I first discovered the whiskey known to its disciples as 'Pappy' while on an R&D trip to New York for Hawksmoor. Co-founder Will Beckett handed me my first ever sip of this legendary bourbon, and it's a decision I have no doubt he now regrets given my monthly bar tab.
I fell hard for Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, to give the spiritus frumenti its full name; its rich sweetness tasted complex and grown up, a million miles from the shots of my youth. I later shared a mutual love for it with my dear friend, partner in business and crime, the late Josh Ozersky – a writer, a meat lover and a fellow of similar appetites.
As a result, I made it my mission to sequester any and all bottles I stumble across, which turns out to be no mean feat because there's simply never enough Pappy to go around. It is so good, and in such short supply, that it has gone from being a mere whiskey to a highly coveted elixir. A quick search of eBay reveals that you can get your hands on a 23-year-old bottle available for £1,850, and empty bottles with velvet sacks are going for a mere £160. Yep, you read that right: £160 for a whiskey bottle... with no actual whiskey in it at all.
As it turns out, I'm not alone among chefs in my unbridled enthusiasm. In its US homeland, Sean Brock, David Chang, John Tesar and Anthony Bourdain are known to love it. This side of the pond I've enjoyed Pappy with Nathan Outlaw and Jamie Oliver, and, on the occasions I've stocked it in Dickies Bar at Meatopia, it's been the first to run dry, mostly consumed by fellow chefs, and Josh when he was with us.
I made it my mission to sequester any and all bottles I stumble across, which turns out to be no mean feat
By now – if you're not already familiar with the Pappy story – you're probably wondering what the big deal is, in which case it's time for a brief history lesson.
It all started over a century ago in 1893 when Julian 'Pappy' Van Winkle, Sr. at the tender age of 18, began working as a salesman for the liquor wholesaler, W.L. Weller & Sons. Fifteen years later, at 33, he bought the company, later adding the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Then, at the end of prohibition in 1933, Van Winkle, Sr. merged the two companies and the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was born. Five iconic lines were written on a bronze plaque set into its stone entrance:
WE MAKE FINE BOURBON
AT A PROFIT IF WE CAN
AT A LOSS IF WE MUST
Inside were heavy panelled white doors adorned with, instead of a door knocker, a ring of brass keys. Five keys that symbolized the five key steps in making bourbon: the grains, the yeast, fermentation, distillation and finally that all-important aging.
The very best Pappy is aged for 15, 20 or 23 years, considerably longer than most other bourbons, in charred new oak barrels. The 15-year is bottled at 107 proof and was both Josh's and my favourite, while the 20-year is bottled at 90.4 proof and has been described as “intensely fruity”. The 23-year is bottled at 95.6 proof and could well be one of the most expensive bourbons in the world.
Pappy has won many awards and medals over the years, but few have been as central to its rise as the score of 99 (“superlative”) given by the influential Beverage Tasting Institute to the 20-year-old whiskey in 1996. It was the highest rating ever given, which led Pappy to explode into the cult it is today.
Time moves slowly in bourbon, though, and some 24 years prior to that the Pappy story had taken another twist. In 1972 family shareholders voted to merge the company into Somerset Importers Inc. of New York, and the Stitzel-Weller Distillery closed, and stands empty to this day.
The result is that younger and future Pappies will be made at the modern Buffalo Trace bourbon plant, which also produces Blanton's, Eagle Rare, and 13 other bourbons.
Do they make Pappy that is just as good? It is indeed the same Van Winkle family recipe with their spotless integrity, and generations of acquired skill. But it is unlikely to be the same – even at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, not every year was the same. There are different grains, different yeast strains, different water, different conditions. Bourbon is, like the ingredients from which it is made, a product of the earth, with its own variable characteristics; its own terroir.
bottles of Pappy Van Winkle come numbered, sealed, and secure in their embroidered cloak
Nonetheless, today's Pappy is still just as sought after. In fact, so sought after that in October 2013, 65 three-bottle cases of 20 Year Van Winkle and 9 three-bottle cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve rye went missing from the warehouse.
The heist was months in the planning, with the culprit avoiding security cameras. A $10,000 dollar reward was offered to anyone giving information leading to an arrest and conviction. And years later, in 2015, nine Kentucky residents were indicted for theft of over $100,000 worth of stolen whiskey, including Pappy Van Winkle. All nine defendants were charged with being members of an organised crime syndicate.
Right now, my stash rests under lock and key, carefully stored in black or red velvet: bottles of Pappy Van Winkle come numbered, sealed, and secure in their embroidered cloak. If you try hard enough, you might just be able to track some down for yourself, but it is only sold on allocation.
Of course, if you want to try before you buy, it can be found on a very small number of bar shelves around London; bars with connections. Somehow Pitt Cue always carries it – co-founder Jamie Berger, being a man with those connections, started stocking Pappy before it was fashionable. Jamie has long-standing relationships with those who make the decisions about who gets what, and with great responsibility comes great power…
Need more? Catch up on the rest of Richard H Turner's columns.