At night, when bourbon connoisseurs go to bed, many dream of Pappy Van Winkle, a line of three exquisite bourbons (15, 20 and 23 years old, all of them colloquially referred to as “Pappy”) distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Much of Pappy’s legend comes from its high demand: when it’s released, liquor stores dust off month-long waiting lists to decide who gets a bottle. But that demand is a product of quality, which many experts insist is a cut above all other bourbons. They laud its memorable nose, smooth taste and long lasting finish. Whether or not Pappy is better than other bourbons, the demand drives an incredible secondary market, where bottles of Pappy 20 and 23 often sell for ten times their retail value. In other words, unless you have a cousin in the liquor business, that’s the price you’re going to pay.
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Or not. At the end of last year, Bourbonr Blog made headlines in the liquor community by posting a recipe for “Poor Man’s Pappy“, a 3:2 mixture of W.L. Weller 12 and Old Weller Antique. It yields a 100.2-proof bourbon blend that, while not exactly Pappy 15, “comes close”. Experts called bullshit. How could two sub-$30 bourbons emulate one of the most lauded spirits in the world? The justification lies in history.
In the early 1900s, a young man named Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and his friend, Alex Farnsley, bought W.L. Weller & Sons, a liquor wholesaler where they had worked as salesmen. They also bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made bourbon for Weller, and merged the two companies to create the Stitzel-Weller distillery. At the age of 91, Pappy died, leaving his son, Julian Van Winkle Jr., in charge.
In 1972, stockholders forced Julian Jr. to sell the distillery and its labels. The Van Winkle family only managed to keep one, a pre-prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle. Although the Van Winkle’s no longer owned the Stitzel-Weller distillery, they continued to use the exquisite Stitzel-Weller stock in their mash bill for the Pappy. But in 1991, the Van Winkles faced a new problem: the Stitzel-Weller distillery stopped producing. For a while, the Van Winkles got by on old stock, but with supply running low, and demand increasing yearly, Julian III (Julian Jr.’s son) made the decision to team up with Buffalo Trace, and start using BT’s wheated mash bill.
Remember that kid in college that filled up empty Grey Goose bottles with Aristocat? Well, he grew up. Now he’s filling old Pappy bottles with Jim Beam Black. Due to Pappy’s scarcity, a secondary market for old bottles has developed on Ebay, where sellers have listed empty 20-year-old bottles for up to $120. That one went unbought, though an empty bottle of 23-year-old with two days and eighteen hours left on the listing currently has a bid of $25.
As of the fall of 2011, the Pappy 15 stopped using Stitzell-Weller stock in their mash bill and started using 100 percent Buffalo Trace stock. When asked about the use of Stitzel-Weller juice in the 23-year-old during a telephone interview for an August 31, 2013 episode of the WhiskyCast podcast, Preston Van Winkle, Pappy’s great-grandson, said, “This might be the last year…I’d have to look at the barrel model to be 100 percent sure. There aren’t too many bottles of anything produced at Stitzel-Weller left on this Earth.”
You know what else uses Buffalo Trace’s wheated mash bill? W.L. Weller whiskies. Which is to say that Pappy and Weller use the same stock. Sure, Van Winkle gets first pick of the casks, and cask selection and storage location play a large role in determining a whiskey’s final characteristics, but if you can’t find Pappy, or can’t afford it, W.L. might be the next best thing.
So there you go. That’s the justification for Poor Man’s Pappy. But does the recipe hold up? With $50, a postal scale and a mason jar, we decided to find out for ourselves.
The first whiskey in the recipe is W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old ($26), a 45 percent ABV wheated bourbon distilled by W.L. Weller & Sons in Frankfort, Kentucky. Unlike rye bourbons, which get a touch of rye for a spicy, herbaceous flavor, wheated bourbons have a sweeter taste; think of the difference between rye and wheat breads. Both the sweetness and the wheatiness are on full display in this whiskey, which was tough to find even before Bourbonr‘s article, and is now near impossible. On the nose, there’s caramel with a vanilla punch, as well as breakfast cereal with marshmallows a la Lucky Charms. But it’s the taste that makes this whiskey special. It enters the mouth with a dry, toasty burn that turns to wheat sweetness and leaves notes of honey and caramel in the mouth long after the swallow.
The second whiskey in the recipe is the Old Weller Antique ($20), another wheated bourbon that clocks in at powerful 53.5 percent ABV. Although it has no age statement, it’s aged for around seven years. Old Weller is a reddish amber color. The nose is also different than W.L.: whereas 12 is mellow and complex, the Antique has a simple vanilla scent, with a trace of nutmeg, but any more complexity gets muted by the alcohol. Surprisingly, despite the proof, it goes down smooth, stinging the tongue but also imparting a creamy mouthfeel. While it might lack the 12’s complexity, it’s another solid buy, and one of the best — if not the best — bourbons available for $20.
According to the recipe, one needs to marry the two whiskies for at least two weeks, which allows the 12 to mellow the Antique, and the Antique to impart flavor on the 12. For comparison, we tried the bourbon directly after the mix, and found that most of the flavor was masked by alcohol heat. But after two weeks of marrying, the 12 tempers the Antique’s fiery alcohol, letting more scents come through. There’s caramel and soft oak, and maybe a bit of maple syrup. In the mouth, the 12 works its magic again, taming the alcohol so that holding the whiskey on one’s tongue doesn’t make the eyes water. The sweetness, a function of the wheat in both individual bourbons, plays a large role, and even though the finish is a bit thin, each sip leaves us wanting another. The Poor Man’s Pappy is a great, sweet bourbon, much better than either of its component ingredients.
But is it Pappy? Not quite. GP co-founder Ben Bowers offered his comparison.
“It’s been several years since I crossed paths with a pour of the 15 year old expression of Pappy, before the craze went thermonuclear and wiped out the species in a hype-filled instant”, said Bowers. “The smell was memorable — a lot of wood and dark coffee. Then something bitter (maybe char?) followed by usual bourbon suspects like vanilla with sometime to air out. Texture was a calling card too: noticeably thick and velvety. The best trick of all was muting the punch of its 107 proof with a caramel sweetness that eventually changed back to spice and heat. It was very well-balanced and damn tasty, but not earth-shattering.”
In comparing the real deal to our Bourbonstein, it’s clear that our mix nails the 15 year’s candy-store character, though it lacks much of the rich texture and counterweight of the sharper, darker Pappy. So Pappy is the better alcohol — but is it worth $1,000? Maybe, for some. We’re of the opinion that when you buy Pappy, you’re not just buying the alcohol: you’re buying the hype. You’re buying the story. With demand as high as it is, if you get a bottle, it means that you went through great lengths to acquire it. Just like the elusive Heady Topper, which we covered back in November, some things are made better because of the effort required to obtain them.
Buy the Pappy, if you want, but as we sit here, swirling our delicious Poor Man’s, it also occurs to us that a story about making your own blend because you refused to pay $1,000 might be as good as one about spending the dough. Until the hype dies down a bit, we’re spending our money on other things.