Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve

pappy

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is the flagship brand of bourbon whiskey owned by the ‘Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’ company (which does not actually own or operate a distillery, but rather has it produced under a contract with another company). It is distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at its Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. It is often regarded as one of the finest bourbons in the world, and is rare to find on the market due to its very low production and high demand. The product has a cult-like following. Famous chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have favored the product.

‘Food Republic’ reported that Chef John Currence said: ‘There’s Pappy Van Winkle, then there’s everything else.’ Bourbon aficionados have shown up in droves to get a small chance in a lottery to purchase some. It has been called ‘the bourbon everyone wants but no one can get.’ A writer for ‘The Wall Street Journal’ said ‘You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium.’ Jen Doll wrote in ‘The Wire,’ ‘It’s an age-old dilemma (supply and demand) leading to an age-old marketing dream (a product that can’t be kept on the shelves … money in the pockets … bourbon in the bourbon snifters).’

Like all modern bourbons, Van Winkle bourbons are made primarily from corn and aged in charred new oak barrels. A distinguishing feature of Van Winkle bourbons is their use of wheat as the secondary ingredient instead of the usual rye, and their additional inclusion of barley malt. Pappy Van Winkle is aged for 15, 20 or 23 years, which is considerably longer than the aging period for most bourbons. The 20 year is bottled at 90.4 U.S. proof and has been described as ‘intensely fruity.’ The 15 year is 107 proof, and the 23 year is 95.6 proof.

In 1893, when he was 18 years old, Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle, Sr. began working as a salesman for the liquor wholesaler, W.L. Weller & Sons. Fifteen years later, he and another Weller salesman bought the firm. In 1910 they acquired the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, which had started as a sour mash whiskey distillery in 1872. The Stitzel Distillery supplied much of the whiskey sold by the Weller wholesale firm. The consolidation coincided with prohibition during which time the Stitzel-Weller firm was licensed by the government to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes. One of their labels that was introduced on the market just before prohibition was ‘Old Rip Van Winkle.’ After prohibition, the brand was not reintroduced until after 1972 when the Stitzel-Weller distillery and its current brand names (including ‘W.L. Weller,’ ‘Old Fitzgerald,’ ‘Rebel Yell,’ and ‘Cabin Still’) were sold to other companies. The only brand name to which the Van Winkle family kept the rights was the pre-prohibition brand ‘Old Rip Van Winkle.’

The Stitzel-Weller plant was opened on the day of the Kentucky Derby in 1935, just outside Louisville in Shively, Kentucky. At the time of his death in 1965 at the age of 89, Pappy Van Winkle was the oldest active distiller in the nation. A photo of him graces the bottle’s label. Sometime after the Stitzel-Weller distillery was sold in 1972, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. resurrected the pre-prohibition ‘Old Rip Van Winkle’ brand and initially used old whiskey stocks from the distillery for its bottlings. He died in 1981 and Julian Van Winkle, III (Pappy’s grandson) took over the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company. After the initial sale in 1972, the Stitzel-Weller distillery was eventually closed completely in 1991. In 1984, Buffalo Trace distillery commercially marketed the first single-barrel bourbon, Blanton’s. Since 2002, the Van Winkle brands have been distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at the Buffalo Trace Distillery as a joint venture with the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company. As there is very little left of product from the Stitzel-Weller distillery, a company source (namely Julian Preston Van Winkle III), opines that the 2013 vintage ‘may be the last of its kind,’ although disavowing that the 23-year-old aged branded whiskey will be discontinued. The makers say that they do not want to boost production, as there is considerable long term risk, and they do not want to be left holding copious quantities of unsaleable bourbon should tastes, fashions or circumstances change.

In 2013 a massive theft of Pappy Van Winkle was reported: 65 three-bottle cases of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, and nine three-bottle cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. ‘A single bottle of 20-year-old Pappy, as aficionados know it, sold at Bonham’s auction in New York . . . for $1,190.’ Production is severely limited: about 7,000 cases a year (by comparison Jim Beam produces seven million). Police theorize that it took the thief about two months to complete the heist, and note that whoever did it avoided being recorded by security cameras. Authorities are pessimistic about recovering the stolen goods. When interviewed about the case, Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton said ‘This is the mac daddy.’

In 2014, Buffalo Trace employee Gilbert ‘Toby’ Curtsinger, , was arrested by Frank County authorities when five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey Bourbon were found on his property. Because of his tie to Buffalo Trace and the perceived similarity of the crimes, there was public suspicion that Curtsinger was connected to the Pappy theft. The following year, nine Kentucky residents, three of whom were employees at the both Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace, were indicted for thefts at the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries dating back to 2008. Over $100,000 worth of the stolen whiskey was recovered, including more than two dozen bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and 15 barrels of Wild Turkey. Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton held a press conference where he reported details and explained that seized barrels of bourbon will have to be destroyed after the trial is completed. Melton expressed his hopes to return the unopened bottles of Pappy Van Winkle to the Van Winkle Family. All nine defendants are charged with being members of a criminal enterprise. The media dubbed them the ‘Great Bourbon Syndicate.’ Sheriff Melton said they met in a softball league with Curtsinger being the ringleader. Authorities say they believe that there are still others involved in the syndicate who have yet to be identified along with other stolen bourbon still out there.

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