Old Rip Van Winkle – A Story of Another Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle left his nagging wife, drank moonshine, and slept for at least 20 years. When he woke up, the world had changed.

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year

If he were to wake up today, he would find that a "left-for-dead" spirit, bourbon, is taking the world by storm and  his namesake distillery,  Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery produces some of the best 20-year bourbon around.

It's called Pappy Van Winkle and it's quite a treat if you can find it. Old Rip Van Winkle also produces a 15-year and a 23-year that is just as scare -- and tasty.

So what do we know about the "other" Van Winkles? Their story and storied bourbon may be just as legendary as Rip Van Winkle's long nap.

A Tale of Old Rip Van Winkle

Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. dove into the bourbon trade toward the end of the 1800s. He travelled as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons located in Louisville, Ky.  After awhile, Pappy and his buddy, Alex Farnsley, bought the wholesale side of Weller and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made Weller's bourbon. They fused the companies and created Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Old Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Old Stitzel-Weller Distillery

 A Quick Aside About Stitzel-Weller

Sound familiar. Probably so, as Diageo, the liquor behemoth recently showcased the renovated distillery -- which no longer distills Pappy -- as the new home for Bulleit Bourbon, made by Tom Bulleit. Currently, Diageo is the biggest spirits maker in the world and Bulleit is its best-selling bourbon.

New Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Renovated Stitzel-Weller

The Original Stitzel-Weller Story

Now, back to the old Stitzel-Weller, which produced W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still. These brands are all still around, but produced by different distilleries today. Buffalo Trace, which now makes Van Winkle, also distills W.L. Weller. Heaven Hill makes Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald and Cabin Still. (If you've never heard of Cabin Still here's a little of its history.)

Waking Up Old Rip Van Winkle

Pappy opened the doors to the original Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville in 1935. He was 61 years old and for the next 30 years -- until he died at 91 -- he oversaw the operations. Then, Julian, Jr. became the man in charge until stockholders forced a sale in 1972.

When the sale took place, the rights to their brands also were sold. Some were still attached to the distillery, while others shifted to other distilleries.

But...Pappy's son, Julian, (Thank God!) kept one.

Old Rip Van Winkle, which was a label used before prohibition, was reawakened and became Van Winkle's lone remaining brand. The "new" label was made from whiskey stock from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery.

In 1981,  Julian III became Old Rip Van Winkle's headman after his dad died. Twenty-years later his son, Preston also came on board. Both still run the company -- and the Old Rip Van Winkle brand today.

The Whisper of Wheat

Even though they work with the Buffalo Trace Distillery, their recipe and process is still the same as it has always been. Unlike, most other bourbon makers, they use corn, wheat and barley instead of corn, rye and barley.

This so called "whisper" of wheat -- used by Weller way back in 1849 -- helps Pappy Van Winkle "age more gracefully" and gives  it a distinctive smooth taste, which has made it famous as the best bourbon in the world.

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Josh Ozersky Offers “Idiots” Fill Ins for Pappy Van Winkle

Esquire MagazineI admit it. I love to read Esquire magazine. The edginess and yes, the women ain't bad either. But, I'm happily married so I like the writing best -- especially the articles on drinking bourbon.

Charles Pierce is always interesting as well. I don't agree with a lot of what he says, but he's passionate and thought provoking.  In the end, that's the best compliment I can give to a writer of any kind. Whether I agree or not I keep reading and I...THINK.

Josh Ozersky's article about finding alternatives to Pappy Van Winkle is a good read. My favorite quote:

"But there is another answer, too, which we hinted at, but will now further explain: You need to find something else — something as similar as possible. Which is problematic."

When I first started my Pappy journey I was a bourbon neophyte and latched onto the best idea I found. I am a reader and gravitated to Pappy because a talented writer (Wright Thompson) wrote a damn good article about it. He also wrote one about an old bottle of Jim Beam.

It started my pursuit and then when I found it -- it more than met expectations. But I had tried so few bourbons at that point. I was, as I said before, not much of a connoisseur.

Ozersky is right. There are a lot of "damn good" bourbons -- at least close, if not as good as Pappy Van Winkle -- so don't fret if you can't find the big kahuna. Just be glad you saved a few bucks and enjoy some of the other great bourbons out there.

Ozersky names a few:

  • Maker's 46

  • W.L. Weller 12 YR

  • Jefferson's Presidential Select 18 YR (from 4 years ago)

  • Four Roses Single Barrel

  • William Larue Weller

He notes that W.L. Weller is the closest (according to Julian Van Winkle 7 Year Weller) or William Larue, then Jefferson's as it has some of the same mash bill and then Maker's 46 (which is merely wheated) and Four Roses Single Barrel if you can't find those.

"Of the original lot of Pappy produced in the twilight of the Stitzer-Weller, before it closed in 1992, most of what remains was snatched up by the Van Winkle family, and now constitutes Pappy 23. But the Van Winkle family didn't get all the juice; some made its way into the hands of the resourceful Trey Zoeller, the founder of Jefferson's, who sold it as Jefferson's Presidential Select 17- and 18-year-old four years ago. Some of those bottles are available on the gray market for a high sum indeed, but nothing compared to black-market Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old."

I, myself, am a Weller Special Reserve 7 Year drinker (everyday bourbon) it resembles Pappy Van Winkle though aged at a lower clip. A drop of water and it's worth much more than it's $12.99 price tag.

Read Ozersky's article here.

What's your favorite alternative to Pappy? Share it in the comments section.

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Pappy Van Winkle – The Price

Pappy Van Winkle is damn good bourbon -- but...is it worth what it costs?

Here's what Walker Percy, great writer and bourbon lover,  had to to say about the relationship between the price of bourbon and its taste -- and -- umh..."psychological effect" in his essay, "Bourbon Neat."

Walker Percy on the Price of Bourbon
Walker Percy

"I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad Boubons are even more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: 'Where are the women?' I have not been able to locate this remarkable Bourbon since."

Obviously if you're on a quest for Pappy Van Winkle you're not looking for the cheap, woman-enhancing  rotgut that Percy is referring to.  So let's talk about bourbon on a champagne budget.

Pappy Van Winkle Price for 20 Year

Pappy Van Winkle Suggested Retail Price

First, let's review the suggested retail -- which can be had if you get lucky or at least call a few places and get on a waiting list, camp out for days in a liquor store parking lot, or win the Pappy Van Winkle lottery. Then, we'll discuss the secondary market or the bourbon underbelly. Where instead of appreciating bourbon for what it is, "entrepreneurial types" are trying to make a quick buck on a high-demand commodity.

Hell, it is as old as America -- but I still hate those (you) sons of bitches. (Not really, but you sure make it harder for the rest of us -- who just want to find and partake of one of the best bourbons around.)

Pappy Van Winkle already costs a pretty penny, but on the secondary market the price is flat out crazy.

Here is a breakdown of the suggested retail price for Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and rye.

  • $39.99 – Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon 10 Year Old 107 proof

  • $54.99 – Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon 12 Year Old

  • $69.99 – Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye Whiskey 13 Year Old

  • $79.99 - Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 15 Year Old

  • $129.99 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 20 Year Old

  • $249.99 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old

I have purchased both the 12 year and 20 year and laid down $60 something and $136.99 respectively -- after adding in tax.

The Pappy Van Winkle Price in the Secondary Market

Here's a sampling of the price of Pappy Van Winkle on the secondary market. These were found on the liquorlist.com. (Send me a check for the free ad boys.)

On the site, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year ran from $1,000 to $2,560, Pappy Van Winkle 20 year ranged from  $600 to $2000, and the 15 year was priced from $500 to $800. These are the most sought after of the Van Winkles.

In this case, the 23 year is marked up anywhere from 400% to 1,000%, the 20 from 465% to over 1538%, and the 15 from 750% to 1000%.

Is Pappy Van Winkle Worth 10 Times or More of Its Retail Price?

Just because someone overpays for a commodity like a bourbon, doesn't mean it's worth it.  We are definitely in some kind of mania -- like tulips or dot coms where people have set aside rationality for a season and bought into the idea that something is worth a lot more than its normal price or value.

However in this case, the bigger fool theory does not hold since most buyers of Pappy are not buying it to get rich later, but to drink it now. Of course, the ones who buy it to resell are causing the already low supply to dry up even more for the "regular" bourbon lover who just wants to taste the so called best bourbon in the world.

Now bourbon lovers with money to burn may not have a problem shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a bottle of Pappy, but I for one would rather spend my time and money on the almost as good bourbons that are findable at their retail price. As good as Pappy Van Winkle is, it is not in a class by itself, untouchable by any other well-made bourbons.

Of course, I might feel differently -- and justify the over-the-top purchase if I'd never found it and wanted to know what all the hype was about. So I can't begrudge anyone who overpays to experience Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon for the first time.

After tasting the 20 year, I can honestly say I hope I score the 15 or 23 this year -- but at its "normal" not "overhyped" price.

Pappy Van Winkle Price for 20 Year $136.99

Eventually Everyone Who Wants Some Will Get It

The Pappy that is distilling and aging today will be ready for you to consume in 15, 20 or 23 years -- or less -- and the craze will likely have died down a bit. Most folks will have moved onto the next big thing -- maybe some kind of ice-cream flavored vodka or some other marketing influenced monstrosity -- and you can buy all the bourbon, and Pappy Van Winkle you can drink.

As Preston Van Winkle (Pappy's great grandson) once said “a lot of people don’t realize we just can’t crank up the still and have more 20-year old bourbon...tomorrow. We’re not making vodka."

All Bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle lovers should be thankful for that.

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What would you be willing to pay for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle?



Bourbon, Straight – Chuck Cowdery

Bourbon, Straight - Chuck CowderyOkay. I am not finished with it yet, but so far Charles K. Cowdery's book on the history of bourbon, titled "Bourbon, Straight" is, well...can I give it the best compliment ever -- interesting. It's like Bourbon 101 -- and it makes bourbon that much better, especially if you like to engage your mind and palate in your pursuits.

Who wouldn't love a book that starts like this:

"Like sex, alcohol is one of those subjects where much of what people think is wrong."

And even better the introduction is titled "Of Sex and Shellfish" -- and when you get right down to it, what more do you need to survive -- Sex, Shellfish and Bourbon! That sort of boils down (pun intended) life's essentials.

Good Writing on Bourbon

I live on the coast (Savannah) and love oysters, shrimp, crabs and just about every other kind of shellfish. I also love reading and to be honest, it's how I discovered bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle. If you've read other posts on this blog you know already that Walker Percy introduced me to bourbon and Wright Thompson showed me the secret that Pappy was the best bourbon out there.

However, Chuck Cowdery made me love and appreciate this brown spirit, even more. His overview of the history of America's spirit is a must-read for anyone new to the bourbon game. Or if you've always been a bourbon lover, but never run across it be sure and get a copy pronto.

Bourbon Sampling Guide

It's that good, informative and yes, interesting. Cowdery writes about the roots of bourbon, the basics of whiskey, how the brown stuff really got its name, new charred oak barrels and bottling. But my favorite chapter so far is chapter eight, "An American Whiskey Sampling Guide." The purpose of the chapter is to "help you sample the output of every American whiskey distillery."  He notes "such a guide is necessary because most distilleries sell essentially the same whiskey under multiple brand names, so if you buy bourbons at random you might end up tasting the same whiskey over and over, and miss others."

He gives a value bourbon, a higher-shelf, and a rye (if available) from each of the 14 distilleries he names. That may have changed by now (the book was published in 2004) but it a great place to start if you want to take a journey around the American whiskey universe over the next several months.

I won't name all the whiskeys he recommends here as you might not buy the book and read it and you need to. But I did discover that I had already sampled many of them.

My Bourbon List

Here are the ones I haven't tried and look forward to sipping over the next few months.

  • Old Grand-Dad 114 - Beam (Now owned By Suntory)
  • Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond - Heaven Hill (Private, Family-owned)
  • Russell Reserve's 10 Year, 101 Proof Rye - Wild Turkey (Now owned by Campari)
  • George Dickel No. 12 (Tennessee Whiskey)  - George Dickel (Now Owned by Diageo)
  • Virginia Gentleman 6 year 90 Proof - A. Smith Bowman (Now Owned by Sazerac)
  • 100 Proof Old Forester - Early Times (Owned By Brown-Forman)
  • Blanton's - Buffalo Trace (Now owned by Sazerac)

If you'd like to purchase the book, follow the link below.

Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey

Now let me get back to reading this gem -- and sampling a little taste of some more great bourbons.


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Why W.L. Weller Bourbon Is Almost Pappy Van Winkle

Apparently, W. L. Weller distilled Kentucky Straight Bourbon with wheat before anyone else -- including Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. Van Winkle actually worked as a liquor salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons before he and a friend, Alex Farnsley, bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made bourbon for Weller.

WL Weller 12 - Pappy Van Winkle Alternative

On Derby Day in 1935, Stitzel-Weller opened its doors and began making its wheated bourbon recipe famous. Eventually, the union produced Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most celebrated and hard-to-find bourbons in the world.

Why Weller and Pappy Are Almost the Same
Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992 and today, W. L. Weller 12 and Pappy Van Winkle are both produced at Buffalo Trace’s distillery. Basically, Weller 12 Year Old is made of Pappy that didn't quite make the cut for Pappy Van Winkle Lot B 12 year. That's why many say it as close to Pappy as you can get -- for a whole lot less.

Why Weller Isn't Pappy
At first, this may seem like a big deal or that it didn't taste good enough to be considered Pappy. However, when you realize Pappy Van Winkle chooses the best of the best, you'll see it can come up a tad short, still be a very good bourbon and become Weller.  The difference between the maturation of one barrel to another can be very slight -- if not almost indiscernible -- except by a highly trained whiskey palate.

In other words, 12-year-old Weller is almost 12-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, except it is findable and cost muchless than Pappy at around $26 for a 750ml bottle.  On the other hand, Pappy Wan Winkle 12 year old runs about $75 a 750ml bottle off the shelf and more in the secondary market.

Weller and Van Winkle of the Same Bourbon Family
Check out this cool chart to see how certain bourbons are "related." Notice on the first tree, the Buffalo Trace tree, that WL Weller 12, in a sense, branches off and through further aging becomes Pappy 15 year, 20 year and 23 year.  Not an exact science, but I think it is a great visual for understanding how certain bourbons "grow" into other bourbons through the art and science of aging.

More Kudos for Weller 12
Recently WL Weller 12 also earned Double Gold at one of the most prestigious  spirits competitions in the world, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Only one other $25 bourbon, Larceny, distilled by Heaven Hill, also received the Double Gold.

Other Double-Gold bourbons below $50 included Knob Creek Small Batch ($31), Jim Beam Single Barrel ($35), Soldier Valley Small Batch  ($40), Yellow Rose Double Barrel ($40) and Breaker Small Batch ($49). I'll talk more about these in future posts.

Black Saddle Small Batch  ($50),  Four Roses Single Barrel ($50), Stagg, Jr. Small Batch ($50) and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ($50) also earned Double Gold.

Hill Rock Estate Distillery ($80) and Blanton's Straight From the Barrel ($85) took Double Gold in the over $50 under $100 price range, while Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year ($120) was the lone Double Gold recipient that cost over $100.

To view all results, check out this link.

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