Pappy Van Winkle is a hallowed name for any Bourbon devotee. This historic family distillery dates back over a century, with Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle being the first of four generations of Van Winkles to dedicate their lives to bourbon-making.
“We make Fine Bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon”
In 1893, Pappy started working as a travelling whisky salesman for W.L Weller & Sons and at the turn of the twentieth century, began to work his way up through the industry to eventually become President of Stitzel-Weller Distillery. His worked shaped the industry both during and after Prohibition, and he built an inimitable reputation in his mission to deliver fine Bourbon despite the challenges of the time.
Pappy continued to influence the industry right through into his 91st year where, upon his death, his son Julian Van Winkle Jr. took the reins. Van Winkle Jr. established his own company – J.P. Van Winkle and Son – and was later succeeded by his own son, Julian Van Winkle III, in 1981. By now, the operation was truly a family affair, and in 2001 Pappy’s great-grandson, Preston, joined the team.
A distinct original recipe, untouched since its creation
What distinguishes the Van Winkle’s bourbon from others in Kentucky, the US and around the world, is Pappy’s original recipe. All bourbon produced by Van Winkle adheres to this recipe that replaces rye with wheat in the traditional trio of crops alongside corn and barley. This specific choice of grain is what gives Van Winkle bourbons their signature smoothness and enhances their age-ability.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, bourbon had fallen out of favour with the general public and experienced a period of hardship for sales as preferences veered towards other spirits such as vodka. However, towards the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s – around the time Julian Van Winkle III was expanding the family business – tastes changed once again and bourbon started inching its way back into American drinking culture. In 1996, a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year-Old was entered into the Beverage Tasting Institute where it was awarded an astonishing 99 points – this was the turning point for the distillery and the beginning of their rise to cult status.
The rarest of beasts
Today, such is the market demand for Van Winkle bourbon, there are websites and even lotteries one can enter to help you be in with a chance of securing a Pappy Van Winkle bottle. The distillery produces between just 7000 and 8000 cases per year across their range. This exclusivity, along with the fact that only three of the bottles in the Pappy Van Winkle collection bear the signature word ‘Pappy’ on them (the 15 year, 20 year and 23 year), drive markets into a frenzy when new bottles are released. As such, articles upon articles are published with hints and tips on how to buy these elusive bottles, with suggestions ranging from dedicated networking groups to simply being prepared to open one’s wallet wide and fast at an auction.
As recently as last year, Sotheby’s held an auction in New York where 14 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon were available for bidding. Every lot exceeded their high-end estimates by the auction house, with one bottle of the 23-Year-Old selling for a record $52,500. This was 17 times higher than its pre-sale estimate, setting a record for the distillery.
Where there’s gold, there’s crime
It is unfortunate but inevitable that with this stratospheric level global prominence comes fraud and thievery. Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has not escaped unscathed from such criminal activities, most notably in 2013 when over 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle – estimated to be worth over $100,000 – was stolen along with other bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Some of the stolen goods were found in the garden of a Buffalo Trace employee who was then arrested with nine others. This theft became known as ‘Pappygate’ and has since been the subject of a Netflix true crime documentary. More recently, a criminal investigation is ongoing in Oregon after senior officials in the state’s alcohol regulatory agency were found to have used their positions to obtain scarce bourbon, including Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-Year-Old.
It is clear therefore that everyone wants to get their hands on some of this liquid gold. Anthony Bourdain once said of Pappy Van Winkle that “if God made bourbon, this is what he’d make”. And Bourdain’s word, in our books, is gospel.
A once in a blue moon opportunity
Through a long-time client of our US business, and an avid Van Winkle collector, we have what is quite likely the largest private collection of these whiskeys in the world, released earlier this week at the lowest UK market prices. Much of this collection is now sold out, but speak with our team to find out what is still available.