As you all know, Pappy Van Winkle is officially the best bourbon in the world, and...oh, you didn't know that? Well, it is. It's been declared that by a bunch of very media savvy celebrity chefs, a whole squad of "journalists" and ten thousand internet lists that may or may not have been composed by robots, and we all know how smart robots are...especially about bourbon. Anyway, it's obvious. You can't find a bottle of Pappy anywhere, so it must be the best. Even the reliably unexciting 12 and 10 year old Van Winkle bourbons are nowhere to be found. Pappy has become something like the unholy offspring of Johnnie Walker Blue and a particularly rare Beanie Baby. It's created an insatiable thirst; well, I shouldn't say thirst, since no one seems to actually drink the stuff but an insatiable desire in everyone from bourbon lovers to folks who wouldn't know E.H. Taylor from Taylor Swift.
In some ways, it's good that Pappy has been officially recognized as the world's best bourbon. It takes the pressure off folks like me because I know that no one in the general public will pay much attention to my reviews unless I'm talking about Pappy (unless I say something bad about Old Forester Birthday Bourbon - which is apparently a crime punishable by virtual stoning). It also makes it easy for retailers to sell the stuff they actually have because instead of talking about what it tastes like, they can just say it's like Pappy Van Winkle or, better yet, it beat Pappy in some random tasting. I'm waiting for a new whiskey blogger to rate bourbon on a scale of one to five bottles of Pappy.
But there's a downside as well. Because many of these new purchasers of Pappy know nothing about bourbon, they have generated a lot of questions. I get them by email and see them all over the place on-line. They tend to be very detailed questions not about the bourbon or its history, but about the label or its possible value. While my usual rule is that there are no stupid questions, I fear that when it comes to Pappy, there are no smart ones. As a service to the new owner of a bottle of Pappy and to save us all a lot of time, I thought I would answer a few of the most common questions right here:
- The label on my Pappy 15 is slightly askew, does this mean anything?
- The fill level on my Pappy 20 is higher than on my Pappy 23, what gives?
- My Pappy has a slightly off white color on the back label. What does that mean?
This is a category of questions that I call "Is my bottle worth a million dollars?" since that's usually the subtext of the question. And no, I'm sorry to inform you that your slightly skewed label is not some secret code that this bottle was filled with some superior liquid. Variances in bottling and labeling happen and don't generally improve the quality of the bourbon. However, given the Pappy hype, you probably can sell it to some idiot for a premium if you say it's the special "skewed label" bottle. Good luck!
- My bottle doesn't have a laser code. How can I find out how old it is?
Years ago, I posted a guide to deciphering Pappy Van Winkle bottle codes. If you can't find a bottle code on your bottle, that means one of three things: (1) it's from before 2007 when they started printing the bottle codes; (2) you aren't looking hard enough (it can be very hard to see against the dark liquid and sometimes hides under the label); or (3) the shyster who you bought the bottle from used a sophisticated method (e.g. Windex and a paper towel) to remove the bottle code and convince you that it was a really old bottle and possibly worth a million dollars.
- Can you tell me if this bottle is from 2005 or 2006?
Really? You need to know the exact date of the bottle? Why? No, really, why? I see this type of question all the time and I can't imagine why it matters. There's really not much difference between a 2005 and 2006 bottling in terms of the whiskey. Given that the Van Winkles sometimes bottled enough for more than one release at a time, it might even be the exact same stuff. Yet still they ask and in great numbers.
I repeat this a lot, but no one seems to want to hear it. There's no great way to date a bottle from the mid-2000s. As I noted on my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline, we know that the address on the label changed from Lawerenceburg to Frankfort in 2002 and that the Pappy 15 year old was first released in 2004. There weren't any significant changes between those dates and 2007 when they started putting the laser date codes on the bottle. There were some very minor label changes in that period, but exact dates of when they happened are hard to come by. The Van Winkles didn't keep track of that kind of thing, and as mentioned above, even if someone knows when they bought the bottle, it might not have been that year's release. With those caveats, based on TTB data, the Old Rip Van Winkle website appears to have been added to the label around 2004, and some say that raised letters on the front label started appearing around 2006 (though I've never seen any confirmation of that date with reliable evidence).
- Can you tell me where this bottle of Pappy was distilled?
Sure, that's an easy one. It was distilled at Stitzel-Weller...or Bernheim or Buffalo Trace or some combination of those, unless it's really old, in which case it might have been distilled at the Boone Distillery, which no one seems to know anything about but everyone agrees is amazing and probably worth a million dollars.
- Do you want to buy my bottle of Pappy for a million dollars?
No, but I will trade you for my collection of rare armadillo Beanie Babies.
There you go, everything you wanted to know about Pappy but were afraid to ask. You're welcome!