Young and Hungry

Pappy Is A Rolling Stone: The Hunt for D.C.’s Most Elusive Bourbon

If you think that hunting down some white truffles, shark fin soup or beluga caviar is tough in this town, just try getting your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. "We got a shipment two weeks ago and it sold out in 45 minutes," says Josh Feldman, owner of Potomac Wine & Spirits, who estimates receiving up to 20 calls every day last month from customers desperately searching for a bottle. "We got a batch just before Christmas that sold out in a day and a half," says Andy Creemer, manager of MacArthur Beverages. "The complete lack of this stuff in the market has turned it into a bit of a frenzy." At Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, meanwhile, manager Larry Robinson just laughs at the question: “Ha, no. We got some in December and it was gone in a couple of hours. The stuff is fabulous and everyone knows it.”

During my recent quest to procure the uber-popular bourbon, I could find only one place in the entire District that currently had the stuff on hand—and even those bottles weren't available. "Technically, yes, we have some," says Stewart Phillips, wine consultant and beer buyer at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. "We got the 12-year and 20-year this morning, but it went on hold for customers in about 15 minutes.” (Prices at Schneider's range anywhere from $35 for a bottle of the 10-year variety to a whopping $350 for the 23-year reserve.)

What is it about Kentucky distiller Julian Van Winkle's particular brand of bourbon that makes it so sought-after?

Its enduring mystique is summed up nicely in the latest issue of Lucky Peach, New York chef David Chang's frat house newsletter-cum-culinary journal:

"Julian allowed that there could be a combination of recipe, barrel and aging that produced grand slam whiskey…[but] there was no real way to find that formula. Which led us to the flabbergasting…conclusion: It’s something in Julian’s ability to taste whiskey that makes the whiskey he selects to bottle so improbably good."

Only 7,000 cases are produced each year. For such a popular product, the small scale production inevitably leads to scarcity.

You'll have a lot better luck snagging a sip at your neighborhood boîte than trying to procure the stuff on your own from the local liquor store. But it won't come cheap. At Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, a single serving of the 12-year bourbon sells for $19 per glass; the 23-year, meanwhile, goes for a whopping $52! Head bartender Jamie MacBain suggests the taste alone is worth the sticker shock. “Pappy is a wheated bourbon,” he says. “Instead of the usual rye, they use corn, which means you don’t have that spicy harshness. You get a lot of vanilla and hints of oak and caramel, plus a bit of corn muffin sweetness.”

A savvy drinker won't even bother asking MacBain to pour some Pappy into his Old Fashioned. “It’s too rare and delicious," he says. But, if you ask nicely, he might make you something else, a cocktail he calls "The Jefferson," made from two ounces of the Van Winkle Family Special Reserve 12-year, mixed with small doses of Italian-style sweet vermouth and crème de mure blackberry liqueur and a dash of old-fashioned bitters.

Still wondering how I could get my hands on an actual bottle of the elusive bourbon, I tracked down Pappy’s unofficial spokesman, James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock, some 450 miles away in Charleston, S.C., to find out the secret to getting some.

Brock reluctantly complies.  “I’m an idiot for giving this up,” he says. "What you do is you check the Pappy website for the vendors in your area. Then you kiss the asses of every one of them. Really kiss ‘em, pretend that you like them and drive them bat-shit crazy. Maybe they’ll sell you a bottle. The game of Pappy is crazy, which is why we buy it by the barrel.”

Image courtesy of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

  • JHP

    Do note that Julian Van Winkle (and his son, Preston) are not "distillers." They are selectors of wheated bourbon barrels (which were distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, Bernheim distillery, or Buffalo Trace distillery) that are under the custodianship of the Sazerac Company (which owns the Buffalo Trace distillery and Tom Moore distillery). Sazerac bottles and markets the whiskey in conjunction with the Van Winkles.

    That said, the Van Winkles are very good selectors and brand ambassadors. And the whiskey business is not so obvious in its structure, sadly.

  • Siobhan

    I believe Mr. MacBain may be mistaken. All bourbons use at least 51% corn and most use rye as an additional grain, along with any other grains the distiller may choose. This distinguishes bourbon from other types of whiskey, such as rye whiskey. A wheated bourbon uses wheat as the additional grain. The rye is substituted with wheat, not corn, which does creat a sweeter and less spicy finished product.

  • Pingback: The Needle: Remember The Ashburn Edition - City Desk

  • http://www.twitter.com/kevdc KevDC

    One West Dupont Circle has it (or at least had it) when I last checked their wonderful bourbon/single malt collection.

  • JSR

    My mom always orders it from the ABC store in Vienna next to the Famous Dave's

  • Bob

    1) No mention of Stitzel-Weller? That's the reason for the scarcity.

    2) $350 a bottle for the 23 year old? Schneider's should be ashamed of themselves for that price gouging. In November I bought a bottle of the 23 in DC for $210.

  • Thomas Handy

    "A savvy drinker won't even bother asking MacBain to pour some Pappy into his Old Fashioned. “It’s too rare and delicious," he says. But, if you ask nicely, he might make you something else, a cocktail he calls "The Jefferson," made from two ounces of the Van Winkle Family Special Reserve 12-year, mixed with small doses of Italian-style sweet vermouth and crème de mure blackberry liqueur and a dash of old-fashioned bitters." ?

    Why doesn't he just piss in it?

  • http://www.firstrentals.in/ First Rentals

    Van Winkles are very good selectors and brand ambassadors.

  • Pingback: Hungry for Linkage: Live Tweets from Krispy Kreme Factory, Inhaling Coffee, Society Fair Opens Friday

  • NovaNicole

    I don't know, how's it compared to Popcorn Sutton's stuff?

  • Anon

    Whoever sold it for 210 must not have known what they had. 300-350 is the going rate for 23 year old. But cheers to you, why not share the location?

    Conn Ave liquor still has a few bottles of 23. Picked one up for 300 the other day.

  • Sewsewsoso

    I was able to score a bottle of 15 year and have buyers remorse. I'd be willing to part with it for the price I paid at 1 west DuPont Liquor: $199. I have the receipt.

  • jpbrooklyn

    The 15 and 20 are exquisite. And if you've been buying them as long as I have, you know how to buy them for no more than $70-80 for the 15 and $99-109 for the 20. Pay more and you're being gouged.

  • http://56454874181sesd.blog.com/ Encalade

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website? My blog is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would really benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Cheers!

  • YeahRIght

    jpbrooklyn.. you must be smoking some good stuff to think you can scores 20 yr for 99-109. I would like to see a receipt with that price.

  • david

    dmc582@gmail.com

    im willing to buy any 15 year pappy

...