Has Pappy Van Winkle Fever Broken?
The acclaimed American whiskey brand has been so hard to get hold of for so long. We investigate whether drinkers have given up and are moving on to other bourbons.
Excuse me if I seem a bit distracted—it’s once again Pappy Season! The autumn allotment of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is starting to trickle out of Kentucky and is slowly headed to liquor stores around the country.
Of course, tracking down a bottle for a reasonable sum is the holy grail for whiskey collectors. Fans of the brand have even built tracking maps on Facebook and are eagerly reporting Pappy sightings and current retail prices. I’ve also seen a number of posts in private Facebook whiskey groups by members who are “ISO PVW” (in search of Pappy Van Winkle).
But while the frenzy for the whiskey is still there, it feels like—dare I say it?—we’re maybe past peak Pappy demand.
The whole craze for the Van Winkle line is still weird to me. I can still remember buying the 15-Year-Old Bourbon (my favorite expression of the brand) right off the shelf for a fairly reasonable $50. At the time, I didn’t have a hard time finding it and certainly didn’t have to enter a lottery to win the right to buy it. About six years ago, that all changed. That’s when Rip Van Winkle woke up, and things haven’t been the same since.
A quick history of the brand is in order. The Van Winkle family had been in bourbon for generations, since the 1890s, when Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle started selling whiskey in Kentucky. He made money, and bought a distillery that would become known as Stitzel-Weller. The distillery and brands were sold in 1972, but Pappy’s grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, continued to bottle bourbon he selected and bought under the Van Winkle brand name.
Van Winkle, like the Weller, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell brands made and sold by Stitzel-Weller, has always been a so called “wheater.” That’s a bourbon that’s made with corn, malt, and wheat, rather than the more common corn, malt, and rye mash. The most famous wheater, is, of course, Maker’s Mark. What’s the big deal? The wheat makes for a smoother, less spicy bourbon, which may also be better for extended aging.
Julian Van Winkle started bottling some of the older Stitzel-Weller barrels; 15, 20, even 23-years-old, which at the time was positively ancient for bourbon. The long-aged bottlings were popular in Japan, although American drinkers initially had to be coaxed into even trying them. There was a lot of wood flavor; too much, many thought, until Julian found the right barrels, and awards started rolling in.
In 2012, things started to get crazy. So much so, that I began tracking Pappy’s prices on the Wine-Searcher website. In October 2012, the standard price of a 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle was $152. By December, that price had tripled. Eight months later, in August 2013, it was just under $1,000. Suddenly, people had to have Pappy, and supply got blindsided by demand.
How popular has it become? Over the last few years, Van Winkle whiskey no longer hits a store shelf. The bottles come into a store, and are cautiously doled out to favorite customers. Julian Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace, who had entered a joint venture to ensure a supply of Van Winkle whiskey into the future, weren’t really interested in press coverage or advertising the brand anymore. It sold out instantly without any help at all.
Jonathan Goldstein, owner of the iconic Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Manhattan, regrets the situation. “We were able to support the brand and sell a great product for a reasonable price,” he recalls. But now “we get a handful of bottles and these are automatically sold to our customers who have been buying them for years.”
I live in Pennsylvania, a rigid control state, where the allocation runs through the Liquor Control Board (LCB). As of 2015, the LCB has run a lottery to determine which customers (and bars) will have an opportunity to buy a bottle, or an entire set of the different whiskies. It’s restrictive, and it’s only open to Pennsylvania residents, but it is at least fair, especially to people in rural counties who might otherwise never get a chance at a bottle.
Anyone with any connection to the whiskey business has been peppered with requests to “help me get a bottle.” But Julian is also painfully fair; I haven’t been able to get a bottle, since the last bottle of 15-year-old I bought in 2011. I’m shut out, too.
But it hasn’t been the end of the world. I’ve never been a prestige drinker, and there are a lot of good whiskies out there. I didn’t see Van Winkle as a must have, and that seems to be a position that’s catching on. I planted a poll on a whiskey enthusiast Facebook page to see what people thought about this year’s race for Van Winkle, and by far the most popular response was, “I’ll buy it if it falls in my lap.”
That keys with what Goldstein told me. “I really think the average person has realized that there are no ‘unaccounted for’ bottles,” he said. In order for consumers to get a bottle, they have to have some kind of inside track: know someone, be a very regular customer, or get lucky in a store lottery.
The Pennsylvania LCB provided me with stats on their statewide Van Winkle lottery for the past three years. In 2015, the first year of the lottery, there were 53,750 entries; in 2016, the pool peaked at 77,512; last year that number had fallen to 68,165. (It’s also interesting to see that out of the thousands of licensed bars and restaurants in the state, only 114 entered the lottery last year.) Maybe we have reached peak Pappy and the craze is mellowing a bit.
And what if we have? “The Pappyphiles have moved onto Weller, due to the wheated recipe,” Goldstein said, but “now this brand, too, is an allocated product in New York. I have not seen a bottle of Weller 12-Year-Old in a very long time.”
“People find replacements,” Goldstein continued. “The craze for the rare and hard to get is still active, but I think people are realizing how silly the PVW search has become.”
The last time I had some Pappy was this past spring at a friend’s place. My buddy Tom had gotten lucky in a lottery, and had the chance to buy three bottles of Pappy. We poured some of the 20-year-old and looked out over the creek and a bit later, poured some more. And it was good, no doubt. But next time, we’ll likely have Old Grand-Dad.
The reason you have whiskey, is to drink it. Don’t ever forget that.