The Pappy, by the proverbial country mile. In fact, there is almost no bottle of wine, spirit or champagne on this planet harder to get on release. You might even have more chance of a bottle of DRC Romanee-Conti, and the prices are not that different – they have been resold for up to $20,000. It is said that Pope Francis gets a single bottle of Pappy every year. But only one.
For anyone who has not experienced them, be under no illusion that spirits such as bourbon and Tennessee rye can be of superb quality, not to mention seriously expensive and in extraordinary demand.
Nothing, however, come close to the clamour that the suggestion of an available bottle of Pappy van Winkle creates. Every bottle could be sold one hundred times over, despite the price. No wonder that there have been faked bottles. Pappy is released on a set day – Pappy Day – and in some American States is sold by lottery. Fans from thousands of miles away will take their chances. People have been known to be on retailing waiting lists for more than a decade before they get a single bottle. Very often, those successful sell their loot to aficionados for many times the original price.
Pappy van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon, there are a number of different aged Pappy’s – 15, 20 and 23 Years Old – is the flagship from the ‘Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery", but is distilled and bottled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfurt, Kentucky by the Sazerac Company.
Pappy, as it is commonly known, dates back to 1893 when an 18-year-old Julian van Winkle Snr (who would become known as Pappy) took a job as a salesman with the liquor wholesaler, W. L. Weller & Sons. Eventually, he acquired a part interest in the business and then, in 1910, purchased the Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Prohibition limited production to ‘medicinal purposes’, but just before prohibition was implemented, they introduced the ‘Old Rip Van Winkle’ label though it did not last. It was not until 1972 that the label was reintroduced when the distillery and various brands were sold – this had been the only label to which the family retained the rights from the sales.
When Pappy passed away in 1965, he was 91, and the nation’s oldest active distiller. It was Pappy’s son who had reintroduced the brand. After his death in 1981, Pappy’s grandson, J
Production estimates vary, and there are quotes from 6,000 bottles to 84,000 bottles – take your pick, though the higher estimate seems likely to be the most accurate. Whatever the amount, why not an increase in production (there are rumours that the current output will be expanded by a small quantity by 2025, but there are more rumours about this bourbon than almost any other spirit)? Aside from potentially damaging ‘the magic', Julian van Winkle III has expressed concerns that should tastes, or circumstances change, they may be left with large quantities of unsalable bourbon. That seems overly cautious, given the extraordinary demand for this bourbon, and one wonders how much of maintaining a tiny production is designed to maintain the mystique.
This cult adoration of Pappy has only been around since 1996, when the Chicago Beverage Testing Institute rated the 20-year-old at 99 out of 100, the highest score ever awarded. The bottle was submitted by one of their salesmen, and it is rumoured that it was just as well, as the family was suffering financially at the time. Part of the myth also stems from the fact that before these mature bourbons were released, it was rare to find any bourbons aged for over 12 years.
It would be easy to focus solely on this legendary bourbon when looking at the best of the best, but it is far from the only prestige release. And more than a few of them emerge from the Buffalo Trace distillery.
As mentioned, Pappy van Winkle joined the firm of W. L. Weller and that gentleman himself is commemorated in the flagship, ‘William Larue Weller Antique Bourbon’. Weller developed his original recipe for bourbon by using wheat, not rye, in the mash bill (wheat being the secondary grain, behind the traditional corn), believing it leads to a smoother, more gentle taste. Pappy is also a wheat, not rye, adherent. While there are several bourbons in his name, the Antique is the pinnacle. Uncut, unfiltered, hand bottled and barrel proof (and with a price to match), the Antique comes from the specially selected 145 best barrels. It comes in at an impressive 67.7% ABV, although this varies from year to year. This whisky was first introduced in 2005.
The ‘Thomas H. Handy Sazerac' is an annual release which was designed to meet the consumer demand for aged, barrel strength whisky. It will vary from year to year, but the distillery does put out an admirable amount of information. The latest came from a select 72 barrels, was 127.2 proof and a whopping 27.2% of the original blend was lost to evaporation while it was ageing. Handy was the bartender who first use rye whisky in a Sazerac cocktail.
Another prestige bourbon, again extremely limited and priced to sit alongside the great cognacs and malts, is the ‘Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old 2017’. Again from the Buffalo Trace distillery, it is aged for at least a decade and has been highly awarded in competitions around the globe.
And then we have the ‘Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old’. The Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans was founded in 1850. It is considered to be
Finally, the ‘George T. Stagg’. Aged in newly charred (for just 55 seconds) oak barrels for more than fifteen years, it comes from a specially selected 309 barrels.
All of these last five prestige bourbons are part of what is known as “Buffalo Trace Antique Collection”, a five-bottle series of these glorious limited edition bourbons released every Autumn to a lucky few.
And if they are not enough to convince anyone that great bourbon can sit at the same level as any spirit then nothing will!