Searching for the elusive Pappy Van Winkle bourbon

On the hunt in Baltimore for the highly sought-after bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve.

Typically, I would consider an $80 before-tip bar tab a serious issue, especially if only receiving three liquid ounces in return.

Then again, there's very little typical about Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, some of the most coveted bourbon in the world.

After learning about the brand during a trip to visit family in Louisville, Ky., I was ready to try it in Baltimore. Ask around enough and you'll likely find it, as I did at Johnny's in Roland Park on a recent weekday.

But before a taste, it’s important to understand the history and hype — and how that has led to eye-popping prices and a near-mythical reputation.

Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. founded the brand in the late 1800s, and his son sold his father’s distillery and the rights to their brands, except one, in the 1970s, according to the brand’s website.

That lone brand the family kept is called Old Rip Van Winkle, which now produces six types of whiskey, including the holy trinity: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons that have been aged 15, 20 and 23 years. (The others include the less-rare 10-year and 12-year bourbons, and a rye.) A Washington Post story from 2014 reported only 7,500 cases of Van Winkle bourbon are shipped a year.

The scarcity — along with vocal celebrity fans like chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, and a widely reported heist of more than 200 bottles in 2013 — has made Pappy Van Winkle a cult hit in an industry with no shortage of new brands.

(The Sazerac Company, a spirits conglomerate, entered a joint venture with the Old Rip Van Winkle Company in the early 2000s, according to reports. Every Van Winkle product is produced now at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Ky. A spokeswoman for both companies declined comment for this story.)

In recent years, as bourbon has risen in popularity, so has consumers searching for rare products like Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, said Tom Fischer, who created in 2005.

The result is a secondary market selling these bourbons at prices as high as $2,000-$3,000 per 750ML bottle, he said. (Suggested retail prices for 15-year, 20-year and 23-year respectively are $79.99, $149.99 and $249.99, according to a news release from October.) He’s seen shots of the 23-year-old sell for a couple hundred dollars at bars in Louisville and Manhattan.

Fischer said the product’s smooth flavor (a result of using wheat instead of rye in the recipe's mash) and overall high quality justify the suggested retail prices, but not what resellers seek.

“I think when we get up to really, really high numbers — we’re talking a couple thousand bucks a bottle — to me, there’s not much that’s worth that,” Fischer said. “There are too many other good whiskeys and spirits that I can buy for cheaper.”

Reasonable thinking, sure, but it hasn’t stopped the curious from ordering it. Blue Pit BBQ in Hampden received a single bottle of the 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, and sold it for $50 per shot — not an uncommon mark-up around here. (At Azumi in Harbor East, a pour of 15-year is $64. Even non-Family Reserve products regularly get the uptick treatment; at Ouzo Bay in Harbor East, a pour of the 10-year is $40.)

At Blue Pit, it was gone in two weeks.

Co-owner Dave Newman called it “a great bourbon” but has other bourbons on his shelf — like Buffalo Trace’s George T. Stagg — he prefers. Still, he’s never heard a complaint about the taste of Pappy Van Winkle from customers.

“They always love it,” Newman said. “They always say it’s worth the money.”

I wanted to find out for myself, so I had a Johnny’s bartender pour an ounce-and-a-half of the 15-year and the 20-year, each neat — the best way to appreciate the flavors.

I consider myself a bourbon fan, and on first sip, the 15-year ($28) seemingly recalibrated my taste and expectations in seconds. The aging, which is longer than most brands, developed a buttery, deep oak flavor and an unmistakable richness. This is significant-occasion, maybe once-in-a-lifetime bourbon, and not a-long-week-at-the-office bourbon.

The 20-year ($46) was equally wonderful, but for other reasons. The finish lasted longer, so the flavors — still buttery, but with a more pronounced citrus nose and an almost vanilla finish — lingered enough to cherish. While the 15-year still had a slight hint of whiskey burn, the 20-year’s rich body reminded me of a fine wine. It was an experience, but I would have happily stuck with the 15-year at its price.

Pricing is up to the bar, so I suggest digging around a bit. Initially, the key is to locate the bourbon, which can be a struggle in itself since only select bars have it, and when they do it rarely lasts. Strike up a conversation with the bartender at your favorite whiskey haunt. Lindsay Willey, chief sommelier of Foreman Wolf, which owns Johnny’s, Charleston and other Baltimore restaurants, also suggests keeping an eye on social media.

“I definitely notice on Instagram when it’s out in the city,” Willey said. “I see a lot of people posting it. I think word travels and people seek it out.”

Bartenders and experts seem to agree that a reasonably priced taste of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, whatever the age, is worth it. It gives bourbon fans the chance to try something considered the best of the best. Just don’t let it ruin bourbon for you moving forward.

“If you have the chance to try it, especially if somebody else is buying — anyone — try it,” Fischer said with a laugh. “If you’ve never tried much bourbon, it’s phenomenal to try. You just may be setting your standards pretty high.”

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Where to find Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve

• Johnny’s (4800 Roland Ave., Roland Park; has the 15-year ($28) and 20-year ($46).

• Bookmakers Cocktail Club (31 E. Cross St., Federal Hill; offers single-ounce pours of the 15-year ($44) and the 23-year ($100).

• Azumi (725 Aliceanna St., Harbor East, has $15-year ($64).

• Dry 85 (193 Main St., Annapolis, only offers a flight consisting of the 15-year, along with the Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year and Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year, for $150.

(While supplies last)