I'm often asked who my favorite bourbon writer is.
No. That's actually BS. No one has ever asked me that. But if they did I'd tell them this guy --- Chuck Cowdery.
Now I am not saying my favorite bourbon storyteller. That would be Wright Thompson and this would be one of my favorite bourbon stories ever. Or maybe this one.
If you want to read someone that knows bourbon history and bourbon, there is really only one.
Every bourbon drinker should have Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey on their bookshelf. It is the definitive introduction to bourbon and its history.
And this week, much to my surprise I ran across this little gem Cowdery had written about Pappy Van Winkle --- and it did not disappoint. So I thought I would pass it along to my fellow Pappy chasers.
Chuck's Thoughts and Mine
"Van Winkle has become something that rich guys line up with their other possessions in the never-ending 'whose is bigger?' competition with other rich guys. It used to be just a very good bourbon, something that was a little more expensive than the rest. Now it’s what bourbon enthusiasts call 'a unicorn.' You can rarely find it, and when you do, you can't afford it."
Ok. I have to admit I'm not a rich guy, but I still love Pappy. Not cause it's bigger, but because it is better that most of the bourbons out there.
Yes, there is an element of "being cool" that is driving some to the party, but if that's the only reason you are in the game, you're missing something.
It's a unicorn, but that's ok as long as you're chasing the one-horner for the right reason. That being the love of corn elixir --- not because it's more expensive than the rest.
The Van Winkle Family Was Pretty Damn Smart --- Or Lucky
"The Van Winkle family retained two assets after the sale of Stitzel-Weller Distillery: the Old Rip Van Winkle brand name, and the company’s customer list. From that, Pappy's son Julian Van Winkle Jr., formed a new company much like the original Weller firm. He bought whiskey from Stitzel-Weller and other distillers, packaged it in fancy, hand-painted collectible bottles under the Old Rip Van Winkle name, and sold it to the Stitzel-Weller customer list. For other customers, he created private label products. Stitzel-Weller’s new owners didn’t consider him competition. They even let him operate from the Stitzel-Weller campus."
Pappy Van Winkle's Secret --- Wheat and Age
"With a few exceptions, everything sold under the Old Rip Van Winkle name was wheated bourbon from Stitzel-Weller. That and extra age were the brand's hallmarks—the flagship product was a 10-year-old bourbon. (For comparison, Jim Beam white label is aged four years.) There was also a 15-year-old bourbon and a 13-year-old rye. For subsequent new expressions, Van Winkle dropped the 'Old Rip' name and imagery, emphasizing the family name. The first bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, with his image on the label, was the 20-year-old, followed by the 23-year-old."
What makes Pappy, Pappy is the wheat and secondly aging. Bottom line, older bourbons --- for the most part --- taste better. That is until you get over 20 years or so. And unlike wine, they don't age in the bottle, but the barrel. Once they are bottled they will not get any better with age.
How Julian III Created a Premium Bourbon
"The company continued to be small. Julian III reasoned that the best way to protect his premium price was to keep the product in short supply. He controlled his cost-of-selling by nurturing those relationships his father and grandfather had forged. If those dependable, long-term customers were happy, he was happy. He traveled constantly, appearing at distributorships, stores, bars, and restaurants, presenting his wares."
The New Pappy ERA --- From Stitzel-Weller to Bernheim and Buffalo Trace
"The last new distillate flowed out of Stitzel-Weller during the spring distilling season of 1992, the 200th anniversary of Kentucky statehood. The owners, a Diageo predecessor company called United Distillers, moved their wheated bourbon production to the rebuilt Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Ed Foote, the last Master Distiller at Stitzel-Weller, became the first Master Distiller at New Bernheim.
As the last Stitzel-Weller whiskey moved through the aging pipeline, Van Winkle looked for a new source. In 2003, he formed a joint venture with Sazerac Company. Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year-old and Van Winkle Special Reserve 'Lot B' 12-year-old became a mixture of whiskey made at Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim, and Buffalo Trace distillery (owned by Sazerac Co.) Old Rip Van Winkle 15-year-old got a makeover and became Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old. Everything with the 'Pappy' name was Stitzel-Weller juice, at first.
As time went on, Stitzel-Weller whiskey disappeared from the younger expressions, up to and including Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old. Today, while there may be a little Stitzel-Weller juice in that bottle of Pappy 20-year-old, there is not much. Only Pappy 23-year-old is still 100 percent Stitzel-Weller. All of that whiskey has been dumped and bottled but it hasn't all been released. Everything else Van Winkle is either a mixture of Bernheim and Buffalo Trace liquid (the older expressions) or 100 percent Buffalo Trace. It is still very fine whiskey—exceptional in fact—it’s just not Stitzel-Weller whiskey.
Julian III’s son, Preston, is now part of the company. Julian deliberately gave Preston a different middle name to spare him the roman numeral. At Buffalo Trace, as soon as new wheated bourbon distillate is barreled, Julian and Preston select the barrels they want and store them in warehouse locations they’ve chosen. It is Van Winkle bourbon from that point forward."
Who Started the Pappy Van Winkle Fire?
"To paraphrase Billy Joel, Julian and Preston didn’t start the fire. Some say it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who declared Pappy 'the world's best bourbon.' It makes regular appearances on the TV series, "Justified," and was Ryan Gosling's drink of choice while playing a cassanova in "Crazy Stupid Love." The Van Winkles are still constantly on the road, conducting tastings and Van Winkle dinners, though they sometimes wonder why they bother. They now release the allocation for a whole year once in the fall. It sells out instantly. The release size gets a little bigger each year but is nowhere near demand."
Pappy mania won't last forever (Thank God!), but my guess is its outstanding taste will.
Yes, it's enjoyed by rich guys, Hollywood celebrities, and celebrity chefs, but also "regular" guys like myself.
The only difference is I refuse to pay much more than retail for the unicorn.