I‘d say that Pappy Van Winkle is a brand that needs no introduction — except that it does. The truth is that most people don’t know anything about “Pappy,” other than that it’s supposed to be the best of its kind. So let’s set the record straight by getting a couple of facts out of the way.
The name Pappy Van Winkle refers to Julian Sr. “Pappy” Van Winkle, who created the original line of Van Winkle whiskeys. Van Winkle is a Dutch name that loosely translates to “from shopkeeper.” After gaining some experience through jobs and an earlier distilling venture before Prohibition, Julian Sr. opened a new Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1931 at the age of 61 outside of Louisville. He influenced the business until his death in 1965 at the age of 91. The brands produced during that time at the Stitzel-Weller distillery included W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still.
The following decades were tough on the bourbon industry as the public’s drinking preferences shifted towards other spirits, especially vodka. After years of steady declines in sales and a disagreement between heirs around what to do with the business, Pappy’s son Julian Jr. sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery as well as the rights to all of its whiskey brands in 1972 — except for the Old Rip Van Winkle name.
Julian Jr.’s decision to purchase back some of the Stitzel-Weller whiskey stock and bottle it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label had preserved his father’s work to some degree, but the market for Kentucky’s whiskey was still slow to change. The family sold small amounts of what was then Old Rip Van Winkle 7 year in special decorative decanters, as well as a brand called Old Commonwealth. Julian Jr. died in 1981, leaving the Old Rip Van Winkle line and the Stitzel-Weller stocks to his son, Julian III.
Around that same time Stitzel Weller stopped bottling for the Van Winkle family. So Julian III switched to the Hoffman Distillery down the road in Lawrenceburg to bottle and store his whiskey. He eventually bought the place in 1983.
Bourbon slowly started to come back in America and Julian III’s brand’s began garnering attention; he began bottling and offering older whiskeys purchased in bulk from other distillers including Stitzel-Weller and released a ten year old bourbon, followed by 12-, 14- and eventually 20- and 23-year-old bourbons. A Chicago sales rep entered the 20-year-old bottle into the Beverage Tasting Institute’s panel, where it scored a 99. It was the company’s first big break. According to Julian III, the bourbon inside that bottle had been purchased from Wild Turkey, who in turn had acquired it from a distillery called Old Boone.
In 1992, one of Julian III’s primary suppliers, the Stitzel-Weller distillery, shut down for good. Losing one of his sources inspired Julian III to seek out new relationships for ensuring the Pappy Van Winkle brand in the future. In 2002, he decided to partner with Buffalo Trace, which was already making wheated bourbon in a similar style.
The question of who made the juice inside any particular bottle of Pappy Van Winkle is a huge source of debate and interest for die-hard whiskey fans, particularly in the light of the Buffalo Trace partnership. There is no possible way that Buffalo Trace could produce the exact same bourbon that had won Pappy awards in the past. So how much would the changeover affect Pappy’s quality?
At some point after 2002, a portion of whiskey produced by Buffalo Trace was being mingled with the old Stitzel-Weller stock to create new bottles of Pappy and Old Rip Van Winkle. There’s plenty of speculation on which vintages of each offering stopped including Stitzel-produced bourbon. Some basic math can provide a ballpark estimate of a final horizon: the last barrel produced at a distillery which shut down in 1992 would have turned 20 years old in 2012 and 23 in 2015.
The Stitzel-Weller mystique, as well as other sources, have added to the allure of the Pappy legend and made older bottles far more valuable. It’s also introduced a little uncertainty around the revered bourbon’s status moving forward.
Today, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (which again, doesn’t actually distill anything on its own) sells 10-, 12-, 15-, 20- and 23-year-old bourbons, as well as a 13-year-old rye. The oldest three are bottled under the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve name and are technically the only three that qualify as “Pappy” from a pure branding standpoint. The 10-year-old bourbon is bottled under the Old Rip Van Winkle name, while the 12-year and 13-year rye carry just the Van Winkle name. The family association has still made these other three bottles scarce and expensive.
Outside of the Van Winkle Rye, the five bottles sold by Old Rip Van Winkle distillery are “wheaters,” a.k.a wheated-style bourbons. What does this mean exactly? By law, bourbon must be made using at least 51 percent corn — though many use roughly 70 percent. The remaining grains used in the recipe are left up to the distiller. Most use some combination of rye and barley to fill out the mash bill, with rye usually being the second most prevalent. In wheated bourbons, wheat replaces this rye. Generally speaking, the switch adds a sweeter profile to the whiskey. Pappy is the most famous wheated bourbon on the market today, but there are plenty of others out there, including the entire Weller line of bourbons by Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and a variety of brands made by Heaven Hill including Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still.
No one can definitively answer how Pappy transformed into the phenomenon it is today. Still, a few notable events did help launch it into the national spotlight. In the late 90s, the beverage institute gave the 20-year-old Family Reserve a 99/100 score. It was also recognized with the “Trophy for Worldwide Whiskey” and a Best-In-Class Gold Medallion in the 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition. Those awards — and many others — got the attention of mainstream publications. Celebrity chef endorsements followed. Anthony Bourdain declared Pappy 20 year old “the most glorious bourbon on the planet” during an episode of On the Table, which aired on the Reserve Channel in 2012. David Chang and Sean Brock have made similar declarations in various settings.
A limited supply of 6,000+ cases each year didn’t hurt (though shipments have slowly increased). Up until recently, bourbons older than 12 years were fairly rare. Wheated bourbons above that age were virtually nonexistent. In other words, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve was basically in a class by itself.
Are the three bottles in the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve line the best bourbons ever made? That kind of decision is above my pay grade. Still, as a collector and fan, I’m happy to share my own tasting notes.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year (2008)
This is the bourbon I drank at my wedding, my favorite of the Pappies, and one of my favorites ever. It’s aged enough to steal the complexities from the barrel without going overboard. I prefer the heat from the higher proof, which provides a nice edge and reminds me of the raw elements of wood and grain that mold bourbon. To me the 15 year is an excellent compromise between its two older brothers — it’s rich and smooth, yet still packs a punch. At its original retail price the 15 year was an absolute steal. Now it has become one of the hardest Pappies to find, largely because its price on the secondary market is still a reachable splurge for dedicate fans and collectors.
Nose: Brown sugar and wood; black cherry
Taste: Nuts, vanilla, caramel and orange
Finish: Syrupy and smooth, impressive for a 107 proof bourbon
Suggested Retail Price 2014: $80
Street Price: ~$500
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year (2010)
The 20 year is the most highly decorated of the trio for good reason. Experts have rated earlier bottles as close to perfect as it gets. A velvety texture and finish are what really make this offering stand above almost everything else. Some say the mouthfeel is like a fine cognac; I’ve never really drank that stuff so I can’t comment on the comparison, but it does feel fucking remarkable with a good chew. The lower proof versus the 15 year old is preferred by many and definitely helps this whiskey go down easy. Scarily easy.
Nose: Very sweet; raisins and chocolate
Taste: Silky and rich; vanilla pudding; a bit of fruit at the end
Finish: Incredibly balanced; leather, honey and darker fruits again
Suggested Retail Price 2014: $130
Street Price: ~$700
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 Year (2013)
It’s the oldest, priciest and rarest of the Pappy’s — and one of the oldest bourbons on the market period, but none of those factors improve the taste. There’s just a point with bourbons where the barrel’s influence overpowers the nuances of the original whiskey. Finding barrels in this range that are still somewhat balanced is a real challenge and clearly one even the Van Winkle family hasn’t mastered. That’s not to say the 23 is a bad bourbon. It’s impressive that a whiskey this old tastes like anything but tree. It’s just bolder and brasher than the typical fan will care for. Even at its original asking price, I’d have a hard time recommending a bottle to anyone outside of collectors. For the street price of this white whale, you could drink other excellent whiskeys for years.
Nose: Oak, pepper and char; a bit of maple
Taste: Oily and thick with heavy doses of oak, spice and tobacco; Buttery bread lingers
Finish: Heaps of wood and char; caramelized sugars; prunes and dried plum
Suggested Retail Price 2014: $250
Street Price: ~$1,000+
Further Down the Rabbit Hole
There are plenty of other excellent online resources out there if you are interested in learning more about Pappy. I wanted to thank The Bourbon Truth for lending their knowledge to this piece and sharing this excellent interview with Julian Van Winkle III from the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Bourbon Terms, Explained by the Pros on 5 Days on the Bourbon Trail
Excessive Exuberance: The Van Winkle Phenomemnon from Chuck Cowdrey
Bourbon Truth’s Hunting the Elusive Pappy
Van Winkle Timeline from Whiskey ID
Conversation with Preston Van Winkle from Sku’s Recent Eats
When did Pappy Van Winkle Become So Popular? from Bourbonr
The Economics of Pappy also from Bourbonr
Julian P. Van Winkle III: The Arbiter of Taste from Garden & Gun
Old Rip Van Winkle Company History from Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
Van Winkle Brand Page from Buffalo Trace