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The Story of The Pappy Van Winkle - History & Hype

Updated: Mar 5

Pappy Van Winkle bourbon

Image by The Whisky Ardvark

We recall a story about a large floor display at Selfridges in London where cases of Pappy Van Winkle remained untouched for weeks. The 23-year-old expression, priced around £100, was considered overpriced, too old and strong, and therefore unsellable. However, things were different in the 90s.

Today, people are queuing up to have a chance to buy a bottle of the same 23-year-old expression for £300. And why not? They can make a big profit by selling it on one of the many whisky auction sites for around £3000.

So how did Pappy go from a product that no one would buy to a whiskey that no one would drink? We'll tell you a little story that spans four generations of whiskey makers.


From The Beginning

A man named Julian Prentice 'Pappy' Van Winkle Sr. was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1874. He was one of seven children in a family whose ancestors migrated from Holland to America in the mid-1600s.

At the young age of 18 in 1893, Julian became a travelling salesman for liquor wholesaler W.L. Weller & Sons in Louisville. He travelled around Kentucky and Indiana with a horse and buggy. After William Weller's death in 1909, Julian and another Weller salesman bought the company and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Shively, Kentucky 1910. The distillery had previously produced brands such as Old Fitzgerald, Old W.L. Weller, Old Monk, Cabin Still, and Mammoth Cave.

Julian Sr. was a fan of the wheated-style bourbon that used wheat as the secondary grain in the mash bill instead of rye. This resulted in a softer character whiskey that Old W.L. Weller represented. Soon, Van Winkle adapted the style for his whiskey brand.

Stitzel whiskey distillery Louisville Kentucky 1902

Image by Bourbon Veach

The Old Rip Van Winkle brand of whiskey was launched at the time of purchase and was the first whiskey to carry the family name. It was named after the short story 'Rip Van Winkle' by Washington Irving, published in 1819. An illustration of the fictional character Rip Van Winkle was chosen to be displayed on the label. During the prohibition era in 1920, the A. Ph. Stitzel distillery was one of only six licensed distillers permitted to continue making whiskey - but only for medicinal purposes.

The brand Old Rip Van Winkle didn't survive long after some of it was bottled in the 1930s. Even though Rip Van Winkle was bottled with the description 'many years in the wood', it didn't display what we would now call an age statement. It's possible that bottles of Pappy we know today, being aged 15 to 23 years, are inspired by whiskey held in bond for the duration of the prohibition. This made it one of the oldest bourbons on the market, which was unusual at the time. Maybe Julian Sr. liked the more mature taste and decided to bottle it instead of throwing it away.

Washington Irving, Old Rip Van Winkle Whiskey Distilled 1916/ Bottled 1934, Statue of Rip Van Winkle in Irvington, NY

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - Washington Irving, Old Rip Van Winkle Whiskey Distilled 1916/ Bottled 1934, Statue of Rip Van Winkle in Irvington, NY


The Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Stitzel-Weller whiskey distillery Shively Kentucky

Image by Wonders & Marvels

In 1935, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was opened on the first day of the Kentucky Derby in Shively, Kentucky, after the end of prohibition in 1933. Unfortunately, the whiskey industry was not thriving as it once did, and by the time Julian Sr. passed away in 1965, the family business was struggling. His only son, Julian Proctor Van Winkle Jr., took over the distillery but had to sell it and its brands to different companies in 1972. Although the distillery closed in 1992, it reopened in 2014 as the home of Diageo's Bulleit Bourbon Tour and now houses other Diageo brands Blade and Bow, I.W. Harper, and Orphan Barrel.

Despite selling the distillery, the Van Winkle whiskey family legacy continued as Jr. held onto the rights to the name Old Rip Van Winkle.

Stitzel-Weller distillery now

Image by P&P Co.


'The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery' & Julian III

Julian Sr., Julian Jr. & Julian III Van Winkle

Image by The Whiskey Wash - Julian Sr., Julian Jr. & Julian III

Julian Proctor Van Winkle Jr. had to sell his father's distillery in 1972. Later, he returned to the whiskey industry using old barrels from Stitzel-Weller and the name Old Rip Van Winkle. He resurrected the pre-prohibition brand under J.P. Van Winkle & Son. In 1977, Jr.'s son, Julian Van Winkle III joined the company. After Jr. passed away in 1981, Julian III inherited his bottling business. Julian III purchased the Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, for barrel storage and bottling purposes. Under Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, Julian III started bottling two expressions: Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo and 107 proof. However, there was a problem. Since there was no ORVW distillery, Julian had to buy old casks from the Stitzel-Weller distillery to bottle his whiskey. He faced difficulty getting loans from Kentucky banks because they considered the casks worthless. Despite the challenges, he persisted in keeping his family's legacy alive.

Old Rip Van Winkle bottling 10 year old

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Introducing the Pappy Van Winkle & The Buffalo Trace Involvement

In 1994, Julian III introduced his first bottling of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old bourbon in a cognac-style bottle as a tribute to his grandfather. The 20-year-old bourbon was priced at $80. Four years later, in 1998, another older Pappy, the 23-year-old was launched. Despite the growing demand for this new older style bourbon, Julian respectfully declined an offer from Buffalo Trace to help with future distilling.

The first significant recognition came in 1996 when Pappy 20-year-old scored 99 out of 100 points in the Beverage Testing Institute's Championship. It was the highest score ever given to a bourbon. As a result, people took notice, but Julian still had plenty of stock to sell off barrels at a reasonable price.

In 2001, Julian's son Preston joined the company, doubling their sales team.

Julian III & Preston Van Winkle

Image by Cincinnati Enquirer - Julian III & Preston Van Winkle

After being turned down by Julian, he decided to accept the offer from Buffalo Trace. He realized that if he didn't, he would eventually run out of whiskey to bottle. So, in 2002, the Van Winkle brand was brought under the watchful eye of Buffalo Trace, who had previously acquired Van Winkle's predecessor brand, W.L. Weller, in 1999. The two brands had almost identical wheated mash bills, so bringing the manufacturing under the same roof made a lot of sense.

Buffalo Trace distillery has been distilling whiskey with the Pappy Van Winkle recipe since 2002. The 15-year-old expression was created after the merger in 2004.

Buffalo Trace whiskey distillery home of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon

Image by Buffalo Trace

The brand got a significant boost in 2012, thanks to the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain featuring the whiskey on his TV show. After this, Pappy quickly gained its celebrity status, and people started lining up for the next release. This led to a surge in the price of the whiskey on the secondary market, where a bottle could reach a couple of thousand dollars in the US.

However, in 2013, there was an announcement that the 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle whiskey might no longer be produced or reintroduced in the future. But the owners soon backtracked on this statement.


The Pappygate

In 2013, a scandal known as Pappygate emerged when Gilbert 'Toby' Curtsinger and eight other employees of Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries were found guilty of stealing barrels and bottles from the distilleries. The theft had been going on since 2008, and the employees had realized that they could make a lot of money selling the stolen products.

Netflix pappygate documentary

Image by Netflix

An employee named Curtsinger had worked at Buffalo Trace for over 10 years. He was surprised to find out that the bottles he had access to every day were highly wanted and valuable. Curtsinger began stealing only a few bottles at first, but it quickly escalated, and others got involved to meet the demand. His clients included police officers, politicians, and doctors. The illegal business didn't only involve Pappy Van Winkle; they also stole and sold Buffalo Trace bourbon, Eagle Rare, and barrels of Wild Turkey.

The theft was discovered in 2013 when a Buffalo Trace employee noticed a box of Pappy missing from a palate during inventory. Further investigation revealed that 65 three-bottle cases of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year and 9 three-bottle cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve rye were also missing. The police investigated for a couple of years without making any progress until someone came forward and revealed Curtsinger's name. He was eventually caught with 15 barrels stolen from Wild Turkey and at least two dozen bottles of Pappy.

pappygate stolen pappy van winkle whisky buffalo trace distillery

Image by WHAS11

It has been theorized that the burglars had already stolen and sold millions of dollars worth of whiskey before getting caught. In 2021, Netflix released a true-crime docu-series named Heist with two episodes in season 1 portraying the whiskey theft using actors. Toby Curtsinger, who was involved in the heist, provided commentary in the series.

The high demand for rare whiskey has attracted other forms of crime, such as the circulation of counterfeit Pappy's. Although counterfeiting is not encouraged, many recipes for "poor man's Pappy" can be found on the internet, which typically includes W.L. Weller in some form, along with printable labels. Others buy empty Pappy bottles from online stores like eBay, fill them with cheap bourbon, and alter the numbering on the bottles.

Fake bottle of Pappy van Winkle

Image by The New York Times


Selling Pappy Van Winkle Goes Insane

In 2015, Pappy bourbon earned a reputation as the preferred choice of celebrities and as a bourbon worth stealing. Through unpaid advertising, Pappy became a highly sought-after bourbon that was difficult to obtain. The bourbon boom hit the US first, before the hype eventually spread to the UK.

The first appearance of Pappy in UK auctions was in August 2014. Since the 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle was the first release and the one that started it all, we will focus on its journey from then till now.

We want to clarify that the information presented in the diagram below was gathered by researching whisky auction websites. We have excluded unsold lots and older releases of the Pappy expression, including special limited releases that specifically mention the Stitzel-Weller distillery by name.

Journey of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon 20 year old on auctions 2014 to 2022

Image & Diagram by The Whisky Ardvark

In August 2014, a bottle of Pappy 20yo was sold for a suggested retail price of around £120. However, the bottle could be found at auctions for prices ranging from £550 to £740. Since then, the value of Pappy 20yo has surged and now it is sold at around £2500 per bottle in the secondary market.

Many people are eager to get their hands on Pappy 20yo from the yearly release ballot. However, it's not the Van Winkle's who are profiting from the high prices, but rather the sellers on the secondary market or retailers after the initial release when the raffles are over.

In 2021, Julian III was finally loan-free from buying Stitzel-Weller casks before 2002. But, despite the high demand and increasing prices, they haven't raised the retail price of Pappy 20yo. Perhaps it's because of their sense of honour. After all, Pappy is a lovely £300 bourbon. But is it really a great £3000 bourbon? We think not.

Suggested retail prizes of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon whiskies

Image by Breaking Bourbon

The secondary market prices of Van Winkle's whiskey are so high that it's difficult to understand why people are willing to pay thousands of pounds for a bottle. Are they buying it to drink it, or to save it and make a profit in the future? It's hard to say.

Some people might suggest making more whiskey to meet the high demand, but it's not as simple as just distilling more. Some of the Pappy releases have to sit in the warehouse for 20-plus years before they are ready to be sold. Julian III, the man behind the brand, has made a very fair point about boosting production, stating that he doesn't know if people will still want the whiskey in 20 years. It's a long-term investment that might not pay off.

Despite the challenges, there are plans to make more bottles available. Buffalo Trace, the company that produces Van Winkle's, is aiming to increase production from 6,000-8,000 bottles in 2015 to 15,000 bottles by 2025. However, there will never be enough to meet the mass-market demand for this highly-sought-after whiskey.


In The End, What Makes Pappy so Valuable?

Pappy van winkle bourbon whiskey

Image by Gear Patrol

We have identified and simplified 3 key reasons for Pappy's evaluability:

  1. Limited Supply & Collectivity

  2. Reputation & Nostalgia

  3. Age & Strength

So, let us take a closer look at the points listed above.

1. Limited Supply & Collectivity

It has been established that only a few bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon are released every year, which is not enough to meet the current demand. Retailers are responsible for deciding who receives the bottles and there is often a lottery system in place. Some retailers prefer to give priority to regular customers or individuals who they believe will consume the whiskey rather than sell it. Ultimately, the winners of the lottery are free to do as they please with their Pappy Van Winkle bottle.

Pappy Van Winkle 20yo/ Stitzel-Weller distilled

Image by Liquor List - Pappy Van Winkle 20yo/ Stitzel-Weller distilled

Many people contact auction sites right after receiving their bottle of whiskey, while others choose to hold onto it. However, one thing has changed over the years - the whiskey is rarely ever drunk. There is simply too much money to be made by selling it, and for some, the thrill of owning a bottle of Pappy is enough. It's like owning a Maserati that is kept in a garage, polished occasionally but never taken out for a drive.

For those interested in whiskey history, collectability is also a major factor. There will always be collectors on the lookout for rare Stitzel-Weller bottlings who are ready to pay a hefty price for them. Some believe that even the latest bottlings will hold the liquid gold inside, but if you do the math, it becomes clear that the idea might be far-fetched.

2. Reputation & Nostalgia

Bourbon with a history like Pappy's attracts a following, especially in the US. Pappy Van Winkle represents family values and the idea that anything is possible - it is the Ultimate American Dream. For some, Pappy is a status symbol and a sign of good taste. Imagine a high-stakes meeting where a gentleman pours his guests some Pappy 23yo. Would you turn down the deal?

But how much of the hype is based on Pappy's celebrity status compared to the actual taste of the whisky? Some say they go hand-in-hand. After 1996, word got out that an old bourbon could be good, and it was picked up by influential people, including chefs. What came later was people convincing others that Pappy was the bourbon to have, ultimately building up its reputation as a whiskey unicorn.

Unicorn whiskey pappy van winkle

Image by GM Crafts/ The Whisky Ardvark (maybe this is not what they meant...)

3. Age & Strength

In the 1910s, Julian Van Winkle Sr. started distilling his Old Rip Van Winkle without the intention of creating old bourbons. It wasn't a popular drink back then, and most bourbons were aged for only three years due to climate and evaporation. However, the prohibition caused a mishap in the production process, and his Old Rip Van Winkle was accidentally overaged. He didn't continue making it after bottling what he already had. Today, his grandson honours his grandfather's mishap by including it in his commemorative range.

pappy van winkle label

Image by The Whisky Ardvark

In 1994, Julian III introduced the first 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, establishing the concept of older bourbons. This may have been influenced by the increasing interest in older single malts. The task of making it trendy took years.

Pappy and Old Rip Van Winkle have always stood out from other bourbons due to their bottling strength. The high-proof whiskey is challenging to the palate, making it both a strength and weakness from the early days. Julian Sr. started this tradition, which was followed by his son Julian Jr. and passed down to his son Julian III.

It is interesting to note that Julian III has never distilled whiskey himself. Though his grandfather and father were distillers, he has always been a whiskey maker who bottles and blends bourbon.


Is Pappy the Best Bourbon?

Is pappy van winkle the best bourbon?

Image by Forbes/ The Whisky Ardvark

There are many excellent bourbons available in the market and most of them are priced reasonably. It is important to keep in mind that what one person considers as the best might not be feasible or desirable for others. Ultimately, it all boils down to individual taste preferences.

In our opinion, the enthusiasm surrounding Van Winkle whiskies has not been beneficial for those who wish to relish it. We had the privilege of attending a tasting session of all the current Van Winkle expressions, in the presence of Preston Van Winkle himself. However, we were left somewhat underwhelmed. It was not the whiskey's fault that we felt let down, but our expectations were heightened by the hype surrounding it. It is similar to advertising a movie by saying that it is the best one ever made and that people will love it. But, after watching the movie, you might feel underwhelmed because it was overhyped, and your expectations were set too high before you could form your own opinion.

The current yearly expressions are as follows:

Van Winkle whiskey bourbon range

Image by Buffalo Trace/ The Whisky Ardvark

In case you're looking for a well-priced alternative to Pappy Van Winkle's wheated bourbons, W.L. Weller is always a great option - if you can get your hands on it.


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