Pappy Van Winkle bourbon is insanely, irrationally, popular. It might be the most sought after brand of alcohol of all time. Bottles of Pappy fetch thousands of dollars in the aftermarket, which is effectively the entire market because few if any retailers put it on their shelves anymore—most reserve it for special customers, raffle off the few bottles that they get, or sell it off on the aftermarket themselves for higher prices than they could reasonably ask for at the store. Waiting lists are hundreds of people long, and the hunt for a bottle every fall when the allocation is released is commonly referred to as "Pappy-mania".
So how did Pappy Van Winkle become the king of bourbons? We looked up every major newspaper and magazine mention, and considered pop culture and social media references, to try to figure this out. Let's take a look:
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old is first bottled by Julian Van Winkle III at Old Commonwealth Distillery. At the time, Van Winkle did a lot of contract and specialty bottlings with whiskey from many sources, most of it wheated bourbon from Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which his grandfather founded. This particular bottling, however, was not wheated—it was purchased from Wild Turkey, which in turn had acquired it from Old Boone. It is said that the sky parted and angels dove down from the heavens to buy this bourbon when it was released. (Actually, nobody bought it because the idea of a 20-year-old bourbon, and its pricetag, was extremely foreign at the time.)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old receives a 99 rating from the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago, at the time the highest score the marketing service had ever awarded. Publications and writers that care flip out, but we're pre-peak Internet, so this kind of news still travels slowly and only to aficionados. Still, the seed has been planted: other tasters begin to regard heavy tannins as a good thing, and trend setters begin seeking out bottles of Pappy Van Winkle that do not resemble the award-winning whiskey at all because Julian Van Winkle III doesn't have any more of it.
Pappy Van Winkle is first mentioned in the New York Times, the "paper of record" and ultimate taste setter for media types and the affluent, in an article titled "Bourbons in the Cognac League" by R.W. Apple Jr. The article considers "deluxe bourbons" like Knob Creek and Blanton's to be upstarts, and warily suggests that they may help the reeling bourbon industry regain its footing. Garnering only a brief mention toward the end of the piece as a "jokily named" bourbon, Pappy nevertheless is "the one to tuck into your suitcase if you find yourself [in Louisville] on business or vacation."
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old is first mentioned in USA Today at the bottom of a holiday gifting guide for single malts and bourbon. Although USA Today has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the United States, it's basically a cable TV news channel in printed form and appeals to the wrong demographic for Pappy. Womp.
Bourbon slowly continues its comeback during the opening years of the new millenium, as premium products lift the rest of the industry. Pappy gets its first mention in most of America's major newspapers and magazines, often cited as "very good" or among the best bourbon, but nothing that was definitive or an easy sound byte to share with your friends and relatives.
Enter Eric Asimov of the New York Times. In "Bourbon's Shot At The Big Time," Asimov details the rise of premium and super premium products and their role in reviving the entire bourbon industry in the ten years since the paper's last major article about the sector. More importantly, there is a very digestible list of the best bourbons for trend hounds to hunt down. Highest ranking in the taste test? Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old.
At this point, social media is lit. We're at peak internet sharing. It'll be a few more years before Pappy-mania goes full steam, but if I had to point to a single moment, this is where it gets seeded.
Pappy Van Winkle makes its first pop culture appearance in the FX hit drama Justified. Characters use it as bribe and mix it into their coffee (what the hell?) In interviews, prop director John Harrington would later recall that he secured four bottles of the rare bourbon before "Pappy-mania" became full blown.
Ryan Gosling, who reportedly turns down the title of Sexiest Man Alive on a regular basis, seduces Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love using old fashioned cocktails made from Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old, before enjoying a neat pour in bed as they both pass out. COME. ON.
At this point, most articles about Pappy not only mention that it's very good, but also that it's hard to find. Celebrity chefs like Sean Brock and David Chang become full-on Pappy boosters, influencing the rest of the food world. But nobody has a greater foodie influence on the general public than Anthony Bourdain, who drinks Pappy on his show No Reservations and calls it "the most glorious bourbon on the face of the planet" during an interview with Eric Lippert, which is re-quoted often.
And then there's this:
Pappy mania is full blown. It's already impossible to get a bottle without being on a lengthy waiting list or bribing the local liquor store when the unthinkable happens: thieves steal 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The haul is worth $26,000 at retail and a whole lot more in the aftermarket, a fact that does not escape the myriad newspapers and magazines that write the story up. Many claim that there would be "Pappy shortages" (wasn't there already??) making demand for the extremely limited quantity of Pappy even greater. Articles about Pappy in 2013 skyrocket to four times the amount in 2012.
"We got $10 million worth of free advertising we didn't need," said Julian Van Winkle III.
You already know. Good luck getting a bottle.
Additional research by Eric Kuo.