A line of tents snakes in front of a boxy Alabama liquor store. It’s early November, just after dawn, and the tents and tarps are covered in rain, but space heaters hum at the ever-faithful’s feet. If the weather is a torment, then so is the wait. All these people want is a little brown liquid; a few milliliters of bourbon.
It’s a Sisyphean task, all this queuing and waiting. The chance that even one of these people will lay their hands on the liquid gold that is Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbon is so minute they’d have a better shot at winning a Powerball. Hell, stores in some states have resorted to a lottery just to decide who gets to buy a bottle during the once-yearly release. And, by the time the bourbon does reach consumers, the recommended retail price of $50 to $250 has gone up $700 to $3,000.
What makes this bourbon such a big deal that celebs like Anthony Bourdain swoon, criminal masterminds hatch elaborate schemes, and retailers gouge? First, we must understand bourbon -- and history.
Pappy is rich in lore and scandal
Fundamentally, bourbon is whiskey, which is derived from a fermented mash of grains, such as barley, rye, and corn. Bourbon is made exclusively in the US from at least 51% corn. (But not more than 79% corn mash.) To be classified as bourbon the whiskey must also spend at least two years in heavily charred oak barrels, and be no more than 160 proof. Besides the grain mash, only water is allowed in bourbon.
While most bourbons are made from corn, rye, and barley, Old Rip Van Winkle uses corn, wheat, and barley in its reserve product. This uncommon wheated recipe gives the whiskey a softer, sweeter profile with more caramel notes.
Pappy is rich in lore, scandal, and history, too. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery started off in the late 1800s when Julian Van Winkle, a salesman with W.L. Weller and Sons wholesale bought the house and then the distillery that made whiskey for Weller -- A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. In the early 1920s, while most spirit producers were closing shop during Prohibition, Van Winkle got a stranglehold on the booze biz by nabbing one of just six US permits to produce medicinal whiskey. (Because remember kids, bourbon cures.) So, when Prohibition ended in 1933, Van Winkle had the kind of back stock needed to create an aged bourbon whiskey. And others had none.
By 1935, Van Winkle had created Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which he opened on Derby Day and continued to run until his death 1965, at which point Julian Van Winkle Jr. took over. They made W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still whiskeys as they went. But in 1972, like a feud straight out of Dallas, family members who were shareholders forced Julian Jr. to sell. Uncowed, he turned around, resurrected a pre-Prohibition label -- Old Rip Van Winkle -- and began making new bourbon with whiskey stock he’d squirreled away during the sale of Stitzel-Weller.
And so, the brand-new Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery was born around a recipe from before Theodore Roosevelt was president, with whiskey already aging in barrel. Even at its youngest, Pappy Van Winkle was old.