Thursday, November 29, 2012

R.I.P. - My Pappy is Dead

The Van Winkle family collection (missing Van Winkle Reserve Rye)
Anyone who is mildly into bourbon has heard the name "Pappy Van Winkle".  If not, you must be living under a rock.  Bourbon is all the rage these days and the Van Winkle brand is the golden goose of the bunch.  A little history lesson for ya...  Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle made his mark as a whiskey salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons in the late 1800s, later purchasing the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1910 and forming Stitzel-Weller that distilled his own bourbon whiskey - Old Rip Van Winkle amongst other brands like Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller.  Prohibition hit and the Old Rip brand did not resurface until after 1972 when the distillery and its brands were sold off.  The Van Winkle family retained the rights to the Old Rip brand.  Julian Van Winkle Jr resurrected the Old Rip Van Winkle brand shortly after Stitzel-Weller sold, buying up stocks of his family's whiskey, a wheated recipe that imparts a smooth, sweet flavor.  In 1981, Julian Van Winkle III took the reigns of the family business.  In the early 90's, with whiskey an afterthought in a burgeoning rum and vodka market and many whiskey distilleries struggling, he saw opportunity.  He bought up barrels of his family's whiskey that had sat for years aging in charred oak barrels and introduced a premium aged bourbon under the Pappy Van Winkle name with the bottle bearing an image of his grandfather.  Boom!  Last year, Julian Van Winkle III won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional and it was well deserved.  Today, the Van Winkle family keeps the Pappy Van Winkle brand alive through a partnership with Buffalo Trace. 

Each year, a limited quantity of 7000 or so cases is released and states and their distribution channels are allocated a limited amount to sell to consumers.  Last year the chances of getting a bottle were somewhat slim.  Today it's damn near impossible without paying, in many cases, double what you would've paid last year or more.  It's the bourbon industry's hottest commodity, coming in bottles of 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23 years of age and fetching suggested prices of anywhere from $50 to $300 per bottle.  You've got to get lucky and/or have some cash to burn to get your hands on your bottle of Pappy.  But it wasn't always this way...

I remember a mere 2 years ago walking into Total Wine & Spirits, seeing a bunch of bottles of Pappy gracing the shelves, and purchasing one for my buddy, Chadzilla, for his birthday.  No frenzy, no fuss, no muss.  This year, I was at Total Wine & Spirits the day they got a few bottles in stock.  The Pappy Van Winkle 15yr bottle, a favorite of mine, last year sold at Total Wine & Spirits for a well-deserved and respectable $69.99.  This year?  Try $149.99.  The 20yr, a great bourbon at $89.99-$119.99, is now $199.99.  The 23yr somehow held the selling price of $299.99 on Total's shelves.

So why the price hike?  Well, like I said, bourbon is all the rage these days.  Pop culture has embraced bourbon whiskey and distilleries are producing like no tomorrow.  This is great for the industry.  After all, bourbon is the only spirit classified by Congress as a distinct product of the United States of America.  That means you can't get Chinese, Italian, Latvian, French, or Russian bourbon.  This juice must come from the good ol' US of A in order to bear the "bourbon" name.  More business is great for this American industry.  It creates more jobs.  But now what used to be a prize savored by enthusiasts has now become mainstream society's object of affection.  The Pappy that I once knew and loved is dead.  He's buried far underneath a pile of pop culture television shows and celebrities that have taken this prize usually reserved for appreciative enthusiasts and placed it in the limelight, many just to say they're the big man for drinking the best stuff.  Well, they broke rule #1 of Pappy Club and that don't talk about Pappy Club!

We make fine bourbon.
At a profit if we can,
at a loss if we must,
but always fine bourbon.
- Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle   

It's pretty simple math, really.  Take something that is limited and blab about it in the media where millions are exposed to it and...BOOM...demand far exceeds supply even more than it ever had with a cult following.  And what happens when demand exceeds supply?  Yes, that's right - prices increase.  You can't fault the producers.  They pay taxes on this whiskey as it ages in charred, white oak barrels for 10-23 years.  Why shouldn't they make the boku bucks?  Thing is, they really don't.  The ones who benefit are usually those on the distributor level or on the consumer level where people flip bottles on eBay and elsewhere for ridiculous amounts because there are those people out there ready to spend, spend, spend, who just HAVE to have the most expensive product out there.  After all, it must be the best if it costs the most, right?

Thing is - when it comes to Pappy Van Winkle bourbon - it is the best.  As frustrated as I've become with the chore of sourcing a bottle, I simply can't say it's not the best bourbon on the market.  I love the stuff.  I'm more than happy to have stocked up on bottles of the 15yr last year at a fair price.  I enjoy the hell out of them every time I pour a dram of Pappy, usually reserved for special occasions.  A bottle of the precious 23yr lasted me nearly 2 years, kept hidden away on my home bar to be poured in celebration only.  The 20yr expression is my favorite bourbon whiskey of all time.  I love that juice.

When I say "the best" I'm purely stating my personal opinion on the flavor of the bourbon whiskey that's in the bottle.  Is it the best value?  At the prices bottles of PVW are fetching today the answer is no.  I had a hearty laugh when the clerk at Total Wine told me the 15yr would be $150 this year, more than double it's cost on the very same shelf the previous year.  That was pure comedy to me.  But sadly, it was also confirmation that my Pappy is dead.  Part of what made PVW the best was that it was priced at a premium but that premium was still a somewhat accessible price.  The sensationalists who want to shell out $150 for a bottle of Pappy 15yr can have at it.  I'll happily take 6-7 bottles of Old Weller Antique, a bourbon made from the exact same wheated recipe as Pappy that is aged differently (age, rickhouse location) but bottled at the same exact proof, for the same $150 price.

Yup, you won't find me chasing after any Van Winkle bottles this year.  I've got a few stashed away in my bourbon bunker and I'm finding so many bourbons under $30 that I love that I really don't care to spend the extra dough.  I'm enjoying more and more great rye whiskeys for short money too.  I'm also loving other limited releases of single barrel and small batch bourbons like those the good folks at Four Roses are producing.  These days, there's a lot of fantastic stuff out there to be sipped and savored, too much to be chasing the ghost of a whiskey that was once

My Pappy is dead.  He was great and I loved him.  Still do.  But he's buried in the back of my bourbon bunker now.  I've moved on. 


lane doss said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Spot on. Nice job.

pdiddyever said...

1st I need to find it, then I need to afford it but damn if I don't want it.

Gopal said...

I'm a bourbon neophyte, and I've just begun to read about Pappy's bourbons after buying a bottle of Old Weller Antique from a local store here in SF.

Ordinarily, I go through a bottle of Buffalo Trace or Bulleit American in about two weeks or so.

I have also tried Trader Joe's Bourbon, which I liked.

Sufficed to say, I'm still learning to appreciate the low end stuff, and probably have a ways to go before I get into Pappy's territory.

Anonymous said...

Sunny's in Katy TX want $200 for the 12-year, won't back down on the extreme gouging. I did have him double check that it was the 12 year and not eh 20 year.

Anonymous said...

it is important to note that the Van Winkle's are not the ones price gouging. they have kept their wholesale price basically the same for years. I am lucky, I have bought from the same store for 5 years now and since I am not a bandwagon jumper they hold 2 or 3 bottles for me every year. This particular retailer prices everything in their store at a straight 10% mark up, including pappy. so my 20 year was $100.99 and my 10 year was $30.99. If you see price gauging it is probably the retailer or maybe the distributor making out, but most of the distributors are state regulated so blame the retailer. I actually sent a note to Preston Van Winkle (who is on facebook all the time) and told him they should raise their wholesale prices so that shady retailers are not making a mint on their backs. The market has established a $200-$250 or so price for 20yr, to me the lion's share of that should go to the people whose names are on the bottle.