Where to start, where to start. . .
Perhaps the best place to begin this plea is an appeal to the annals of history, properly chronicled by my colleague Bryan Dent, regarding the seven year long string of heists and shenanigans involving the Buffalo Trace distilleries and the much-coveted Pappy Van Winkle lines of whiskeys. If you are a fan of American whiskeys, then you know and love at least one BT product: their flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Eagle Rare offerings, W.L. Weller lines, the spread of E.H. Taylors (which are rather good, I must admit), Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg (also excellent, if you can find it), Blanton’s (for those of you with equine fancies) and a few others. What you likely have not had is any of the Pappy Van Winkles.
Its popularity is now the stuff of legends, evidenced easily enough by the fact that there was a years-long plot to just steal the damn stuff. Its rarity (between only seven and eight thousand cases annually, about a twentieth of what Jim Beam does for its flagship, since PVW seems to always be shipped in six-bottle cases* compared to JB’s twelve bottle cases) means that most of us will never taste it (at any vintage), but it also means that pedants with a closet full of Lacoste polos and a job in some kind of finance that they can’t really define will brag about being able to get a bottle of only to chase it with Jäger and Red Bull.
Yet, the Pappy name is now nearly ubiquitous and means many things to many people. As one of those people, I can say that it makes me plumb, mad-dog mean. And not just regular Mad Dog 20/20 mean–I’m talking about belly-full-of-MD-Orange-Jubilee-with-an-Everclear-chaser mean. Police-horse-punching mean. I am humbly calling on all of you to help stop this madness and offer a few bits of advice as to how:
First, let’s address what the Pappy craze really is: hype. The odds are good that you know some friend who raves about the stuff. Maybe they got their grubby little hands on a shot at some swanky whiskey bar and then couldn’t wait to get onto every social media platform known to man to talk about it. There will be selfies. We’ll call that “incriminating evidence.” The odds are even greater that they’ll claim that it’s the best whiskey that they’ve ever had–best in the world, in fact–and it was totally amazeballs that they found it. You should have been there.
Except for the fact that you shouldn’t have. Not that it’s bad whiskey–I can attest that the 10 year (which is under the Old Rip Van Winkle name) is delicious (with some great ripe cherry taste and a good dose of oak char throughout), and the PVW 15 is also solid (if not a lot sweeter and with fewer competing flavors), but both of them suffer from being grossly over-priced and over-hyped. I’ll go out on a limb and say that applies to all of the Van Winkles, because it certainly seems to. Do I feel bad about what I paid to try them? Absolutely. Were they worth it? Also absolutely, but not enough to justify the expense of a full damn bottle on the primary market. The secondary market gets even crazier to the point that there is rumored to be a blacklist that prohibits sales to people known to be re-sellers. There is some debate over whether the resale of booze is legal, though.
Second, let’s consider how to deal with the PVW-crazed folks among us. It’s important to remember that they’ve likely never tasted it, let alone even seen a bottle. The heart of this craze is the same as in any other: the blind following the blind. Some bro heard another bro rave about it (like how Skrillex and Deadmau5 got famous) and just got on board with gusto. Such a crazy explosion of demand is fascinating for economists (since it shows how quickly demand can outpace supply with no marketing effort on behalf of the producer), but it creates a bubble. At the liquor store (or, as I call it, Booze Chapel) where I work, it was only a few years ago that they had Pappy sitting on the shelf and no one would give it a second glance. Now there’s a lottery to see who gets it.
The recipe hasn’t changed, but now we have a frigging lottery system set up to determine who gets it when we finally receive it during its annual release (in the fall, usually around October or November, but Buffalo Trace is hesitant to ever say exactly when or exactly where it will all go). So every day I and my colleagues have to field about a half dozen questions that go something like this (and this happened to me three times earlier today):
Some bro: “Hey, do you guys have any Pappy? Like, have you ever heard of it?”
Me: “Yeah, I know about it. And no–unfortunately we don’t have any right now. It’s only released once a year and it sells out quickly.”
Some bro: “Awww dude, I heard it was the best. Can I, like, give you my name and you can call me when you get it?”
Me: “I can take your name, but there’s only so much we can get, and there’s a really long list of people looking for it. Can I recommend another wheated bourbon, maybe something along the lines of what you already like? W.L. Weller is a solid choice–it’s the same mash bill as Pappy and comes from the same producer. The original Weller distillery actually started the Pappy line.”
Some bro: “Naw, that’s cool. I’ll just get what I always get.”
Me: “Alright, so what’s that?”
Some bro: “Jack Daniels.”
The two could not be further apart unless one was a shoe. I have scars on my palms from my fingernails digging in just to hold back their much deserved smack across the face.
I get the allure–I really do. Pappy is a rare bird. Chasing it is the impulse that Audubon felt to track down every obscure species he could to build his catalogue raisonné of all things avian. It’s the thrill of the chase, the glory of conquest: the promise of that one special find that defines your passion and justifies the ungodly amount of cash that you spent along the way.
But, seriously, the Pappy craze needs to stop. It’s gotten into felony theft territory, and that’s because of the insatiable and unsupported demand for it. It ignores that there are good bourbons out there that won’t break the bank and which will give you just as much of a feeling of good cheer without the elitism of over-paying for hooch.
So. . . what should you do?
If someone tries to school you on whiskey and brings up Pappy, here’s a quick take-down: just ask if they’ve ever had it. If they haven’t, then they’re sunk. If they have, then ask for another wheated bourbon with a similar profile that they would recommend. You don’t need to really care at this point–it’s purely to oust them as the probable charlatans that they are. If they stray out of the BT family line, or–God forbid–into Irish whiskys or Scotches, then you have them nailed. Throw in some “tasting notes” you’ve “heard” like these: “I heard that it has a heady nose of fresh grass and bold tones of a decaying woodshed–is that right?” If you get any answer that sounds like “Yes,” then they’re either feeding you a line of bullshit or just agreeing with you in the hopes of getting some sex. If they say “No–actually, it’s pretty decent, but there are other options out there just as good that you can find year-round,” then they’re a keeper. Unless they stole it from me, in which case you should get them to buy you a few more drinks and then disappear. Then you’ll have a good opportunity to give me a call so that I can help you deliver even more crushing blows to their ego. The fools. They should know better than to mess with a Hammer.
Thieves can’t be trusted. Just look at the BT theft ring from the start of this article. Eventually they all get found.
At the end of the day (or morning, or whenever sobriety threatens to set in), we all just want something that promises to deliver a feeling of well-being and cheer, and only a fool would shell out rent-level amounts of cash for a single bottle. If it’s a gift, then go for it. It shows you care. If it’s just in service of the feeling of the evening, then don’t be a muppet: there are better options, better choices, and better horses to punch. Just have an escape plan.
As your lawyer, I can’t stress that enough. Always have an escape plan.
*This is a little hard to substantiate, but I’ve done my best. Working at a liquor store that receives some Pappy every year helps, but I cannot say for sure that they never ship in more than six-bottle cases. Either way, the production is limited, and it only releases once per year, so that shit is rare by any measure.