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