Everything you need to know about Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve in 10 simple steps:
1. Pappy Van Winkle is rare, expensive bourbon released this time of year that most anyone with a passing interest in whiskey wants.
2. People who want Pappy Van Winkle generally can’t have it. Pappy’s hype is far larger than its supply, which leads to phenomenal demand. That demand leads to outlandish behavior, like stalking the truck hauling Pappy to the liquor store or the theft this year of 65 cases of the bourbon from the Pappy warehouse, which police have said was likely an inside job.
3. Pappy Van Winkle comes in 15- ($79.99), 20- ($119.99) and 23-year-old ($259.99) expressions. The 23-year-old is generally most coveted but most experts favor the 15-year-old. “Fifteen is the sweet spot,” said John Hansell, editor of Whisky Advocate. “A lot of it has to do with balance.”
4. There is no Pappy Van Winkle distillery. Pappy has been sourced from several distilleries through the years and is presently made by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Ky.
5. Buffalo Trace is painfully coy about Pappy. A company spokeswoman refused to answer any questions (even regarding the states where it is distributed), saying by email, “Every story that comes out on it (and we’ve not actively sought out any of them) just fuels the fire and makes PVW fans angrier when they cannot get it.”
6. Yes, people get angry. That makes this a miserable time of year for whiskey purveyors. “It started as a headache 10 years ago,” said Brett Pontoni, head whiskey buyer at Binny’s. “Now it’s the worst nightmare you can imagine. You wake up in a cold sweat. People will cause scenes in the store if they can’t get it.”
7. Pappy Van Winkle is not the best whiskey in the world. It’s not even close. “It’s achieved a cult status, and if people want to have it for whatever reason, as an investment or to show off, I understand that,” Hansell said. “But if they’re buying to drink and enjoy, there are whiskeys on the market just as good for a fraction of the price.”
8. Pappy Van Winkle is wheated. Most bourbons are a mix of corn, barley and rye. Wheated bourbons substitute wheat for rye, which adds gentle sweetness in place of rye’s spice. “Here’s the problem,” Pontoni said. “I can recommend dozens and dozens of whiskeys to someone who is mad they can’t get Van Winkle, but they don’t even know what Van Winkle tastes like.”
9. Wheated bourbons are a relatively narrow niche, so for a better understanding of what Pappy Van Winkle is, start out with one of the more accessible, and some would argue just as good, versions. They include Larceny ($22.99), W.L. Weller 12 (also a Buffalo Trace product; $27.99) and Maker’s 46 ($36.99).
10. Pappy is good. But it’s not that good. “If someone else is paying, I’ll happily drink it,” Hansell said. “But the prices people are paying for it now, especially on the secondary market, I don’t get it.”