Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pappy at Proof: Julian Van Winkle on Bourbon Mania

Brown Water

Posted by Robert F. Moss on Sun, Mar 9, 2014 at 1:56 PM

Somewhere along the way, about two years ago, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon crossed over the line from being a cult favorite to being the object of bizarre fetishization. Once in demand for its smooth, rich flavor, now it’s in demand simply for being in demand.

A few years ago, savvy fans could watch the company’s Facebook site to learn when the allotment for their state was about to ship, then race to their local retailer to stake out a bottle. Not anymore. Liquor store owners just roll their eyes when greenhorns come in looking for Pappy. Bottles are floating around on the underground market for $500 for the 15 year old bourbon and close to $1,000 for the 23 year old.

But, one place where there was no shortage of Van Winkle bourbon was at Proof Bar on Thursday afternoon, and Julian Van Winkle himself was on hand to lead the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s Bourbon Born event. He was pouring four of his family’s bourbons: Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year, and the 15-Year and 20-Year Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserves.

Proof Had Plenty of Pappy on Thursday

From his perch behind the bar, Van Winkle explained to the attendees a little of what makes his bourbons so special. For starters, it’s a wheated whiskey, meaning that wheat is the secondary grain used in addition to corn, which gives it a mellower character than the more common rye. And, Van Winkle added, “it doesn’t pick up as much of the barrel as the rye,” so the oak and vanilla notes are more subtle.

Then there’s the proof at which it is aged. “Barrels are the most expensive part of making whiskey,” Van Winkle said. He noted that most distillers put their bourbon in at the highest allowable proof, which is 125, in order to get the most out of the barrel. Pappy is distilled and barreled at 114 proof.

These things all help explain why Van Winkle whiskey tastes so smooth and mellow. It does nothing to explain the tulip craze-like popularity of the stuff.

When asked by an attendee to account for the cult status of his products, Van Winkle noted that it “has been building for 5 or 7 years.” He and his father had been selling old whiskey since the 1970s, when they had to put it into themed glass decanters just to move the stuff. It wasn’t until well into 2000s that they started getting a lot of attention.

“We got some really nice ratings,” Van Winkle said. “And a lot of word of mouth and a lot of nice press.” Then a few celebrity chefs, including Sean Brock and David Chang, started expressing their admiration of the bourbon, and a lot of magazine articles on Pappy followed. And then suddenly it was off the chart.

Van Winkle says they are putting away a lot more bourbon now and in a few years should have a lot more available to sell. They have no plans to extend the line or change their formula, though. “We are sticking with these ages,” Van Winkle said. “Nothing’s going to change except more production.”

But, Van Winkle did sound a note of caution, admitting that there’s no guarantee of how much longer the whole Pappy mania might last.

“This whole thing could blow up any minute,” Van Winkle said. “Marijuana is legal in Colorado now. We might all be smoking dope in ten years.”

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