Ask any bourbon drinker to list off a handful of bucket-list spirits they’re itching to taste, odds are Pappy Van Winkle will be included in the lot. This is true not only because of its rumored quality but due to a certain mysticism surrounding the brand name. That is to say, we’ve all heard of Pappy Van Winkle, but few of us have actually had the opportunity to try the famed bourbon – let alone get our hands on a bottle.
Boiled down, the story of Pappy Van Winkle, sold by Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, culminated in a demand that exceeded supply by a longshot thus sending the value of each bottle into the stratosphere. Don’t get us wrong though, this isn’t over-hype, simply the mainstream market recognizing what bourbon collectors have known all along – that Pappy can very well be one of the best bourbons ever distilled. So where does it all start, and what’s the difference between the three heavily sought-after variants out there (15,20 & 23-year-old bottles)? The answers to these pressing inquiries can be found below.
We can trace the humble beginnings of Pappy Van Winkle back to 1893 when Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. (the bourbon’s obvious namesake) was first hired into a sales position for the W.L. Weller & Sons wholesale liquor distributors. After 15 years of employment and knowledge gained through his tenure there, he and Alex Farnsley (another Weller salesman) purchased the firm and in 1910 acquired the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky that had been around since 1872.
Now, with both production and distribution under one roof, Stitzel-Weller introduced, among others, the Old Rip Van Winkle brand just before Prohibition effectively put a temporary hold on the market. It was then in 1935, coinciding with the Kentucky Derby, that Stitzel-Weller Distillery opened just outside of Louisville, Kentucky and became known for their “wheated” bourbon recipes. For reference, these bourbons utilize the wheat grain instead of rye in the mash rendering a smoother and softer taste.
We make fine bourbon. At a profit, if we can. At a loss, if we must. But always fine bourbon.
– Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle
With a successful business in place, Pappy – the first of four generations of Van Winkle bourbon distilling – remained involved with his distillery until his passing in 1965 at the age of 91. Afterwards, Pappy’s son, Julien Jr. ran the day-to-day operations at Stitzel-Weller up through 1972 when it was effectively sold off. However, not before he could effectively resurrect the Old Rip Van Winkle brand in 1971. Using old whiskey stocks, Julian Jr. was able to breathe new life into the pre-Prohibition brand up until his death in 1981.
From here, Julian Van Winkle III took over the Old Rip Van Winkle brand and purchased the Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg to store and bottle Van Winkle whiskey. A wrench was thrown into this equation, however, when in 1992 Stitzel-Weller – one of Julian III’s primary suppliers – shut down for good. So, what later resulted was a partnership with Buffalo Trace in 2002. Following this merger, a point of contention for some bourbon collectors arose out of worry that a different donor whiskey could have an adverse effect on the final product down the road. This, of course, has yet to be proven true.
Nevertheless, such speculation and uncertainty into the future of Pappy no doubt adds to the bourbon’s allure to this day – inevitably enhancing the secondary resale value of each available bottle.
The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
As far as the bottles are concerned, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery offers five different bourbons and one rye for the market. These are categorized as 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23-year-old bourbons and one 13-year-old rye. From here, the oldest three (that is the 15, 20, and 23-year-old options) are all categorized under the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve name and for this post’s sake, referred to as “Pappy” from a branding standpoint. That being said, whenever you hear someone referring to “Pappy Van Winkle bourbon” they’re referencing one of these three bottles. All of which bears an image of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle smoking a stogie on the bottle.
So what do these bourbons have in common? Well, thanks to earlier established recipes by Pappy himself, everything sold by the Old Van Winkle distillery are wheat-stye bourbons. In case you’re wondering what makes a bourbon wheat-style, consider the mash, which by law must contain at least 51 percent corn and the rest some combination of rye and barley. Here, though, wheat replaces the rye in the grain build, which results in a smoother product overall.
A Sudden Spike In Interest
As you can see, interest began its impressive upward trajectory around 2011. And with a limit of only 7,000-8,000 cases a year (for reference Jim Beam produces upwards of 8 million cases a year) this demand forces the value of Pappy on the secondary market to skyrocket.
As for the high demand, there are few high-end bourbons out there that are as revered as Pappy. But why? The demand is quite remarkable actually, with bottles selling on the secondary market for as high as 1000 percent the retail price thanks to limited quantities and soaring interest. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t always the case. For instance, a rudimentary search on Google Trends shows the search volume of Pappy Van Winkle taking off around 2006, increasing practically every year since – which happens to be coordinated somewhat with the growing interest in bourbon overall during that time frame.
It also doesn’t hurt Pappy’s reputation that the bourbon’s enjoyed a significant amount of press, testimonials (from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang) and a myriad of awards from various competitions around the globe. It’s also very rare to find wheated bourbons aged 15 years or more which truly sets Pappy in a league of its own.
What to Expect
Part of the reason Pappy draws such attention from the bourbon community is its exquisite taste. This partially stems from the inclusion of wheat over barley or rye in the mash bill – combined with the over-the-top aging process. It’s also worth noting that in order to attain this ideal profile, you have to take into account the angel’s share (whiskey that evaporates throughout the aging process) and the devils cut (bottom-barrel whiskey that’s left behind) resulting in only a fraction of usable whiskey per batch.
It’s this process that allows Old Rip Van Winkle distillery – a distillery that doesn’t actually produce its own whiskey – to have initially taken donor batches from Stitzel-Weller and now from Buffalo Trace – and produce a fine bourbon each and every time.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year
The youngest of the Family Reserve lineup, this 15-year option still boasts one of the smoothest mouthfeels around and the highest proof (clocking in at 107 ABV). Each batch is aged in charred oak barrels for 15 years, undisturbed, before they’re bottled and released to the public. Expect smooth notes of cooked sugar, dried fruit, spices and oak tannins with each sip – complemented by the caramel flavors that remain present from beginning to end.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year
Earning a miraculous 99/100 score by the Beverage Testing Institute back in 1996 (the highest rating they’ve ever given) this 20-year-old bourbon is certainly a one-of-a-kind spirit held in high regard by celebrities and bourbon collectors the world over. It’s both sweet and complex – brushing aside the notion that a two-decade-old bourbon can be overly woody and unbalanced. Instead, it’s rumored this fine spirt boasts an almost cognac-like flavor, silky smooth mouthfeel featuring notes of dried fruit and honeyed oak.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 Year
The rarest of the rare, the 23-year variant is one that’s heavily sought after and is most likely the bottle your local collector covets the most. Most certainly a bucket-list bourbon, the price point of these bottles absolutely skyrockets from its MSRP due to very limited supply and astronomical demand. However, if you’re lucky enough to get your hand on a bottle, you’ll find a prominence of dark fruits, dark spices, coffee notes and browned butter, charred oak and even star anise present in its dark and dynamic profile. Our suggestion? Drink it neat or don’t drink it at all.
Best Bourbons Under $30
In case you don’t have thousands of dollars to spends on a bottle of bourbon, here are 8 great bourbons under $30 that are sure to please without breaking the bank.