Hunting The Elusive Pappy Van Winkle: The Bigfoot of Bourbon
From Bourbon & Banter on Jul 30, 2013
Today’s blog post is actually a re-post of an article that debuted yesterday over on The Bourbon Truth. (Here’s a link to the original article.)
Knowing that Pappy Fever will be sweeping the country in a few months I thought everyone would really enjoy this post. If you’re not familiar with The Bourbon Truth already, I suggest you check out his blog as well as his Twitter account at @BourbonTruth. So who’s behind The Bourbon Truth? Your guess may be better than mine. He goes by many names such as Lloyd Christmas on Twitter but very little is known about him. I once asked for details but was told that many bourbon industry folks would like to see him in a coffin so he doesn’t like to reveal his identity. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated a bit about the “in a coffin” bit, but there’s got to be a reason he lives in a van down by the river.
All kidding aside, The Bourbon Truth is best described as a bourbon enthusiast who shares his knowledge and passion with others without a brake pedal for his opinion. In other words, he tells it like he sees it and doesn’t care if you agree or not. Whether you love or hate what he has to say you’ll never find it boring. Personally I find him entertaining as shit and have enjoyed conversing back and forth while learning quite a bit.
So pour yourself a nice big glass of bourbon, put up your feet and enjoy the post. I hope to see a lot of feedback in the comments as well as sharing of this post. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. My thanks to “Lloyd” for allowing Bourbon & Banter to share his post in our quest to spread the bourbon gospel.
Believe it or not, there are easier ways to get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle than hijacking a delivery truck.
Anyone can have a bottle or two of Pappy – yes, any body. If your willing to invest a few hours of time it’s not only possible but probable. Before I take you there you’ll have to indulge me on a long road to understand some things unless your like me and have already done your homework. It will make a newbie better equipped.
First, your regular go to people/stores maybe the best sources. If the owner/manager knows your a good customer than releasing a bottle may be your reward for loyalty if they can beg one.
Second, understand “the game”. It’s not clear exactly how many cases of Pappy are available each year. A number often used is 6,000 cases. I don’t know if that was the old number of 6,000 each Spring and Fall release or combined but now that there is only a Fall release I’ll go with 6,000 annually. Case packs changed from 12 to 6 or 3 in some ages/years. There will be a significant increase in 10 and 12 year this year so I’ll guess at 8,000 cases of 12 as a working number. Julian is on record saying 6,000-7,000 last year.
Lets round it to 100,000 bottles, although that seems too high and I don’t know the definition of “case” quantity so I’ll go with 50,000. Approximately 40 states get an allocation. Yours may get none requiring a more difficult long distance chase. So a very very loose average of 1250 per state. CA, NY, and large states will see lots more than say Kansas. Some states only get 10 and 12. 15 year/age seems the most popular due to higher proof, lower price and to many fans, taste. The 23 is cool and the most exclusive but many find it to be too woody and a perfect example of how older is not necessarily better. Julian Van Winkle stated that all the remaining 23 has been bottled so its sitting waiting to be released a little a year.
The Math of Supply
The distillery making it all happen for the Van Winkles was Stitzel Weller. The family had to sell it in the early 1970’s. When Julian Jr went into the bottling business in the 1970’s having SW do it for them until buying their own place in 1983.
If you want to learn a huge amount about Van Winkle and the Bourbon go to the Nunn Center Oral History Project out of U of KY. The native unedited video and transcript can be found here and I find very revealing.
The supply of SW ends in 1992 when SW stops bottling and closes, 1991 stops Distilling. The deal with Buffalo Trace doesn’t kick in until 2001 or so. Buffalo Trace buys the Weller brand in 1999 and “old stocks” from United that had once been Owners of SW (which got sold to current owners of the SW property Dieago). BUT, Heaven Hill bought the Old Fitzgerald brand and a good portion of the supply. Can anyone say Old Fitz 12 year old or Parker’s Wheated?
Inventory was sold with the sale. So in the gap years of 1992-2001/2 there was no clear source for 10 years time. Buffalo or Ancient Age (as it was known until name change) made “some” wheated bourbon and I’ve heard might have contract distilled for one or both of Old Weller and Old Fitzgerald brands at some point along with the New Bernheim Distillery.
So the history says that there is no more SW barrels as they are presumably all in bottle. When the “controversy” arose on what’s in a bottle of Van Winkle, Whisky Advocate ended up writing a story with lengthy comment and clarifications.
Bottom line, its been about 12 years since BT began producing more Wheated Bourbon for the ramp up of the Van Winkle Brands. 10 and 12 will have a large part of the upcoming release, with 15, 20, and 23 bourbon and 13 year Rye (which is all tanked or bottled currently in very short supply) will even have less availability. Add many many more stores, and fancy bars and restaurants that have to have Pappy cred and its never been tougher to score that bottle. There may be a bottle for every five places that want some, let alone one.
If you ask for and get any Pappy it will likely be 10 or 12 year old unless your persistent. Of the 1250 average per state I’m guessing that less than 600 bottles will be over 12 years old. With the 20 and 23 age down to a few hundred. Lots of Liquor stores got the memo that they can get mucho dinero for the meager few bottles they will get. Some will charge up to $2,000-$3,000 for a bottle of 23 in places like Manhattan. In your search you will need to establish if you get a bottle that it will be at the suggested retail price.
It’s not easy but with a little hard work you can track down some bottles of Pappy for your own collection.
Next – Who has or will have/get it?
In the last few years the rush to Pappy has resulted in new and existing customers competing for the same supply. These aren’t just consumers but bars, restaurants and stores. Sazerac owns Buffalo Trace ,which partners with the Van Winkles, to essentially license the right to produce and market the brand. Sazerac owns/makes around 150 varieties of their brands. About 120 of these are hard to move in a very competitive business. Buffalo Trace and Sazerac will deny what is about to be written because its not Kosher but I’ve spoken to dozens of stores and bars and if you want Pappy or other things like George T. Stagg you need to buy other stuff. With some Distributors its completely unrelated, non-Sazerac items. Maybe wine sitting around for example that no one wants super cheap. It might be Rain Vodka that Sazerac and BT make. Whatever it is, hooks are common. If a store doesn’t buy much BT, Sazerac or they don’t do much or any business with the Pappy distributor you’ll never see a bottle from them. I’ve been told if a store gets some private barrels from BT it helps but it helps in volume is my guess. One hand washes the other. Large, and especially National, chains can put a lot of pressure on a Sazerac for a larger allocation of Pappy. Total Wine Super Store has about 100, State of Pa has 600.
So here is arguably how it works from my sometime educated guesses.
Sazerac and Buffalo decide what Distributors will get how much. Obviously volume, population and rewards play a big part. BT says that they play no part in what individual chains or bars get…yeah, right! I do know that some special bars never seem to run out. Some stores and chains that do a lot of special things get rewarded.
The distribution system in the State then gets their allocation. Then the distributor gets to play favorites – big time. Certain salespeople get certain amounts and they can use it as bait, threats, rewards, appreciation or a bit of them all. Depending on who a shop/chain knows will determine how much if any they get along with what business they have done or will do. Maybe the salesmanship favorite restaurant gets a couple bottles of each.
If you go into a small mom and pop liquor store that carries Jack, Jim and Old Crappy it’s very unlikely they will ever see a bottle of Pappy. If you go in a store and ask and they laugh at you, you’ll never see a bottle. You WILL get laughed at, phones WILL be hung up on you. If you put your name on page six of the waiting list you’ll never see a bottle. If you go to a large place in a populated area you most likely won’t get any.
If you’re in a control state that sells it themselves it will be a challenge, but not impossible (keeping in mind they may not get any Pappy at all or nothing older than 12).
I called a somewhat “sleepy” adjacent state and did a special order at a medium size state controlled store. They called to tell me my 20 year was in and when I got there they had gotten two of each age which were still on the shelf behind the counter. Yes, of course they all left with me.
Pick a medium sized store that you wouldn’t expect a large or affluent Whisky crowd at. Find one that has a good Whiskey selection, especially Sazerac brands and brands sold by the Sazerac distributor for that state/area.
Remember I said this will take some work and research, its not easy by any means.
Go now NOT in November when its waaaay to late. By October it’s very likely allocations are given and salesman already have figured out which screaming bars and stores will get any. Ask now and ask every few weeks.
It is likely they will tell you they never get any or they will check. Expect “no” but don’t except it or let a helpful store accept it. If the store checks they won’t get good news as the salespeople will discourage most stores and will get laughed at. So pre-warn the store to put pressure on the rep mentioning that they never have asked or have never gotten any, etc. The salesman won’t be dropping off a bottle or two unless they have a good reason. Of the 1,250 or so average, a salesman may get none or just a few bottles for 100 locations. Some places will raffle or lottery bottles so enter as many if those you can. Get on lists early. Be the only one asking at places that have a shot or pull to get some. Then the truly special part—you want a bottle or two of 15, 20, or 23. These are the hardest so when you ask make sure you ask for those or if you get lucky you’ll get a bottle of 10.
Repeat this process in a few area places, places you know the people, and in other areas or states. Ask friends and family to check in further out areas. Take a Pappy request trip and get the word out. If you know anyone that might buy for company functions or gets lots of expensive wine this person might have a better shot than you. If you’re young, get someone older to do this unless the store knows you by name in a good way. The most important thing, if you get a bottle make sure you show your appreciation. Cookies, a pizza, whatever. They might have had to call in favors and spend a bunch of time to help you out.
I won’t say how many bottles I get. I will say I spend a bunch of time to get them and that I do get them. If you call a couple random places rather than doing some research, putting in a bunch of time and Face Time, you won’t get any or if you do it will be 10 or 12. Nothing wrong with those which would make most people real happy. They are not only good, but preferred by many.
One last note. I’ve been critical of the whole Pappy game. The crap the family and BT pull and say. I’ve also said that there are things out there I like every bit as Pappy and blind taste better. These things are true to me but I like having the stuff the same way I like a prime old Michters 10 year or early batch 18 year Jefferson without respecting or liking the people and company running the brand. The Van Winkles and BT are not even close to being in the same league as these two in my dislike but as always what’s in the bottle is my true Judge and Jury.
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