It’s that time of year again, when whiskey hypebeasts across the United States begin phoning their liquor stores on a daily basis hoping to get lucky in the sweepstakes for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon when the once-a-year allocation drops in the fall. Waiting lists will swell to hundreds of names; pilgrimages will be undertaken to Louisville, hoping that the slightly larger distribution in Kentucky will result in better chance of finding a bottle; news outlets will report on it like no other bourbons exist. At the end of the season, after the distributors are done playing cat and mouse with the stores, the few bottles that make it out into the wild will be reserved for the most favored regulars or anyone willing to fork over a hefty premium—as much as $2500 for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year in the resale market.
Stitzel-Weller Hype is Fueled By The Echo Chamber
One of the main reasons (if not THE reason) why there is such a hunt for Pappy Van Winkle every year is because people think that it contains some of the last bourbon made at the legendary mothballed Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was founded by Pappy himself. With all due respect to the bros sitting on bourbon forums all day, nobody thought that Stitzel-Weller was the Greatest American Distillery Ever™ until Pappy Mania started fueling the hype. The phrase "Stitzel-Weller" was virtually non-existent in American media until 2006, when the Pittburgh Post-Gazette mentioned and then downplayed the inclusion of Stitzel-Weller juice in the formulation for Van Winkle bourbons.
"The Van Winkle family has a long history in the bourbon industry. At one time, they owned the Stitzel-Weller Distillery that produced the well-known brands of W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell.
In 1972, the distillery and brands were sold. After selling the distillery, Julian P. Van Winkle Jr. resurrected the Old Rip Van Winkle label. He initially used whiskey stocks from the old distillery for his new venture. The bourbons are now being made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky."
It wasn't until 2008 that the Kentucky Courier Journal was the first one to cite Stitzel-Weller as the "gold standard" for the Van Winkle bourbons.
"The gold standard for the Van Winkles are the "Stitzel-Weller barrels" — whiskey made according to the family recipe and traditions."
Why this guy decided at that time to say that Stitzel-Weller bourbon was better than whiskey made anywhere else is beyond comprehension (It's not like Buffalo Trace has won Distillery of the Year several times or anything like that...), but in an industry where the standard practice when writing about bourbon is to publish the same listicle over and over again, you can imagine how this misconceived notion could be projected and amplified. Hell, one Esquire article that suggested that W.L. Weller bourbon was an adequate Pappy Van Winkle alternative spawned dozens of copycat reports that created a run on the Weller products and completely wiped out supply around the country. The echo chamber is strong. Don't buy into the hype.
There's Barely Any Stitzel-Weller Left in Van Winkle Products
Maybe you just want try whiskey from a mothballed distillery. In that case, good luck! Stitzel-Weller Distillery shut down 23 years ago, and most of the whiskey has either been bottled or taken by evaporation. The vast majority of Van Winkle products haven't been Stitzel-Weller juice for many years, and the ones that still contain some are thoroughly mixed with whiskey from other distilleries.
So, which bottles of Pappy Van Winkle contain Stitzel-Weller juice? Creating a whiskey is a complex process involving the marriage of many barrels, and it's not always clear which barrels go into what. "We are unable to provide a high degree of accuracy on the information you have requested due to the complexity of the inventory, age profiles, and the batching of barrels to taste," says a spokesperson for Buffalo Trace. Whatever. We have math.
Conclusion: You couldn't buy pure Stitzel-Weller bourbon in a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle even if you wanted to. It is, however, still very good bourbon. Which brings us to...
Van Winkle Bourbons Are Good... Like Dozens of Other Products
The only thing worse than a person waiting in line to overpay for a bottle of bourbon just to flip it on Craigslist or show it off like he just unearthed the Ark of the Covenant are the "old timers" who say things like, "I can't wait for all of these newbs to move on so we can have our bourbon back!" Slow your roll, dude. If the whiskey that most pleased your palette was a bourbon aged for more than double the amount of time than is considered the norm, and now you're in pain because demand is outstripping supply, I have some wood chips here that you can suck on.
There are many great bourbons out there. If you completely discount the hype bubble around all Van Winkle products, it's easy to see that they are merely in good company, not outliers. Here are several other really great bourbons to try that are readily available. Off the top of my head:
Four Roses Single Barrel, Four Roses Small Batch, Knob Creek Single Barrel, Booker's, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, W.L. Weller, Larceny, Elijah Craig, Maker's Mark 46
Sure, if you see Van Winkle on the store shelf or bar, by all means make the purchase! It's very good bourbon. But so are many others that won't require you to incessantly call your local liquor store every day or enter some sort of lottery to win the right to pay several hundred dollars markup over retail for booze.
And if you don't enjoy any other bourbon except for Pappy Van Winkle... may I recommend trying cognac instead?