I hesitate to even write about Pappy since most liquor stores never even put the bottles on their shelves before they're all gone to customers who preordered and/or begged a bottle. If you see a bottle in the wild (call me!), odds are that it will be on the top shelf of a high-end bar like City House, Whiskey Kitchen or The Patterson House. That's the best chance you'll probably have to try some any time soon.
So what makes this stuff so special? Van Winkle offers several different bourbons that are aged a minimum of 10 years in charred mountain oak barrels. According to their website, "These lightly charred barrels give the whiskey a smoother flavor than most other whiskies on the market today. Each warm and cold season that the whiskey passes through the charcoal layer of the oak barrel staves, the spirit picks up color and a new richness-layer of flavor."
The process also ensures that Pappy Van Winkle products are really expensive. As their motto says, "We make fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon." The finest is their 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve. A cult favorite among bourbon lovers and the chef community, Pappy 23 was named "Spirit of the Year" in 2010. Some people will tell you that whiskey doesn't get any better after about 14 years in the barrel, but Van Winkle products are the exceptions to the rule.
Because they are made with wheat instead of rye as a secondary component to corn, Pappy can take advantage of the extra time in oak to develop even more complex characters and a sweetness that rye whiskeys cannot achieve. The result is a deep amber whiskey that has hints of honey and a lo-o-o-o-ng spicy finish. I was lucky enough to be given a bottle last year by a good friend, and I almost lost another good friend over it when he attempted to mix it with Sprite Zero. Fortunately, we tackled him before he could befoul Pappy.
But assuming you don't have an inside track to a distributor or a generous friend who lives in California, how can you get a little slice of the Pappy experience? Well, you can certainly visit the aforementioned bars where you might find 10-, 12-, 15- or maybe even 20-year-old Van Winkle, but I suggest that you look for it soon, because they'll sell out too. Another option is to try another wheated whiskey like W.L. Weller for a lot less money.
The original Pappy was a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons for years, so it shouldn't be surprising that the products are very similar in character. A 12-year-old bottle of Weller will probably set you back $25-$30, about half what you could expect to pay for a similarly aged Van Winkle product and about 10 percent of the cost of Pappy 23. While the Weller isn't quite as complex, it still demonstrates many of the same sweet and buttery components as more expensive wheated whiskeys and looks almost as pretty in the glass. And since both products are made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, it's a pretty good bet that the ingredients are pretty similar.
Some people drive Fords. Personally, I was a Mercury man. My boss always drove Lincolns. Even though they came off the same assembly line, each brand had its own unique character, so pick which one best suits you. If I had my druthers, though, I'd be tooling around in my Mark VI with a glass of Pappy.