The Story Behind Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon 

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Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has a sort of notoriety unparalleled in the spirit world. It is incredibly sought after and fetches huge prices on the secondary market. Even bourbon aficionados might be asking why this bourbon so special and sought-after. The story behind Pappy Van Winkle bourbon has such a following that it is almost as unique as the bourbon itself.

Who Was Pappy Van Winkle?

To start, a man named Pappy Van Winkle did exist. His real name was Julian Proctor Van Winkle Sr. His motto was that he would make good bourbon at a profit if possible, but at a loss if necessary, as long as it was good bourbon. That motto not only became attached to his name, but attached to the industry of making good bourbon. He started in 1893, working as a traveling salesman for the liquor business of W.L. Weller and Sons. He then bought a bourbon distillery called A. Ph. Stitzel with a friend. That distillery made bourbon for the Weller business.

Eventually the two merged to become the Stizel-Weller Distillery and the new company opened in 1935. It quickly gained attention for its bourbon that used wheat in the mash instead of rye, which created a softer and smoother taste. Pappy Van Winkle stayed heavily involved in the distillery until he died in 1965.

The bourbon making in the Van Winkle family did not end with Pappy, however. His son continued to run the distillery that Pappy started until it was sold in 1972. He then revived a label called Old Rip Van Winkle from the days before Prohibition. His son took it over in 1981. Today, Julian the Third continues running the Van Winkle brand with his own son at Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Limited Supply Creates Huge Demand

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Only 7,000 cases of Pappy Van Winkle are produced per year, that's only about 84,000 bottles. If the number of bottles sounds large to you, remember that 95% of the world's bourbon is made in Kentucky (coincidentally it is also the home of Mixer Direct) and nearly 1.9 million barrels of bourbon were produced last year. Additionally, the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon is also aged for a long time.

The Pappy Wheat Secret


Bourbon must be made from a minimum of 51 percent corn in its grain mixture. Once that quota is met, distillers often add rye or barley to finish it out. However, Pappy Van Winkle uses wheat instead of rye or barley as per the original recipe started by Pappy Van Winkle himself. This creates a unique flavor that is often described with words like sweet, caramel, vanilla, citrus and fruity.

The Waiting List Is Long

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It used to be possible to order a bottle of Pappy right from the distillery, but that is no longer possible in the present thanks to the increasing demand. The wait list for just one bottle at a liquor store is now over 10 years in some places. That's longer than the wait list for season tickets for some professional football teams.


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Pappy Day

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The release of the bourbon is such a hotly anticipated date that it's referred to as Pappy Day in Kentucky. Every state is allocated a certain number of bottles and then London, England is also allocated a few. The company actually has interest in making sure that the bourbon makes its way to "good homes" and not just a high bidder who wants to set it on a collection shelf.

Crazy Prices In The Resale Market

Searching market pages like Craig's List will reveal some crazy prices on Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Some bottles have even reached the $5,000 mark, according to the Wall Street Journal. A pour at a local bar lucky enough to obtain a bottle could be over $100.

"At A Loss If We Must"

In accordance with Pappy's motto, the gallons lost to gallons made ratio is one that would make many bourbon producers cringe. For every three gallons of the extremely sought after 23 year old Family Reserve Pappy that are made, around 50 are lost. In other words, it is a very expensive bourbon to produce as well as purchase. The producer has to wait over two decades to even sell it, and then the amount that evaporates during that time leaves very little left. This is known as the "angel's share" and is a factor in any bourbon production, but is significantly more in one aged as long as this one.

Pappy's Rise To Popularity

In 1996, a sales representative from the company submitted the 20 year Pappy to the Beverage Testing Institute. There, it garnered an unbelievable rating of 99 out of 100. That brought the bourbon to the attention of spirits aficionados everywhere and sent demand through the roof. One of the most unique aspects to this story is that it almost happened accidentally. Julian Van Winkle ended up with many barrels of aging bourbon simply because the it hadn't reached the mainstream market like other spirits in the day. By the time the 1990s rolled around, Julian had barrels of bourbon at unheard of ages beyond the usual 12 or less. After the rating by the Beverage Testing Institute, the rest became history.

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