It’s a name that bourbon lovers say in a hushed whisper: Pappy Van Winkle. The legendary whiskey brand makes several of the most beloved bottlings, but they’re now nearly impossible to find, with bottles selling for thousands on the secondary market and individual pours going for well over $100 in the few bars that actually manage to get their hands on some.
There’s no denying that Pappy is fantastically delicious bourbon, but the hype around the brand has grown to such absurd proportions that many bartenders and in-the-know drinkers just can’t handle it anymore. With that in mind, I spoke to a few experts to get the countervailing point of view—and a few suggestions for what to drink instead.
The biggest issue with Pappy Van Winkle is, quite simply, finding it. There’s far more demand for the stuff than there are bottles to sell, so wholesalers have to prioritize which of their customers get access. That process is called allocation, and it’s the bane of bar and liquor store managers everywhere.
“Unscrupulous salespeople would say, ‘if you buy so much of this other product, I’ll get you on the allocation list,” says Michael Neff, who ran New York’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge with his brother, Danny, until very recently. (He’s planning to open a new bar soon.) “It’s not ethical or legal, but it happens.”
For Pappy Van Winkle, that means selling products from its parent company, Sazerac, which also owns Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s Bourbon, Glenfarclas Scotch, Rain Vodka and dozens of other brands. Zack Zavisa, general manager at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., bought into that strategy for a while: His bar was the top Sazerac account in Michigan for two or three years running, and he always got bottles of the precious allocated products. But last year, he became frustrated with the process and switched his well bourbon from Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace to Four Roses. “The main reason I switched is that they use the Van Winkle whiskies as a way to move their other products,” he says. “The payoff just stopped seeming feasible.”
After the switch, Zavisa wrote a blog post explaining his reasoning and printed up shirts for his bartenders that say “please don’t ask me about Pappy” on the back. “When you come into our bar and see 180 different whiskies on the shelf, it’s a certain kind of person who asks, ‘do you have Pappy?’” he says. “The Pappy customer can be a very intolerant customer.”
(For the record, the Sazerac company maintains that it has no control whatsoever over how allocations of Pappy are meted out and that it is entirely up to the independent distributors in each state who sell to bars and liquor stores. However, one large distributor told me that its allocations are decided only by Sazerac’s authority and that it has no control over them.)
Jeremy Johnson, owner of popular Louisville bar Meta, had a similar experience. His local distributor told him it was all out of Pappy, but then he saw a brand-new bar with bottles on the shelf. “I heard that the distributor has a pallet of bottles they use to bribe people,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to pay to play.”
Johnson vowed that if he ever got an allocation of Pappy, he’d make Jell-o shots with it. And he did just that in 2014, becoming a viral sensation in the process. “I got death threats,” he says. “People said they would kill me and my family, burn down my bar. I had not the slightest idea how big it would become.” Undeterred, Johnson made a batch of Pappy Van Winkle Jell-o shots again last fall, and then sold the rest of his allocation at cost—$6 for an ounce of the 15-year-old. “Then it’s gone for the year and I don’t have to worry about it,” he says.
Today, Pappy allocations are released once a year, in the fall, and neither The Ravens Club nor Meta has high hopes for 2016. “Needless to say, I don’t expect I’ll be getting any this year,” Zavisa says.
Now, none of this is to say that Pappy Van Winkle is bad whiskey. It earned its reputation by being both delicious and unique. The Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bottlings (which are the ones that made the name famous) are available aged 15, 20 and 23 years, far older than bourbon usually is. That age is definitely part of the appeal: For Scotch drinkers used to seeing high numbers on bottles, old Pappy is appealing. (In reality, it’s much hotter in Kentucky than in Scotland, so bourbon ages faster than Scotch). “It got popular just as people were starting to think of American whiskey as a high-end whiskey. It’s incredibly difficult to make really old bourbon taste great, and they got really lucky,” Neff says. “Most bourbon at that age just tastes like licking a barrel.”
Zavisa agrees. “What the Van Winkle folks have done is control all aspects of the distillation and aging process so they know the juice will be fully matured at 20 years. That’s a really holistic way of producing whiskey that most distillers don’t use,” he says. Also contributing to Pappy’s appeal is the fact that it’s made from a high proportion of wheat in addition to corn (most brands use mostly corn and rye), which adds a sweetness to bourbon that’s unexpected for most drinkers. “It’s incredibly smooth and full-flavored, with an exquisite buttery quality,” Zavisa says.
At first, Pappy was easy to get and the province only of in-the-know whiskey experts: “Initially, people liked being in on a secret,” Johnson says. “But everyone wants to get something that’s difficult to find. By virtue that it’s hard to get, they want it.” The bourbon is honestly quite affordable at normal retail prices, but now very few are lucky enough to be able to buy the stuff at normal retail prices. “It’s a fantastic whiskey for $60, but I wouldn’t buy it for $800. No whiskey is worth that,” Johnson says. And though Zavisa admires Pappy’s buttery quality, he says “it’s an achievable flavor for other distillers—whose whiskies might actually be on the shelf at your local store.”
So long story short, you shouldn’t turn down a glass (or, heck, bottle) of Pappy Van Winkle if someone offers. But if you wait until you can get some, you’re going to be waiting a long, long while. In the meantime, here are a few replacement bourbons my experts suggest.
FOUR ROSES SINGLE BARREL ($48)
All of Four Roses’ bourbons are excellent, but Zavisa has special praise for this, the top bottle in the brand’s standard range. “It’s available on most shelves anywhere, it’s a bit over forty bucks a bottle and the care and quality is incredible,” he says. It’s both sweet and spicy, with a smoothness that doesn’t mute any of its flavors.
OLD BARDSTOWN BLACK LABEL 90 ($30)
“Plenty of people still think older is better, and they’re wrong,” Neff says. Old Bardstown, a fairly young whiskey from the same company as cult favorite Willett, is a great example. The brand opened its own distillery recently, but while the house-made stuff ages, it sources whiskies from elsewhere, creating here a lovely blend that retains some grain flavor.
PARKER’S HERITAGE COLLECTION 2016 ($250)
Made in honor of Heaven Hill’s former master distiller Parker Beam, the annual Parker’s Heritage bottling is different each year but always something very special. (Sales from the bottling benefit treatment for and research on ALS, which Beam was diagnosed with a few years back.) Zavisa says he’s very excited to taste this year’s edition, a 24-year-old whiskey that’s amazingly rich and full-bodied. If you want it, move quickly: The bottles usually sell out well before the holidays.
OLD FORESTER SIGNATURE ($25)
Another great value in an unassuming bottle you can find just about anywhere. Old Forester’s Signature bottling comes in at a powerful 100-proof and offers lots of spice with some nice caramel, vanilla and fruit behind it. Johnson calls it “really solid and super-reliable.”
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