When some Oregon officials were accused this week of pulling strings to purchase bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, it was only the latest story of extreme measures people have taken to try and obtain the fabled, and rare, Kentucky bourbon.
Six Oregon Alcohol and Cannabis Commission managers are accused of arranging to purchase multiple Pappy Van Winkle bottles, among other expensive bourbons, that were intended for the public..
Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, named for legendary distiller Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and distilled by Buffalo Trace in conjunction with the Van Winkle family, is “the world’s most elusive bourbon,” according to Forbes contributor Brad Japhe.
The 20 and 23-year-old bottles of Pappy came out in the 1990s, but Van Winkle’s modern popularity started in the late 2000s, along with the rise of social media.
Buffalo Trace recommends Van Winkle be sold for between $70 and $300, depending on the bottle’s age, but they typically sell on the secondary market for thousands of dollars.
Buffalo Trace releases only a small amount of Van Winkle once a year, driving the price of bottles higher, and making bourbon devotees desperate to buy counterfeits.
Accused Oregon Alcohol and Cannabis Commission officials, including the Commission’s executive director, are accused of requesting rare bottles of Pappys be shipped to local liquor stores from the state’s “safety stock,” which is meant to replace liquor to vendors whose bottles were broken or damaged in transit. The officials allegedly were told when the bottles arrived so they could buy them.
Bourbon is made with at least 51% corn and 5-10% malted barley before typically being combined with rye. Pappy’s namesake–Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle–replaced rye with wheat in his whiskey recipe, which is used in Van Winkle bourbon today. So-called “wheated bourbons” are sweeter and rounder than traditional bourbons. During its annual release, Pappy Van Winkle is available aged from 10 to 23-years-old.
“If God made Bourbon, this is what he’d make,” said chef Anthony Bourdain in a 2012 episode of The Layover.
In 2013, over $100,000 dollars of Pappy Van Winkle–195 bottles of Pappy 20 and 27 bottles of “Pappy Rye,” a Van Winkle bourbon made with traditional rye instead of wheat–went missing. Dubbed “Pappygate,” investigators found 5 barrels of stolen Wild Turkey on Buffalo Trace employee Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger’s property. Though Curtsinger was arrested for the crime, and for running a years-long scheme to steal rare alcohol from Buffalo Trace and flip it for a profit, no Van Winkle was ever found on his property–the missing barrels were never found. Curtsinger pleaded guilty to theft charges, but proclaims his innocence in the 2021 Netflix Documentary, “Heist.”
Why Is Pappy Van Winkle So Expensive?
As Japhe puts it, “You’re more likely to spot Elvis at your local liquor store than you are to see Pappy sitting on a shelf at suggested retail value.” Part of the problem is Van Winkle’s scarcity: Pappy is aged longer than most bourbons, which makes it difficult for Buffalo Trace to meet skyrocketing demand. Notwithstanding Pappy’s role as a status symbol, the American Whiskey market, which includes bourbon, grew 10.5% in 2022 to $5.1 billion in revenues, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The way rare alcohol moves from distributors to consumers can also raise the price. Unlicensed, online sales of liquor are illegal, but the rise of social media in the late 2000’s made it easier for some collectors to either sell Pappy counterfeits or mark the price up to thousands of dollars. Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkle family spent $500,000 between October 2016 and October 2017 to stop online sales of counterfeit Pappy. In light of bourbon’s popularity, bottles of Pappy Van Winkle are almost always allocated by distributors to certain licensed vendors so they don’t get flipped online. Vendors that buy cheaper, less desirable products from distributors are typically allocated more rare bottles, which means chain stores usually have an advantage over small shops who don’t have the budget to buy cheap or unpopular products just to get access to rare ones like Pappy. Once a vendor has a rare bottle, they might choose to offer it exclusively on a loyalty or rewards program, host a lottery for the chance to purchase the bottle, or put it out on shelves. Some licensed vendors still mark the price up thousands of dollars, but others will charge the suggested retail price for Pappy to incentivize people to shop in person.
$52,000. That’s how much a a 23-year-old bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Old Family Reserve sold for at a Sotheby’s auction in December.
Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-year-old bourbon is the most expensive, but some people, like “Millionaire Magician” Steve Cohen, prefer Pappy’s younger bottles. In a series of blind taste tests, Forbes senior contributor Fred Minnick preferred Pappy 23 once, but ranked it last in another. Minnick says the difference comes down to the taste of oak: whiskey that’s sat in a barrel for longer adopts a stronger flavor of oak. Depending on a taste-tester’s sensitivity to oak on a given day, younger versions of Pappy might taste better, says Minnick.
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