It’s Pappy Season again, when the meager allotment of the various Van Winkle vintages are doled out to the fortunate few. Back when Craig Johnson first mentioned the “world’s finest bourbon” in the pages of his Longmire book series, it was available everywhere and if you wanted a bottle, you paid MSRP for it. Anthony Bourdain gave the spirit a boost, and a much-publicized theft – and subsequent shortage – introduced the element of panic buying, driving up prices in a growing black market for the rare stuff.
Nowadays, to get even the 10-year-old variety, you must hope for luck in a store lottery or raid your children’s college fund.
If you want it for the prestige of the brand, it’s just a matter of “do you feel lucky?”, because it takes good fortune – or an ACTUAL fortune – to snag a bottle. If it’s the smooth taste you seek, I have been able to get mighty close by blending some more common wheated bourbon “cousins”. For example, a mix of 60% Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and 40% Larceny (if you can’t get Weller) is a taste profile that could pass a blind taste test, in my opinion. Keep in mind, what makes Pappy “Pappy” is the selection from barrels of varying age by Mr. Van Winkle and a small committee of his choosing.
There’s a basic recipe (which is the same for all the Weller varieties as well), but nuanced by storage location, weather extremes, and whether the World Series is won by the AL or NL. That last is my speculation, but it serves to illustrate there is also a measure of luck whether a barrel ultimately lives up to the moniker of “Pappy Van Winkle”. I’ve toured the distillery and the warehouse, so I can say with some authority that while “Pappy” is the end product, what they start with is “Weller” and is designated otherwise simply based on where it is stored for aging, and the resultant flavor achieved.
As an aside, the barrels initially contain 53 gallons of distillate, but by the time it has aged 23 years, the contents have shrunk to only about 15 gallons or so. The distillers explain that the rest evaporates over time, “the angels’ share” they call it. But mind you, the barrels are sampled continuously over the years, and some of those “angels” wear blue jeans and live in Frankfort, Ky. And they smile a lot.