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.