Pappy Van Winkle: When Bourbon Becomes a Status Symbol

Mark Yocca/Supercall
Mark Yocca/Supercall

Walk by a liquor store later this October and you might think you’re missing out on the new iPhone release. Every autumn, when Pappy Van Winkle unleashes their annual release of wheated bourbon, thousands of people across the country flock to liquor stores to try to get their hands on one of the few thousand bottles of the 15-, 20- or 23-year-old spirits. Some may have an in with shop owners and score a bottle, while others leave it up to chance, entering into a lottery and camping out with hundreds of others vying for the same half-dozen bottles. If that doesn’t work out, they’ll open their wallets wide and turn to the price-gouged secondary market.

The difference between an Apple release and a Pappy release is that, while some folks may have to wait a couple months to get their new phone in the mail, the vast majority of Pappy hunters will never lay their hands on a bottle.

This is the mania created by the Pappy Van Winkle cult that’s been nearly two decades in the making.

It started in the 1990s, says Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, when Julian Van Winkle, the grandson of Pappy, began blending the 20- and 23-year-old whiskies, which, up to that point, most consumers considered too oaky for their liking.

“Julian kind of enters the space—he’d been in the business for a long time—and he’s getting barrels from his family’s old distillery at Stitzel-Weller and bottling them,” says Minnick. “He has this kind of savant palate where he can taste one barrel and know that it would really complement another barrel when he mingles them together for a batch. He had this incredible talent to put something out at 20 and 23 years old that was not saturated in oak—something that the market hadn’t seen before.”

In 2002, the Van Winkles partnered with Buffalo Trace Distillery—and the brand really started to heat up. A number of awards and raving reviews later, it became harder and harder to find a bottle in liquor stores, and lottery systems cropped up in various states.

“Starting in 2005, the demand is really there,” says Minnick, who has a few bottles of his own, all of which he purchased before Pappy mania hit a fever pitch. “People know about [Pappy]. Around 2008, for one bottle there’s 50 to 100 people who want it. In 2012, you have such demand that these guys have to do lotteries and now people are camping out.”

Last year, Minnick, who’s based in Kentucky, went to a raffle, prompting him to write a piece for the Spring 2017 issue of Whisky Advocate titled “On the Hunt for Rare Bourbons.” He says there were about 300 to 400 people there for a dozen bottles.

As a whiskey enthusiast, Minnick has seen and felt the effects of the Pappy craze not only on the brand, but also on the industry as a whole. “There’s no doubt that the Pappy Van Winkle craze positively impacted other brands,” he says. “It brought a lot of people to the bourbon conversation and now [bourbon geeks like me are] no longer able to get what we used to.”

But when it comes down to it, bourbon is just bourbon, right? Plenty of other bottles must serve as a sufficient alternative for those who can’t seem to get their hand on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. Is all the hype really warranted?

“I’ve asked myself that question a lot and I go back and forth on it,” says Minnick. “The minute that I say, ‘No, it’s not warranted,’ I taste it again and I’m like ‘damn, that’s good.’ So I think everything is relative to an individual’s desire to try to get a bottle.”

Though Pappy’s rise to fame was largely due to its impressive quality, it’s now evolved into a much more complicated phenomenon. For starters, there’s just not that much of it, leading people to go to drastic measures to get a bottle. “Pappy and his son had a belief that if you think you can sell 10,000 bottles, make 5,000—because it’s worse to get caught with too much than not have enough,” says Minnick.

That theory has worked up to a point. But the high demand and limited quantities have led to an imperfect lottery system in many states that leaves most customers empty handed and leads to a secondary market demand—which is typically what drives the cost of a single bottle into the thousands. The MSRP for the 15- and 20-year-old bourbons is less than $200, and the coveted 23-year-old falls at a reasonable $270, all of which are noted on the Old Rip Van Winkle website. But a quick search online turns up $1,000-plus listings for the youngest in the range and upwards of $3,000 for the oldest.

Tyson Ho, owner of New York restaurant and bourbon bar Arrogant Swine, goes so far as to say the reason most people want to get their hands on a bottle has nothing to do with the whiskey’s quality or flavor (it’s “almost beside the point,” he says), and has everything to do with the consumer’s desire to feel special.

“People who know nothing about bourbon, who couldn't tell the difference between Four Roses and Connect Four, know Pappy,” says Ho, noting that Pappy even serves as a status symbol for bars, adding legitimacy to a bar’s entire whiskey collection. “It’s not about the liquid. Being special or feeling special is an extraordinarily rare commodity these days. That in itself is what people want. So when someone gives you a bottle of Pappy, knowing whether it’s deserved or not, it makes you feel special.”

Perhaps that’s why so many of those trying to lay their hands on a bottle of the bourbon aren’t even that interested in bourbon as a whole.

“These are normal people who are not in the bourbon space and may not even drink,” says Minnick. “They just know about it, so Pappy has kind of transcended bourbon in some ways.” But then, he says he has give them the “cold, hard, crushing truth that they will not be able to buy a bottle—and if they did, they’d have to spend $5,000.”

In Episode 40 of the podcast “Criminal,” bourbon historian Michael Veach further details the difficulty—and potential sketchiness—of procuring a bottle. In the episode, Preston Van Winkle, great-grandson of Pappy and the fourth generation of Van Winkles to work in the bourbon industry, says a Texas billionaire once told him that it’s easier to purchase a Lamborghini or Ferrari than Pappy. Host Phoebe Judge also discusses the routine illegal trafficking of the Van Winkle range and the 2013 Pappy heist (dubbed Pappy-gate, of course) in which 65 cases of the 20-year-old bourbon seemingly vanished into thin air.

It seems only natural that this hysteria and frustration at not being able to purchase a bottle for years in a row would lead consumers to get fed up and quit trying—but that’s not the case at all. People have continued to strive for one of those prized bottles, while slaking their immediate desires with other bourbons. Pappy has bolstered the industry as a whole, leading to shortages of other highly sought-after bourbons. It might even bear some of the responsibility for the bourbon shortage.

“In the context of modern bourbon buying, you’re talking about things like Buffalo Trace being unavailable to the common consumer—commodity bourbon is not available for me to purchase,” Ho says. “Given the fact that something produced in millions of bottles every year is not enough to satisfy public demand, just imagine the fact that 7,000 cases of Pappy are made a year. That amount of bourbon is being distributed to the entire world—so that’s the context in which everyone needs to understand Pappy.”

He adds: “Not only that Pappy is hard to get, but everything is hard to get. You’re talking about [bourbon’s] one percent.”

What does the distillery think about this Pappy Van Winkle hysteria? It’s unclear. Buffalo Trace Distillery, which produces Pappy Van Winkle, declines to comment on the Pappy craze—more publicity will only stoke the flames. Current distiller Julian III’s triplet daughters, however, are capitalizing on the bourbon’s vast popularity, opening the Pappy Co. shop to sell branded merchandise, from t-shirts for adults and children, to koozies and even furniture. So if you can’t get your hands on a bottle of the bourbon, you can at least wear the label.

It’s unlikely that it will become any easier to find a bottle of Pappy in the near—or even distant—future. The distillery has no known plans to expand production, so consumers and bars will have to continue in the Pappy rat race for the time being—or at least until consumers decide they’re sick and tired of the system. Until then, we can just wonder when the breaking point will hit.

“I think it’s an important question to ask—what is the average consumer willing to put up with?” says Minnick. “A lot of them won’t put up with the lottery because they leave empty handed and they’re pissed. That’s a huge risk for the retailer of staging this and losing business because [customers] can’t get it and they’re disgruntled. But I think Pappy will always be an extremely strong, highly coveted, highly sought-after brand.”

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