Simply the Best

How Pappy Van Winkle Became King of the Whiskeys

Watch the throne.
Watch the throne. Photo: Jed Egan

Exactly one year ago, 222 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon went missing from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky — roughly $25,000-worth of whiskey. The case remains unsolved, and conspiracy theorists have at least one thought as to why: Some say the Van Winkle family invented the heist to drum up even more publicity for its already-legendary product. Of course, the Van Winkles are quick to shoot down this accusation, and in doing so, they make a good point: “If people with any awareness of our situation really thought we wanted any more press,” Preston Van Winkle says, “they’re out of their minds.”

Since its first release in 1992, 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle has become the most covetable whiskey on the planet. Even your grandmother has probably heard of it at this point. Its defining characteristics are an unusual sweetness and an uncannily long, complex finish that’s been described as having the flavors of everything from cigar boxes to coconut to dried tangerine. “Not many things on Earth bring me more pleasure than drinking this whiskey,” says chef Sean Brock. Even as the bourbon boom exploded over the last decade-plus in America, introducing a flood of new whiskeys to the market, no competitor has emerged to claim Pappy’s spot atop the throne.

Try and think of the last time you saw a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle on a store shelf — either the 15-year, the 20-year, or the 23-year (or, for that matter, younger Van Winkle bottlings that don’t carry the “Pappy” name). If it happened at all, it was likely years ago. When shops do get a few precious bottles in stock, they almost never hit the shelves, instead going straight to people who have been on years-long waiting lists or, occasionally, in a more democratic one-day raffle. The only places you’re likely to see any bottles of Pappy at all are bars or restaurants that have a very good relationship with its wholesale distributor, Southern Wine and Spirits. And if you spot some in the wild, a pour won’t be cheap. “We price Pappy out the ass,” says Jason Brauner, the owner of Louisville’s Bourbon Bistro, where a two-ounce pour of the 23-year-old Pappy costs $100. That works out to about $1,200 per bottle — a figure that isn’t based solely on greed. “I have to charge a lot to keep it on the shelf,” Brauner explains. Every once in a while you’ll see pours of 20-year Pappy priced closer to $50 or $60. On occasions such as this, the smart move is to buy some immediately.

The demand for Pappy is so extreme that a small mention in a GQ story last fall that said another brand, W.L. Weller, offers a $25 bourbon with the same recipe as Pappy, aged in the same barrels for only a few years less, created a national run on Weller’s full line of whiskeys, too. In fact, that story, excerpted from The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining (which — full disclosure — was co-written by an editor at New York Magazine), laid out exactly how convoluted the craft-whiskey industry really is. Instead of, say, the beer industry, where most craft brewers actually brew and bottle their own beers, a large number of American whiskey brands are made by just a few distilleries, the spirits from which are bottled and mixed and sold under different labels. The practice is completely common, but it is only now starting to be fully understood by the public: A class-action suit against Templeton Rye, alleging consumers were led to believe the brand was distilled in small batches when in actuality the company buys its rye in bulk from an Indiana distiller, was just this week allowed to proceed.

The Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
The Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Buffalo Trace

The Van Winkle family actually does no distilling of its own, at least not anymore. In fact, Julian Van Winkle III and his son, Preston, operate the business out of a small office in an unmarked two-story building in a leafy Louisville suburb. The whiskey itself comes from an old bourbon recipe that famously starts with corn and wheat (instead of corn and rye, a more common pairing) that Julian Sr. — “Pappy” — first distilled at Kentucky’s Stitzel-Weller distillery, where he was a co-owner before prohibition. Pappy died in 1965, and as American tastes migrated toward vodka and rum, Julian Jr. sold the slumping business in 1972. But he bought back some of the whiskey reserves from Stitzel-Weller, which he in turn used to start the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey brand. When Julian Jr. died in 1981, Julian III took over. But demand for whiskey was still low, so most of his supply wasn’t selling — it was maturing in barrels located in warehouses all over Kentucky. Bourbon producers typically don’t want to age their product any longer than they have to, since a percentage of the whiskey evaporates each year it’s in the barrels. The money literally disappears into thin air. So, taking a cue from the Scotch industry, which had long been releasing bottles of well-aged whiskey, Julian released a 10-year bottling of Rip Van Winkle and then, in the mid-nineties, a line of 20-year-old bourbon he called Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, charging about $50 per bottle when most bourbons sold for $20 or less. It wasn’t exactly an instant success. Dan Gardner, a longtime bourbon salesman, says of the initial release, “I sold Julian’s products for 20 years, and in the beginning you couldn’t put a gun to people’s heads and make them buy it.” Now, of course, you’re lucky you can find a bottle for less than $500.

So what happened? People caught on, basically. In 1998, the Beverage Tasting Institute, which hosts blind-tasting competitions for wines and spirits, awarded the 20-year Family Reserve a score of 99 out of 100. That was just the beginning. Flattering articles in national publications followed, all while America was rediscovering craft spirits and cocktails, thanks to the rise of pre-Prohibition-style bars and a growing interest in mixology (which at the time was a word that didn’t seem nearly as corny as it does now). In other words, the Van Winkles had excellent timing: Their brand was established as being the best bourbon at the exact moment America was rekindling its love of whiskey.

If you were a twentysomething drinker in the early aughts, and you were wondering about the best bourbons, a bartender or a store clerk would have told you Pappy. There were other brands out there, of course, but Pappy was the one most people turned to. Another big selling point at the time: Pappy was never all that expensive, not compared to rare Scotches that sold for thousands of dollars a bottle, anyway. That you could get a tumbler of the best bourbon in America for less than a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue was enough to get anyone to try it — and once you tried it, you were almost certainly hooked. Soon anyone who cared even a little about bourbon or the craft-spirit renaissance knew that Pappy was the bourbon to drink. When people as influential as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang started evangelizing it in public, it officially went mainstream.

But while Pappy’s popularity was exploding, production wasn’t. In fact, Julian had a major problem: Demand was threatening to deplete his entire supply. Stitzel-Weller, once his main supplier, had actually shut down in 1992. Its parent company, Diageo, continued to warehouse old whiskey there, but Julian had a finite supply that he could sell. He was only putting out about 7,000 12-bottle cases of bourbon per year (compare that to Jack Daniels, which exceeds 10 million cases annually). This was a niche product with mass awareness, and there was no way Van Winkle could scale production. But the scarcity, combined with the praise, only made it more desirable for serious whiskey nerds, compounding Van Winkle’s problem. To actually continue delivering the product, the Van Winkles struck a joint venture in 2002 with Buffalo Trace. The distiller would make bourbon for the Van Winkles in exchange for a cut of the sales. So, the 20-year Pappy you drink in 2030 won’t be from the same distillery as the 20-year Pappy you drank in 2006. But that won’t matter too much: More important than the distilling is the aging process, determining not only how long to store the barrels but also where to store them. “Certain types of warehouses have different flavor profiles, so there are all these tweaks you can do along the way,” says Julian of the aging. “We want it on the cooler, lower floors.”

In theory, partnering up with a major distillery should also allow the Van Winkles to vastly expand production. But Julian, fully aware of the historical vicissitudes of the bourbon industry, doesn’t want to flood a market that might not be as interested in bourbon 20 years from now. So he says production will only go up a small percentage each year. “Right now, we’re making between 7,000 and 8,000 cases a year,” he says. “We’ll have more in ten years than we’re selling now, but we are being conservative about it because things could blow up at any moment.”

Meanwhile, security has been beefed up at Buffalo Trace’s bucolic, 135-acre distillery — an effort to prevent any further theft of the precious Pappy. (Most people suspect the 222 bottles went missing because of a well-coordinated inside job.) That could be harder than it sounds, since some whiskey experts expect this new Pappy to be superior to the original recipe. “I actually expect the Buffalo Trace–distilled Pappy will be better than the older, Stitzel-Weller stuff,” says Mike Veach, a noted bourbon historian. “They’ll have the luxury to pass on inferior product, whereas with the Stitzel-Weller they were stuck with what they had.” And if that’s the case, the chances of scoring a bottle of Pappy will only grow dimmer.

Related: Nine Amazing American Whiskeys That Aren’t Pappy Van Winkle

How Pappy Van Winkle Became King of the Whiskeys