Food writer Warren Bobrow has a sure-fire trick for scoring face-time with even the most in-demand personalities at events like the recent Charleston Wine + Food Festival in South Carolina. His introductory email begins: “I’m bringing a couple of bottles of Pappy down with me. Let’s have a drink.”
The Pappy in question is Pappy Van Winkle, whose star shines brighter than any other in the constellation of small-batch bourbons. Over the past five years, it has achieved what can only be called a cult following. Pappy fans text and tweet each other in desperate search for a bottle for an upcoming gathering. At liquor stores throughout the South, new shipments sell out the day they hit the shelves. In far-off regions like New York City, some owners don’t even put it on display, keeping it discretely under the counter for special customers.
At Charleston’s Husk bar, they serve so much of the stuff that they managed to secure an entire barrel from the Van Winkle family. Sixty-five bucks will buy you a splendidly smooth 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Reserve or, for an extra $20, you can upgrade to the 23-year-old variety. And that’s for a single glass, not a bottle.
It’s not just for show. “We actually sell quite a bit of the 23-year-old,” say Dan Latimer, Husk’s general manager. “We definitely made a decision to put bourbon center stage.”
The barrel of Pappy Van Winkle at the Husk bar is just one indicator of a rising passion for slow-aged corn whiskey.
“It’s definitely made a comeback,” says Tim Willard, another Charleston bartender. He notes that while longtime bourbon drinkers “tend to have the one brand they like and don’t stray too far from it,” bourbon is winning new converts, too, thanks in part to the resurgence of craft cocktails.
The Big Business of Bourbon
It hasn’t always been this way. The liquor that Congress declared to be “America’s Native Spirit” in 1964 has had a rather rocky go of things over the past century.
Bourbon was born in the late 18th century in the hills of Kentucky when Scotch-Irish settlers applied their traditional distilling techniques to corn, the grain they had on hand in their new home. The real boom for “Old Bourbon” whiskey—named for the area around Bourbon County, Ky.—came in the last decades of the 19th century, as thousands of new distilleries were built and new brands were launched, many of which are still popular today.
Prohibition put most of the old Kentucky firms out of business forever. In the wake of Repeal, many of the distilleries and brands were consolidated into the portfolios of a few large companies like Schenley, National Distillers and Seagrams. At the same time, imported Scotch, gin, and Canadian whiskey poured into the American market and left bourbon makers—whose products had to age for years in barrels before coming to market—struggling to catch up. The post-War era of cocktail parties and three-martini lunches only cemented America’s preference for clear, dry liquors like gin and the newly introduced vodka.
By the 1980s, things looked pretty grim. International conglomerates were buying and selling bourbon brands like so many baseball cards, shuffling them from one balance sheet to another and squeezing out the few remaining family-run distilleries. For wealthy consumers, a single-malt Scotch had become the hip way to prove connoisseurship, while out in the bars the younger crowd was ordering ever more vodka and rum.
But the bourbon makers weren’t quite ready to quit. They went after the Scotch-sippers first, introducing small batch and “special reserve” lines—what’s known in the trade as the high-end and super-premium categories. It worked. By the late 1990s, affluent drinkers were passing up the Macallan and the Laguvulin in favor of a few fingers of Blanton’s or Baker’s over a single cube of ice. Today, you can walk into your neighborhood liquor store and see row after row of bourbon bottles from dozens of different brands, some with the kinds of prices once commanded by only the rarest of single malts.
If you look closely at the labels, you might notice that this flourishing of brands comes primarily from just a few large companies. Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Baker’s and Maker’s Mark are all from Beam, Inc., while Heaven Hill produces Elijah Craig and Evan Williams, and Brown-Forman owns Jack Daniel’s, Early Times, and Woodford Reserve. The old mid-market brands have launched a whole series of premium “line extensions,” too, like the six varieties of Jim Beam, which range from the original four-year-old white label bourbon to the eight-year-old double-aged black label.
The growth in the high-end market, though, has made room for some new players, and a series of smaller, more artisanal distillers have started making their way into the market, like Angel’s Envy from the Louisville Distilling Company and the Garrison Brothers from all the way down in the Texas Hill Country.
Nowhere is bourbon’s resurgence stronger than in the South, where whiskey sipping has been elevated to a high-art and America’s native spirit finds itself not only in upscale bars but even on the menus at the toniest fine-dining restaurants.
Old Rip Van Winkle Wakes Up
Bourbon sales have continued to grow over the past decade, driven primarily by the high-end and super-premium brands. And the most premium of those super-premiums is Pappy Van Winkle. It’s the product of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, a two-person firm comprised of President Julian Van Winkle III and his son, Preston, who serves as marketing manager.
The Van Winkle family has a long history in the bourbon trade. Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle got his start in the business in 1893 as a 19-year-old traveling salesman for the Weller & Sons wholesale house in Louisville. After 15 years, he pooled his funds with his friend Alex Farnsley and bought the wholesale house. After riding out Prohibition, they bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, creating the Stitzel-Weller company, whose brands included W. L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
At its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, Stitzel-Weller was producing 800,000 cases of bourbon a year, and Pappy himself remained closely involved in its operations until his death in 1965 at the age of 91. Pappy’s son, Julian Jr., ran the company until 1971, when he was forced by stockholders to sell to the Norton Simon conglomerate, and the rights to their old brands eventually ended up in the hands of various other companies.
“The bourbon business was not very good in the early ’70s,” recalls Julian Van Winkle III. “It was fighting white whiskey, it was fighting vodkas.”
His father, Julian Jr., awakened “Old Rip Van Winkle”—a pre-Prohibition brand whose rights the family still owned—from its decades-long slumber and packaged it in specialized decanters adorned with wildlife images of university logos. Julian III took the reins when his father passed away in 1981. At that time, almost no one was selling long-aged bourbon, and Van Winkle started buying up old inventory from struggling distilleries, particularly those selling his family’s old brands, which had been sitting in barrels for years.
In the mid-1990s, the company launched its Pappy Van Winkle line of aged bourbons. Named after the family patriarch, they’re different from ordinary bourbons for two reasons: their formula and their age.
Most bourbons are made with at least 51 percent corn and then rye and barley. The Van Winkle whiskeys are “wheated,” meaning they’re made with wheat instead of rye as the secondary grain. “Pappy only sold the wheated bourbon whiskey and that was his favorite,” Julian III says. It makes for a smoother, more mellow bourbon. “It ages more gracefully than a rye bourbon and picks up less of the wood and charcoal flavor from the barrels.”
Graceful aging is the second key. To be called a bourbon, corn whiskey has to age in new charred-oak barrels for at least four years. Most of the ultra-premium bourbons produced by the major distilleries are six to eight years old. The youngest sold by Van Winkle is the 10-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle, while the Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve line has 15-, 20-, and 23-year-old versions.
Does it really make that much of a difference? Enough to invest months of time cultivating a relationship with your local liquor store owner or plunking down a cool $85 for a single slug at the bar?
The popularity of the brand provides the answer. Sometimes it seems about the only way to get your hands on some Pappy Van Winkle is at large food and wine events where premium liquors also take center state. The Rip Van Winkle Distillery makes only 7,000 cases of bourbon annually, while the demand seems to be growing every year.
“We apologize for the scarcity,” Julian Van Winkle III tells fans of his family’s bourbon. “Most of the liquor stores are mad at us, and the consumers are mad at us, too.”
But their hands are tied. They have upped the amount of bourbon they put away each year, but it takes at least a decade in the barrel to be ready for market. “We’re just stuck with what we have.”
Here’s an insider tip on scoring a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle at your local liquor store: The company releases its bourbon twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. First, they sample bourbons from various barrels to determine which ones are ready for market, then they bottle it and finally release an allocation to the distributors for each state.
It’s up to the distributors to schedule their pick-up times and get it back to the stores in their respective states. Watch the company’s Facebook site. They’ll announce when each state’s allocation ships, and you can start staking out your local liquor store and hounding the owner for your bottle.
As of press time, the spring allocations had just been released to distributors and pickups were being scheduled.
Bourbon’s Next Shot
Is bourbon’s recent revival just a fad, or can the old-time liquor of the South keep this two-decade run going?
Julian Van Winkle III is optimistic. “It just seems to be getting more popular all the time,” he says. “We’re seeing no slow down in demand at all.”
More people in their 20s and 30s are ordering bourbon these days, some taking it on the rocks or with just a splash of water and others mixing it in an ever-expanding array of inventive cocktails.
Indeed, there’s a subtlety and authenticity to a liquor that gets its flavoring from years spent in charred oak rather than blasts of sugary goo. In many ways bourbon seems like the ideal spirit for our times.
Brooks Reitz, a native Kentuckian and bar manager, sees bourbon as perfectly in line with his restaurant’s ingredients-centric philosophy. “These days, it’s all about the heritage breeds of pork, the small batches, and artisanal products ... it’s all led back naturally to good, small-batch bourbon.”
That aesthetic is finding an appeal outside the South, too. Just as they are embracing stone-ground grits and pimento cheese, consumers are discovering the delights of bourbon. Exports have boomed over the past decade, with a 17 percent rise in 2011 alone. Distillers are banking on big growth in China and India, and they’ve been investing heavily in increasing production capacity, like the $50 million expansion that doubled the output of the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky.
It seems that some exciting years lie ahead for America’s native spirit. “I don’t see it fading any time soon,” Dan Latimer of Charleston’s Husk says. “With the artistry that goes into bourbon, the history, the fact that the general public is getting more educated about it ... it’s here to stay.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Charleston City Paper.