Pappy Van Winkle is the unicorn of bourbons. People say it’s real, but we’ve only really seen it in pictures, and most of them probably had some image doctoring going on. For all we know, it could have been a pasted on label to a bottle of iced tea. Though, also for all we know, it could be totally real and what Bigfoot drinks with his college buddies every time they get together in the old cave.
The point is, a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve is super rare and the vast majority of people will go their entire lives without sampling any. That kind of makes sense though, as their normal retail price of between $80 and $250 is high enough to prevent a lot of people from partaking. And that’s before the bottles hit the aftermarket, where they routinely fetch anywhere from $750 to over $5,000.
Need an example? Here’s a bottle of 20-year-old going for more than two grand.
But why? Why on earth would we pay thousands of dollars for something we can’t rationalize getting drunk on, also known as the primary reason for alcohol? Is this really a drink people have because they like how it tastes? Why would people tolerate such insane prices for simple alcohol?
Well, here’re a few reasons.
Supply and Demand
Let’s first address the multi-thousand-dollar-price-causing-elephant in the room (or state the obvious. Pick whatever expression you want): The main cause of Pappy’s price lies in its availability or lack thereof. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (which actually isn’t a distillery at all), only releases between 7,000-8,000 cases (and we’ll talk about that number for recent releases) of Family Reserve every year, which makes it excruciatingly rare and highly collectible. So much so that lottery systems have been built just to give people the chance to swipe a bottle.
Bourbon drinkers go so nuts for a taste of this sauce that there even used to be a tracker app you can use to find some. It sucked while it existed, but that didn’t stop people from using it, since it was one of the few reliable, not-luck-or-mortgage-based ways of getting a bottle.
Aged to Perfection
One of Pappy’s most noticeable distinctions is its aging process. Even its “bottom shelf” offering, the 15-year label, is still aged more than three times as long as brands like Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and twice as long as Bulleit. Most distilleries are like those last three. They’ll offer some 3 or 5-year option, then have their special select reserves that hit 7 or 10 years, with a few distillers aiming for a lot longer. Pappy’s pretty much the only expression we can think of that starts at 15 and goes up from there.
And when it comes to bourbon (and whiskey at large), the longer it sits in its barrel, the better it generally is. Young bourbons tend not to have huge differences in taste, though we’ll definitely get crucified by some for saying that. If everyone’s using the same grain combinations, bourbon’s really big differences don’t start to show up until the whiskey’s had more of an opportunity to interact with the barrel. Most of the taste comes from the barrels themselves, so if you go dumping them out in 3 years, that wannabe moonshine simply doesn’t have the character of that spent the better part of the Bush and Obama administrations soaking in oak.
Pappy’s has won just about every award worth winning, including Wine & Spirits “Spirit of the Year” award, a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a Best-In-Class Gold Medallion in the International Wine and Spirit Competition, and a score of 99 from the Beverage Testing Institute. It feels like there are a million others, so we’re just going to let you check out their awards page for yourself.
Also, we don’t necessarily need to convince you that Pappy Van Winkle deserves what it gets. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have some idea as to the reputation Pappy Van Winkle has in the whiskey drinking world. But we thought it was important to talk about their accolades, if only to put a list to what people think of them.
Fewer Barrels in 2015
News broke recently that 2015’s stock of Pappy Van Winkle is roughly half of what it usually is, after it was discovered that several barrels in this year’s crop didn’t meet the standards of quality set by Buffalo Trace Distillery, the place responsible for bottling the bourbon (in a joint partnership with the Van Winkles). According to a statement released by Amy Preske, a PR person at Buffalo Trace, the “the angels were extra greedy.” By angels, she’s referring to the Angel’s Share, a percentage of whiskey in every barrel that evaporates from the casks during maturation.
The Angel’s Share is a sort of win/lose situation. A lot of what people like about mature whiskey is how strong the flavors are and while time interacting with the wood of the cask is the major contributor, the Angel’s Share is an overlooked aspect. The evaporation helps concentrate the flavors because there’s less alcohol to dilute them. Think of it as mixing a powdered drink with water. With a ton of water, you’re only going to get hints of whatever mix you’re using. With only a few drops, you’re drinking sugary syrup.
Whiskey works in similar ways. Most casks usually lose about 2 percent of a barrel in maturation per year. For a five year whiskey, you haven’t lost that much, so there’s still a lot of alcohol to distribute those flavors. Casks with bourbon aging 20 years can expect to lose almost 40% and that percentage only increases as time does.
All that contributes to less alcohol and fewer barrels and when a drink like Pappy has a supply cut, voluntary or otherwise, prices are going to reflect that for a little while. Obviously it’s not an exact science or anything, but don’t expect the effects of 2015’s shortfall to fade right away.
It’s Really F*cking Good
Your question of, “Is the bourbon even good?” is a valid one and the answer would have to be; Well… yes. It’s so good that celebrity chef and social culinary anarchist Anthony Bourdain once announced on Twitter that he was seriously considering a Pappy Van Winkle-themed full back tattoo. No, we aren’t kidding. We knew he was a fan, but not that level. He hasn’t said anything since then and we rarely get to see Bourdain’s full back, but we’re going to believe he followed through. But Anthony Bourdain’s willingness to turn his body into a bourbon/ink canvas doesn’t tell you anything about the taste.
In the world of bourbon, it’s a unique one. Obviously, from all the awards. Many attribute Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve’s taste to its heavy use of wheat over rye or corn. It gives it less of a bite, and is softer than most other bourbons, which compliments its velvety mouthfeel and notes of vanilla, cherry, and light smokiness very well. It’s not a mixing bourbon, so don’t commit that capital sin (we’ve heard there are roving bands of Pappy Van Winkle vigilantes who are always up for a good maiming). Sip it like a gentleman and dissect the flavors for yourself. Provided you can find a bottle.