The True Story Behind the Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Craze

Everything you need to know about the sought after whisky.
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"Pappy." That's the single word response that many whisky drinkers provide as their dream dram. Even for those who don't drink whiskey, the name is well known enough to carry real cachet. So just how in the world did the Pappy Van Winkle lineup become so fantastically popular? And even more importantly, should you pony up the cash if you have the chance?

The History of Pappy Van Winkle

The Van Winkle whisky lineup is still riding a surge of popularity that began within the past decade. But the Van Winkle family has deep bourbon roots that stretch back to the late 1800s. That's when Pappy himself, Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, served as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons, before eventually partnering with A. Ph. Stitzel as well as Alex Farnsley to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Post-Prohibition, Stitzel-Weller hit the ground running with a lineup of popular whiskeys including W.L. Weller, Rebel Yell, and Old Fitzgerald. After several decades, the distillery and its brands were sold, and then passed hands through several conglomerates.

Julian Van Winkle Jr. retained the rights to a pre-Prohibition brand name though, Old Rip Van Winkle. Along with his son, Julian Van Winkle III—newly inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame as of this February—Old Rip Van Winkle hit the market using remaining stock from Stizel-Weller.

Production for the brands then continued at the old Bernheim Distillery, and at the turn of the century, Julian III's son, Preston, joined the family business. Pappy then moved again to its current home at Buffalo Trace, under the Sazerac Company portfolio, where the brand reached new meteoric heights.

What Made Van Winkle So Popular?

  • The Quality: The backlash against Pappy Van Winkle due to its cultural ubiquity, scarcity, and soaring prices has increased to such a large degree in recent years that it's actually become popular whiskey snobbery to suggest that the Van Winkle bourbon was never that good to begin with. That's simply not the case. It's always been fabulous whisky and never would have taken off without quality at its core.
  • The Supply: Annual production for the entire Pappy lineup is limited to under 10,000 cases a year, a tiny figure for a brand with global recognition, and supplies are highly allocated to retailers and bars across the country. That makes it hard to find, and the more popular it became, the more difficult it was to track down, creating a snowball effect of ever-increasing popularity in tandem with ever-increasing scarcity.
  • The Bourdain Plug: Anthony Bourdain's repeated endorsements circa 2011-2012 for Pappy sent demand into overdrive. Yes, the guy has that much sway.
  • The Heist: In 2013, 65 cases of Van Winkle were made off with, with retail value of $25,000 and a true value of well over $100,000. That made a theoretical ding in the supply chain but more importantly, it added to the brand's lore—whisky so good people are stealing it from the distillery.

Is Pappy Van Winkle Worth It?

That depends on the size of your bankroll. At retail, the entire lineup—Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year, Van Winkle Special Reserve, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, and Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 year, 20 year, and 23 year—is priced reasonably. It's just that you have little chance of actually picking it up from a store shelf at recommended pricing.

That means to buy a few bottles, you typically have to hit the secondary market, where prices morph from reasonable to ridiculous. That's where the backlash comes in—the whisky is indeed wonderful, but when you start paying $2,000 for 15-year-old bourbon, the equation seems out of whack.

In lieu of that, your best bet is to try a flight from a bar that keeps it in stock and won't completely gouge you on the per ounce price. Otherwise, savvy drinkers and collectors alike turn to vintage Stitzel-Weller made products with those other brand names as the most authentic and reasonably priced way to drink the original juice that made the Van Winkle name so widely known to begin with.

New Release

The Van Winkle crew took some of the power back into their own hands this year. As opposed to leaving it to the secondary market to reap all the rewards, this spring they're releasing their oldest ever bourbon, Old Rip Van Winkle 25 year, with only 11 barrels contributing a total of 710 bottles.

It's a one-time, limited release, and each bottle is presented in a specially made glass decanter and wooden display case. Retail pricing starts at $1,800. No paltry sum, although still less than some of those younger, more readily available bottles of Van Winkle sell for on the secondary market.

Is the whiskey worth it? Is it even possible for Pappy to live up to its name? You might just need to try it and figure that out for yourself.