes and taking more than 40 people’s lives, it was again Pappy Van Winkle to the rescue. In this case, Pappy’s distillery, Buffalo Trace, partnered with auctioneer Menish Productions to offer up a complete set of the six Van Winkle whiskeys. It would end up netting over $20,000 for flood relief causes.
“We hope our bourbon community, who we know can be very generous, really shows its support and we’re able to raise an unheralded amount of funds for Eastern Kentucky disaster relief,” said Mark Brown, chief executive officer for Buffalo Trace, in a press release.
Just a year earlier, Buffalo Trace had put up a full set of Van Winkles to combat tornado damage that had swept through the Midwest. This time, Pappy netted over $40,000 for the American Red Cross.
Pappy would also support people during the pandemic. In April 2020, the Van Winkle family auctioned a rare Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year barrel head, one of only 16 in existence, signed by Julian Van Winkle III. It raised $20,000 for LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program.
Pappy for a Purpose
Not all Pappy auctions these days aim to combat natural disasters or worldwide pandemics, however. Some aren’t even auctions.
Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) of Kentuckiana has a yearly Pappy Van Winkle raffle that raises funds for Louisville’s location of the “home-away-from-home” for parents who have children undergoing local medical treatments. Raffle tickets sell for $100 each, with a chance to win a five-bottle lineup of Van Winkle bourbons also signed by Van Winkle III. Nearly 2,000 tickets were purchased this year.
“Bourbon has become so hot, it’s had a run like no other spirit has in modern times. And once you start getting into bourbon, very quickly, the name Pappy Van Winkle will get in your lexicon.”
“You can actually make more money with a raffle than you can from an auction in most cases,” says Marc Abrams, a bourbon expert who has helped with many bourbon charities over the years, including as an advisor for the Art of Bourbon and RMHC.
This year’s event, held in August, raised $190,000 for Van Winkle bottles that would fetch perhaps $15,000 to $20,000 on the illicit secondary market. They had been donated by various individuals, but in many cases, Abrams says, it makes sense for the charities to actually buy the bottles themselves, such is the multiplier of money that can be pulled in from them.
(As to whether donating Pappy bottles can help with your taxes, Abrams tells me, “That’s between you, your god, your accountant, and the IRS.”)
Other RMHCs across the nation have likewise found success with Pappy raffles. RMHC of the Ohio Valley, located in Evansville, Ind., hosts the yearly “Pappy for a Purpose” in mid-October. RMHC Northeast Ohio likewise has a Pappy raffle, as does the Wichita location.
“Bourbon has become so hot, it’s had a run like no other spirit has in modern times,” Abrams says. “And once you start getting into bourbon, very quickly, the name Pappy Van Winkle will get in your lexicon.”
This relentless need for Pappy-fueled fundraisers has become so great — so frequent across the country — that Buffalo Trace now offers 100 bourbon sets for 100 different 501(c)(3) charities each year.
Between Art of Bourbon and the RMHC, Pappy has helped him pull in some $3 million fundraising dollars over the last half-decade.
100 Pappys for 100 Charities
There are less localized, more piecemeal auctions for Pappy Van Winkle as well. CharityBuzz, an online site that has long featured “extraordinary experiences” to raise money for worthy causes, regularly offers Pappy bottles in its auctions, over 800 lots to date at the least.
Currently, there’s a Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon and a 12-Year Van Winkle Special Reserve “Lot B” each going for around $3,000, as well as a Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year with an asking price of $6,000 to benefit WhyHunger, which supports grassroots solutions to ending hunger.
CharityBuzz has also found success in auctioning off artist Mark Kannell’s “painted Pappy” bottles, which have featured everyone from (a pre-couple) Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce to a Rocky-esque Donald Trump portrayed on the neck above Pappy’s visage. Each of these unusual items has gone for around $5,000, with money raised for causes like the Luanne Elise Foundation, which supports disadvantaged children in rural Oklahoma.
“I knew a little about the Pappy market,” Kannell told me when I interviewed him in 2022. “So I figured it would sell just based on it being a Pappy bottle — and this made it unique, one of a kind.”
My back-of-the-napkin math shows these Pappy bottles alone have raised over a quarter million dollars for charity.
In fact, this relentless need for Pappy-fueled fundraisers has become so great — so frequent across the country — that Buffalo Trace now offers 100 bourbon sets for 100 different 501(c)(3) charities each year. Prospective buyers just have to fill out a form to throw their names in the hat.
“You could only imagine how frequently they get asked for donations,” Abrams says. “If they filled every donation request, they would probably have no Pappy left to sell.”