Friday, October 18, 2013

The Purloined Pappy

Dear distilling industry,

Congratulations, we've done it. Through tireless hours of effort, propaganda, and branding, we have achieved something only the greatest of mankind can accomplish.

We have created a MONSTER.

I'm not talking about a blasphemous beverage of mind-boggling flavor profile (although Malibu Red is very close). Rather, I am talking about a waltzing juggernaut of soul-sucking depravity that can turn the best of humans into the worst. I'm talking about Pappy Van Winkle.

In case you didn't know...

Some of the most sought-after Kentucky bourbon in the nation is now the subject of a whodunnit.
Roughly 65 cases of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon were stolen in what looks to be an inside job from a secure area at Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Frankfort facility, according to Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton.
Melton said the theft was reported Tuesday and appears to have occurred over the past couple months. Detectives are investigating but have no suspects.
The thief or thieves made off with about $26,000 of the limited stock, which Melton said consists of about $25,350 in 3-bottle cases of 20-year-old Pappy and about $675 in nine cases of 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve rye. (courtesy of The Courier-Journal)

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this situation, really. I can't tell what the worst facet is. To start, there's the fact that $26,000 in whiskey was stolen. That's sad. There's also the fact that the estimated price works out to roughly $151 a bottle. That's heart-breaking. Or maybe the fact that it's clearly an inside job and that someone took the time to plan and orchestrate an inside robbery...for bourbon. That's a TRAVESTY.

To be fair, I can see their standpoint for stealing all that Pappy. While the article generously gives an estimated price per Pappy 20 year old as "$130 a bottle", it's more along the lines of the $200+ range. Because you can't get it. People sell empty bottles on Ebay for almost $100 just so you can either pass off cheaper bourbon as Pappy or...nefariously become an independent bottler. And the people that drink it...well...they're admirable people. The chef market has been hitting it hard. Anthony Bourdain constantly plies Eric Ripert with bottles of it on his various shows. I'm fairly sure Alton Brown's bowtie is just a Pappy flask. So you can see why it's celebrated. People with pretty good taste are willing to buy it.

But is this a good thing? Well, for the Van Winkle family...I guess it is. People want their stuff, even though they're getting mighty close to swapping out the Stitzel-Weller produced bourbon for Buffalo Trace bourbon at this point. Buffalo Trace is probably pretty happy as well (grand theft alcohol aside). But is it good for the industry?

Honestly, at this point I had to stop writing this and really think about it. It took me a few days of mulling it over to decide where I stand on it and here it is: it's bad...for the consumer. To have a product so in demand that no matter how many barrels are allocated it WILL sell out at a hefty premium (no wholesale discounts here) is a good thing for Buffalo Trace/Van Winkle family. It's cold hard cash. I doubt that even when the full switch to Buffalo Trace made/aged juice comes that people will stop buying it. It is more than a bourbon now. It is an industry myth. But for the consumer, this is a big step in a terrible direction. First off, be prepared to see bootlegs. If you can sell a 20 or a 23 year old bourbon for $600 a bottle, people WILL bootleg it. They will buy old Pappy bottles, fill them with whatever, and reseal it. Can't do much about that aside from flag the bottles on Ebay but even then there's a "legit" use of personal deception (i.e. people who care more about the status than the contents). And this brings about another point that is a sore contention with me. It's gonna start being...collected.

I hate collecting whisk(e)y. It's prevalent in the scotch industry but not so much in the bourbon industry...but this is the first step in that direction. I'm of the opinion that it was made to be consumed. I UNDERSTAND how it is a viable investment, I do. I just don't agree with it. It's like buying cigars as an investment or fancy cars as an investment. It's a luxury product, get some luxury from it. That and the fact that each bottle represents a small slice of history, of what was going on 15, 20, 23 years ago. When I did my stint at the bottling room in Tuthilltown this feeling continued to pervade my thoughts. As I labeled, signed, and numbered each bottle I realized that each of those wee little bottles was the culmination of not just time and effort...but atmosphere. Some of those bottles were bathed in the dulcet tones of Ozzy Osbourne. They suffered through iteration after iteration of "The Regular Show" quotes. They represented a snapshot of a day, that brief glimpse of the mundane that is taken for granted. Don't lose that. That's terrible. Storing away those little moments to never be shared, to never see the light of day again...I find it reprehensible. In the best of allegory sense (if you've read Harry Potter), every bottle is a tiny little Pensieve that can be revisited and savored. Or forgotten on a shelf like a share of stock.

Another thing that bothers me is that there is an increasing divide between accessibility of whiskey to the consumer. Bourbon, in its truest roots, is moonshine refined. The south was predominantly filled with Scotch and Irish settlers after the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. In order to not pay taxes...they just left the colonies and headed into the wilds. Over time, the spirit grew to become the corn based beauty we know today. It is humble in its origins and its manufacture is even more humble. It is a combination of multiple grains, most of which are government subsidized. So, at it's crux, it should be affordable. But this increasing separation of "ulta-premium" is worrying. The most affordable ultra premium for your standard consumer is the Buffalo Trace Antique collection and even that's $80 a pop (but so worth it). It also worries me about what they'll be TRYING to push the ultra-premium category. My guess is extended aging and that is not something I'm comfortable with. Buffalo Trace does a fine job because their dedication to barrel monitoring is astoundingly rigorous (even if their application of scientific theory leaves me wanting). But what of everyone else? Will people be soon paying for nigh-undrinkable barrel squeezings at $200 a bottle just to let it sit on a shelf?

Finally, there's this:

"It's the pinnacle of bourbon," gushed Fischer. "If you're around a bottle, it's a special occasion." Melton said officials are in the early stages of the investigation, and will be on the lookout for any bottles popping up on the black market.

But the thief might not be in any rush, Fischer said.

"If you keep bourbon in the right conditions, it will be good forever."

"You have to wonder what's going to happen to the 195 stolen bottles," said Kit Codik, CEO of the all-things cocktail website "It's like when a van Gogh goes missing: Where does that rare piece of art end up? I have no idea." (courtesy of CNN)

I will give it that it could be construed as a piece of art, yes. I find that distilling is about 25% art, 75% science. But is this the top of the top? Is this where we stop? Is this REALLY the pinnacle of what bourbon can do? I don't think so. I hope not. As someone who is thoroughly enthralled in R&D, I PRAY it isn't. We have so far to go. Bourbon is a fledgeling spirit in terms of the world and we're just starting to stretch our legs. I dunno WHERE we're going to go with it (more on this later, trust me)...but we have room to grow. A lot of room. So I disagree that it's the "pinnacle" of bourbon. To call Pappy the pinnacle of bourbon means we're only on the decline. Don't cap us so soon. We can, and will, keep pushing limits and boundaries to make better, tastier product.

All this being said...I still want a bottle.


  1. My wife got me a bottle of the 23-yr a couple of Christmases ago. I managed to make it last almost for a full year, and it was probably the best whiskey I've ever had. But it's certainly not worth the outrageous price, in my opinion.

    So you're saying I could sell the empty bottle? That's crazy. And I'd feel super-guilty about being a part of scamming someone else out of their money like that.

    1. Yep. And get yourself a nice little treat with the proceeds: