Pappy Van Winkle, Distilled
I finally distill a topic that is literally distilled
Estimated reading time of this week’s Distilled: 4 minutes, 13 seconds.
There’s a certain bourbon that costs $75 a shot. The bottle retails for anywhere between $150 and $5,000. It’s not just a bourbon — it’s a collector’s item.
What is this magical bourbon, and what makes it so amazing that people will pay thousands for it when you can also get Evan Williams for $20?
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve sounds like a funny name for the world’s finest bourbon, but that’s what it is. Named after Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr., the founder of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, Pappy Van Winkle is considered a bucket list experience for bourbon connoisseurs.
So what makes a bourbon so coveted? There are four big things that give Pappy Van Winkle its notoriety:
Scarcity: There are approximately 7,000 cases a year, or 84,000 bottles. Pappy Van Winkle is currently bottled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky (in partnership with the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company) and Buffalo Trace releases it in tiny batches every fall. Then all the fans rabidly track it down before it can even hit shelves. Said one bar owner: “It’s the Christmas toy that’s been hot now for multiple Christmases.”
Distinctive style: Van Winkle does a few things differently from other distilleries. Van Winkle uses wheat instead of rye (which most other bourbons use), which enables longer-than-usual aging and a milder taste. The resulting bourbon is reportedly both complex and smooth. The Van Winkle brand has multiple labels, but it’s the 20-year Pappy Van Winkle label that attracted the cult following. The bourbon’s age is also the reason for its scarcity: The distillery raised production in response to the surging demand, but as J. Preston Van Winkle (the current Van Winkle in charge) put it, “You can’t make 20-year bourbon in less than 20 years.”
High praise from critics: Anthony Bourdain said this of Pappy: “If God made Bourbon, this is what he’d make.” Celebrity chefs have also lauded Pappy for its quality. Something like the taste of whiskey is very subjective (and difficult for people to distinguish — it all tastes like the same whiskey to me) so we rely on the influential tastemakers to tell us what’s good and what isn’t. When Anthony Bourdain likes something, we listen.
Theft: In 2013, a thief stole 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle from the distillery, worth about $26,000. It took about two months to complete the heist, and it turned out to be an inside job — employees had known how to avoid the security cameras. The theft generated even more hype for the label. There are other super-premium bourbons in the world that are even more expensive than Pappy, but none have the cachet of Pappy, and that comes from people trying to steal it. (Side note: Look out for the Netflix documentary on the Pappy heist coming out this week, on July 14).
Now I’m no whiskey connoisseur, but I was an art history minor, and I know a thing or two about what makes an item valuable and sought-after. And those same factors that make a bourbon special are what make a Rembrandt masterpiece special: Scarcity. Style. Critics. And theft.
The art market is about supply and demand, but it’s more than that. It’s about the elite critics and tastemakers who decide a work of art is worth something, and about the collectors who then decide they simply have to have it. An item becomes less about its intrinsic value and more about its hype. The actual visual enjoyment of a painting means far less than the feeling of owning a well-known collector’s item (I’d love to be able to say I own a Picasso, even though I don’t love all of Picasso’s work. Chris is convinced we’re going to end up owning a Picasso).
If there is crime involved, all the better: It adds to the fame and intrigue. An artist who is counterfeited makes their real paintings more desirable. A work that gets stolen in a crazy heist becomes more well known. There’s a whole underworld of lost art used as collateral in criminal circles (I could do a whole other newsletter about the underground art market), because for many ridiculously wealthy buyers, there’s nothing like privately owning a masterpiece that not even a museum can display. When you can afford anything you want, you want what can’t be easily bought.
In short, a work of art can become famous for being hard to get. Just like a certain bottle of whiskey.
The art world and the whiskey world are more alike than we realize. It’s a frenetic market of collectors and creators. It’s subjective. It’s emotional. And it’s more about the thrill of the chase than the item itself. The fact that a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can be sold at auction for $1,190 practically screams art world. Is any actual sip of whiskey worth $1,190? No. It’s the ability to say you sipped Pappy Van Winkle.
Van Winkle and Van Gogh. Bourbon and art. It’s all about appreciating the finer things in life — especially the things we can’t have.
New York Times: Kentucky’s Case of the Missing Bourbon
The Atlantic: The Bourbon Everyone Wants But No One Can Get
Whiskey of the week:
It seems weird to pair this week’s newsletter with a beer, so I’m switching up the booze category this time. We’re going with good old Jack Daniels, because now that nightlife is open again I’m remembering how fun it is to ask for a Jack and Coke at the counter. Also, I think I went almost a full year without ordering any kind of mixed drink because we mostly went to breweries while the bars were shut down. Beer, I love you, but there’s also a time for a good Jack and Coke and it’s right now.
Also, it helps that a shot of Jack doesn’t cost $75.
Folks, I’ve paused on sending this out for a couple weeks, and it’s because A) my normal job got insanely busy and B) I took a vacation to take a break from said insanity. I didn’t open my laptop for almost a week and it felt GREAT.
But as I get more readers looking forward to opening this every week, I also want to be more consistent so everyone knows when you can expect to see this in your inbox! So I’m going to try to pick a day and stick to it. I swear I’m not trying to be like Pappy Van Winkle and make this newsletter a rarity. You’ll (hopefully) start getting one topic, once a week, as promised.
Wish me luck! And LMK if there’s a day that works best for you to read your email.