Monday, February 23, 2015

Stupid Pappy Questions


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!


26 comments:

Mark Entel said...

I for one am eagerly awaiting the Col EH Taylor Swift Bottled in Blonde, free mp3 download included!

Anonymous said...

@ Mark Entel to commemorate this actual 2008 release: Pickin' & Singin': The Bluegrass Tribute to Taylor Swift

Anonymous said...

Sku,

I've never tried a Pappy. I've only read all the hype regarding it.

The real questions for me are these:

Is all of this hype around Pappy really merited?

If it isn't, name the bourbons that do merit it and are findable and affordable.

The idea of hunting for a Pappy seems a ridiculous waste of time and effort when I can get a perfectly excellent FR-SB, or Weller 12, Elmer, Larceny, or WT101, etc., for a fraction of the cost.

All of this Pappy hoohah seems to me like a marketer's dream come true.

-Dan

sku said...

Dan, Pappy is great bourbon. That's how it became popular in the first place, but no bourbon could merit the current hype around Pappy. If you're drinking Four Roses Single Barrel and Weller 12, I'd say you are already drinking great bourbon that is both findable (well, sort of for the Weller) and affordable. In fact, those were two of the three whiskeys I suggested in a post from a couple of years ago on what whiskey to buy when you can't find Pappy.

Others I would recommend are any of the Bowman bourbons from the Bowman Distillery in Virginia and the Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbons distilled by MGP.

T. Rollands Nicker said...

Hi Sku! I'm a long time reader. I just found your site while searching for some PVW 20 or 23 bottles. It's such a pain that there are so many people who are only searching for PVW (as my friends and I call it) because it has so much press as being the best in the world. There are so many pretentious people out there in the whiskey and bourbon world, and, thankfully, I'm over pretense at this point in my life. Still, I agree with all the experts that it's the best and, therefore, my favorite. So I would appreciate your help in tracking down some bottles for somebody who loves this stuff the most for what it is and not just the hype.

Anonymous said...

At this point, why even write an article about pappy? I'm a little disappointed in you SKU.

The Rookie said...

People are still nuts about Pappy??? Crazy.

Austin, TX said...

10 plus years ago I bought a Pappy 20 for $65 in El Paso, TX. I stashed it way not knowing it would later become the worlds best bourbon. I still have it and never bothered to look for a code or try to date it. A few years ago, I screwed up when a local mom and pop had two 23 y/o and I balked at the $200 plus, maybe $250 asking price. Big mistake, as they are now long gone (though I did tell fellow whisky geeks were to find them). Man of the people, I say.

Funky Tape said...

Well, it's obvious that Steve is up to no good again and is trying to manipulate prices. He's Boubon Elite Illuminati and he can sense the market is ready to implode. No doubt he has a whole room full of the Pappyzz and is playing it off like its just meh so he can collect his millions. Probably wrote this while playing golf in the Carribean with Julian and Preston.

Mark Fleetwood said...

SKU, I have an unopened bottle of Pappy 20yr old with a small mouse in it. What is it worth?
;-)

sku said...

That really depends on the color of the mouse.

Anonymous said...

You can still find Pappy, just depends how much you want to pay. I am fairly new to bourbon so not sure if this is a recent trend or if it existed for a while. Many retailers still have bottles on the shelves, curious to see if those same bottles will still be there when they get 2015 allocations.

Anonymous said...

Patiently waiting for Rum boom. First Vodka, then Bourbon, up next, Rum.

Anonymous said...

>>Many retailers still have bottles on the shelves<<

Yeah uh-huh sure . . .

[eyeroll]

Gary A. Turner said...

I can honestly say I have bought my last bottle of Pappy - at least until the craze wears off. The price for Old Rip Van Winkle 10yr (at retail mind you) as officially gotten stupid - and in my opinion, isn't worth it. I bought my first Old Rip 10yr only a couple years back, for $35. At that price, I thought it was stellar bourbon. At double that - no thank you. Just waiting for the sheeple to move onto rum or cognac or something else that I'm not into :)

And if the prices ever come back to reality, I'll be a customer again - provided the quality hasn't gone downhill in parallel to the price!

Rajesh said...

Sku,
Excellent article - you nailed the questions around Pappy - especially liked the one about the "skewed label batch"
2 stores in my area of Upstate NY have Pappy "in stock" - but at the price starting in the 700 range - not even thinking about it...

Old Weller Antique for 17.99
4R Single Barrel for 35.99
Lot 40 2012 at sub-40
Delaware Phoenix Bourbon/Rye/Wheat Whisky

seem acceptable choices...in my opinion...

Craig Best Jr said...

I witnessed the lack of knowledge of whiskey buyers during a raffle by San Francisco's Cask liquor store for the opportunity to buy 1 of five bottles (EH Taylor BP, George T Stagg, Pappy 10, 15, and rye). The first name pulled out, when asked which bottle they would like to purchase answered with "The most expensive one". A subsequent winner when faced with the bottle selection hollered to a lady friend across the room asking which one he should get. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have my name pulled 4th and purchased George T Stagg at an elevated $125 purchase price.

Anonymous said...

Yes, there are stupid questions asked by bourbon novices, but there is also a lot of snobbishness on the part of bourbon enthusiasts.

sku said...

I have no problem answering basic questions from novices about bourbon, and I do it almost every day. That's how people learn, and we've all been there as novices. The questions that annoy me are the ones from people who only care about Pappy and whose only interest seems to be in how valuable their bottle might be. Those are the Pappy people I'm talking about.

The Rookie said...

Anonymous said...
Patiently waiting for Rum boom. First Vodka, then Bourbon, up next, Rum.


NOOOOOO!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Being a bourbon drinker for more than 30 years, I have wound up with a bit of a stash of bottles that I did not get to, including several bottles of PVW. As much as I would like to drink them, I am wondering if I can really afford to, given the aftermarket prices I am seeing on the internet. If someone wants to pay me $1000 for a bottle of PVW, I'll sell it to them. So yes, I am wondering what my bottles of PVW are worth.

alim998097 said...

I was at the raffle as well and remember that lady. A group of guys all scoffed at the same time when she said that... Quite disappointing that it went to someone who had no idea what she was getting. That being said, I'm glad she picked that since I was able to get the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye next :)

Anonymous said...

@alim...

thank god! i was thinking - at least at msrp - the vwfrr would be the most expensive. i was cringing thinking it went to this crazy lady!

Evangelos said...

I bought a case of Pappy 20 after writing this article in 2006 about bourbon.

http://archive.app.com/goodlife/Spring2006/topshelf/topshelf.html

I felt Pappy 20 was the best bourbon I had in that tasting. (ironically, some of the bourbons I rated back then are also super rare and also impossible to find and not made anymore. AH Hirsch and Tribute)

I bought the Pappy 20 case because I knew one day Pappy 20 would no longer be SW whisky and I was not sure what the replacement would be or if would be as good. Years later, I was vilified and really happy to have the case in my bunker.

I do feel Pappy is amazing bourbon and all I have shared it with agree. Is it worth the black market prices? No way. There is so much great whisky out there for far less money. This is a mad hysteria IMO and for the people actually drinking, I wish this hysteria was not the case.

My only point in my response is if you can try Pappy once, go for it. (I have a similar feeling that I missed a chance at trying Louis XIII for $50 10 years ago.) Maybe even splurge for a bottle of Pappy if you can afford it, but there are a lot of great whiskies out there.

One final remark. I a, lucky to own a Pappy 23 green tinted glass bottle. Pretty sure it was the first ever release of Pappy 23 and was rye based not wheat based like all the releases afterwards. A real treasure that I look forward to tasting one day.

Just my 2 cents and I hope my response wasn't jerky in any way, it was not meant to be. I am just an avid fan of great spirits/wine/craft beer.

sku said...

Thanks for your comments Evangelos. Yes, the green tinted bottle of 23 year old is the first edition, a rye recipe bourbon distilled at the Boone Distillery.

Anonymous said...

Sku, how many bottles of Pappy 20 can I get in trade for a bottle of Black Maple Hill? :)

I actually bought two bottles of it for $40-ish, and now see an online seller asking $1600 per bottle. I would have drunk the first bottle more slowly if I knew it was $1600 bourbon!