Ask a bourbon aficionado what the best bourbon is, and there is a good chance they’ll answer, “Pappy Van Winkle.” In fact, while Pappy Van Winkle is based in my home state of Kentucky, there is a good chance you will get this response no matter where in the world you are asking.
Another thing you’ll discover is that it can be hard to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. But if you can manage it, it is absolutely worth it.
In this guide, I will explain why Pappy Van Winkle bourbons are hard to come by, and what makes them such a big deal.
I’ve been collecting them for years now. I still remember how lost I felt when I got started, so I put together this guide to teach you more about the brand and to point you in the direction of some of my favorite Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.
Pappy Collecting 101
Let’s begin with the basics, in case you are not acquainted with the Pappy Van Winkle name.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is a brand of bourbon whiskey which in turn is owned by a company called the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.
From 2002 onwards, the Sazerac Company has been distilling and bottling it at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Both the Sazerac Company and the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery are based in Kentucky in the USA.
Pappy Van Winkle bourbons are a big deal—as in huge. In fact, they are basically a worldwide phenomenon.
You may have heard David Chang or Anthony Bourdain praise the Pappy brand—or you might have read articles discussing its wild popularity and extreme rareness.
An article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Pappy Van Winkle, The Bourbon So Popular Even Billionaires Can’t Find It,” author Tom Gara says, “You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium. Its fans refer to it as Pappy, when they’re lucky enough to get a sniff of it, and those times are few and far between.”
The guide explains that if you want to get a bottle of Pappy locally, there is a good chance you will need to get on a waiting list with hundreds of other people. If you are super lucky, you might receive one of the 5 or so bottles the supplier ends up getting in an annual lottery.
There are two reasons for the high demand of Pappy:
Let’s talk first about rarity. This is not a case of artificially low supply. It takes anywhere from 10 to 23 years to age bottles of Pappy bourbon to the point where they are ready to drink.
You need to rewind back in time to the 1990s when the bourbon in those bottles was actually being distilled. At the time, bourbon wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today. So, Pappy just did not manufacture as much of it as they might have otherwise. That means that when you fast-forward to today, demand has soared through the roof, but supply is unavoidably lagging behind.
Think about that for a moment—what an amazing story! Low demand in the 90s forced a bottleneck that probably was pretty uncomfortable. But it was literally on that bottleneck that Pappy’s success today was built.
This puts Pappy in a position to command extremely high prices, and pick and choose distributors based purely on returns, if they wished—and yet they have chosen not to do that.
Instead, they have opted to send their limited supply of bottles each year to distributors that they feel will appreciate them, and whose clientele will likewise. Pretty cool, really.
Now let’s talk about the other factor—quality.
Pappy is manufactured using wheat, whereas many other bourbons are made using corn or rye.
As a result of this ingredient choice, Pappy bourbons can be described as being softer and more subtle than most. If you find the bite of other bourbons to be a bit too much, you will probably enjoy Pappy Van Winkle.
Beyond that, the overall mouthfeel of Pappy bourbons as well as the flavors are top shelf. Notes include cherry, citrus, honey and vanilla; you can describe it as sweet and a tad smoky. It is smooth and velvety, and once you have tried a sip, nothing else compares.
The History of Pappy Van Winkle
Now you know what sets Pappy Van Winkle apart from other bourbons, and you know a bit about the brand’s history as well. Let’s fill in some more of the Pappy Van Winkle story.
This eminent brand’s history dates clear back to 1893. Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. was 18 years old at the time. That year, he became a salesman for a company called W.L. Weller & Sons. After 15 years working at the company, he became its co-owner.
The reason this is relevant is because Pappy’s position in the company allowed him to purchase a sour mash whiskey distillery in Louisville called the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery.
W.L. Weller & Sons was already in the business of distributing whiskeys from this distillery. So, it was a natural transition into beginning to distill beverages. Alas, the prohibition hit right after production commenced for Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon Whiskey. This resulted in a long pause before the brand’s return in 1972. That same here, the company sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
By that time, Julian Van Winkle Sr.’s son, Julian Van Winkle Jr., was in charge of the business. Julian Sr. had passed away in 1965 at the ripe old age of 91.
Julian Jr.’s son, Julian Van Winkle III, took over in 1981 when his father died. The two had created a new firm together called J.P. Van Winkle & Son.
You pretty much know the rest of the story—how production was low during the bottleneck of the 90s, and then whiskeys exploded into popularity afterwards, resulting in high demand for the limited stock of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.
So, you can see how the Pappy brand endured through challenging times of low market interest (or outright restrictions, as in the case of the prohibition), eventually becoming renowned around the globe.
Pappy Van Winkle Prices
Suggested retail prices for Pappy Van Winkle bourbons generally range up to around $300. Some are priced at under $100.
But remember, getting Pappy Van Winkle at these prices is often not easy, or even possible, due to the small number of bottles available upon release.
As a result, it is not uncommon to see Pappy Van Winkle prices in excess of $5,000 on the secondary market. As you would expect, the longer the bourbon aged, the more expensive it is.
Honestly, you should not be deterred by these prices. If they are within your budget, you will not regret purchasing a bottle even at the upper end of the price range.
A lot of people ask whether Pappy Van Winkle lives up to the hype. Is it worth it to spend more than $1,000 on a bottle of this rare bourbon?
In my opinion, yes, Pappy Van Winkle is absolutely worth the price.
That said, it is important to keep in mind that anything that has been hyped through the roof to the degree that Pappy has been is ultimately still a bourbon distilled by human beings, not gods.
Pappy is as close to out-of-this-world phenomenal as bourbon gets. Sometimes though, you run into people whose expectations are so over-the-top that literally any real-life bourbon is going to let them down.
Frankly, that’s tragic, because these folks end up missing out on the fact that Pappy is greatness distilled into a bottle.
Where to Buy Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Online?
As I mentioned previously, Pappy chooses select distributors for its bourbons. If you want to purchase a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, then you need to go through one of those distributors or a reseller.
While you can go on waiting lists for new distributions, there are some outlets where you can purchase a bottle of Pappy without waiting.
I usually shop for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons online through Caskers. This store specializes in offering up products from small-batch distilleries, including rare bourbons, whiskeys, and others.
Along with a great selection, I appreciate how quickly they process orders. Their shipping is fast and affordable, especially if you buy more than one bottle at a time. I’ve only had to contact customer service a couple times with questions, but I’ve found them to be friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.
Recommended Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons
Now that you know where you can find Pappy Van Winkle bourbon for sale online, I want to share some of my top recommendations with you to start your own collection.