October 22, 2013 by Bourbon Empire
The recent theft of about $26,000 worth of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon from the Buffalo Trace Distillery is sure to increase the mystique this brand enjoys. I’m not sure it can take any more mystique. It has jumped the shark.
That’s not to say Pappy still doesn’t offer a venerable line of products. All the Pappys in the 15-year and up range are outstanding, but honestly, probably not worth the bother at this point. It takes a ton of effort to even find them, and then a ton of cash once you do. You can probably add “hype” to the taste profile, alongside caramel, cinnamon, and nougat. Don’t think you can taste hype? Most sensory scientists and psychologists would disagree.
The constellation of newspaper articles surrounding the recent theft have once again regurgitated the ramblings of a few celebrity chefs about how Pappy is “the most complex bourbon you’ve ever tasted” and so on and so forth. The way they talk, you’d think it’s the bourbon equivalent of eating a Faberge egg for breakfast.
Sure, it’s good, but the best? Perhaps, but for me the best is determined by time, place, mood, weather, and a host of other factors. Sometimes it’s something old and grippy. Sometimes it’s something on the young and spiky side.
Before Pappy jumped the shark, however, I enjoyed quite a bit of it. That was roughly before about five years ago, when I could still readily find it any time of year for around $75. It was a special buy, but one that I often passed on in favor of other bottles. Did I like it? Yes. Do I miss it now? No.
It seems like the people who haven’t had it are the ones who really miss it. And I can’t blame them — the sting of curiosity about this stuff can cut pretty deep. They’ve heard a bunch of TV chefs tell their trillions of Twitter followers how great it is. Like the executive assistant mentioned in the NY Times piece on the theft, searching for a bottle to give her boss, who else are they going to listen to? Nothing against her, she’s just looking for a nice gift from a product line she might not know much about.
TV chefs — the almighty oracles of food wisdom and the ultimate tastemakers.
And that’s sort of what Pappy has become: a very good whiskey that’s been hyped into oblivion. The result has been a perfect storm of ridiculous. The brand is small enough to be exclusive, but not so small that it’s literally impossible to find. That gives it a kind of magic that has rubbed off on anything with the Van Winkle name on it. I’m afraid that a flurry of forces outside the control of Buffalo Trace may have turned Pappy into a sucker’s buy.
Writing a book about bourbon, I have the honor of speaking with a ton of people with unique insights about this stuff. I like to think of them as bourbon “Jedis,” able to see clearly through the fog and get to the heart of things related to bourbon. They’re light years beyond “best” lists and the ramblings of lifestyle websites. They give Pappy praise, but I’m starting to detect some eye rolls as well. It’s gone over the value line — that’s even if you factor in marginal value, rarity, and other individual considerations that make Pappy’s real “worth” a little harder to quantify.
One distiller I interviewed months ago had high praise for the 15-year, but found the 23-year “almost undrinkable.” He thought it was too woody. I was startled by the comment, and don’t entirely agree. Undrinkable? Then I had to smile, glad he had the guts to say it, while I imagined how some might harumph all over that statement, sputtering, “But, but, but…it’s the ‘best.'”