This goes out to Louisville’s fans of high-end boutique bourbon whiskey: there’s some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that the greater Louisville area is probably the best place to stock up on the increasingly rare Van Winkle line of brown liquor.
The bad news is that though the bulk of the 2008 release hit the shelves earlier this fall, it’s probably gone by now.
Sometime in September, bottles of Van Winkle’s award-winning bourbons and rye whiskey appeared in local liquor stores, only to vanish as quickly as it appeared.
“We hate it, but There’s only so much of it. You’ve gotta be quick,” said Julian Van Winkle, third generation whiskey man and president of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.” I spend a lot of my time trying not to make people mad.”
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 year, heralded by premium spirit fanatics as some of the world’s best bourbon, runs right about $100 when you can find it locally. Once it hits the secondary market (such as online auction sites like ebay) prices skyrocket to double or triple the original price. Bottles of Van Winkle’s priciest bourbon — the 23-year old Pappy — will cost you about $200 in Kentucky and $400 in Manhattan liquor stores.
Van Winkle currently releases only 6000 cases of whiskey annually. Once people get a taste of it, they want more and when they can’t get it, frustration ensues.
Luckily for Kentuckians, Van Winkle’s good stuff is still relatively affordable and available inside the commonwealth. You’ve just got to know when (and where) to look.
Julian Van Winkle III runs the modern-day operation — officially the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery — with his 31-year old Preston out of a nondescript office on Brownsboro Road. They hold the titles of President and Marketing Director, respectively, and represent the third and fourth generations of Van Winkles in the Kentucky bourbon business.
Two generations earlier in 18XX, Julian Van Winkle Senior (known to the family as Pappy) entered the liquor trade as a salesman for the W.L. Weller company in Louisville. Over time, Van Winkle and a partner bought controlling interest in the business, acquired Weller’s production distillery (named for A.P. Stitzel), and combined the operations as Stitzel-Weller. Eventually the Stitzel-Weller enterprise moved to a new distillery south Louisiville and produced W.L. Weller, Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
The Van Winkle’s bourbons all fit into the “wheated” style of American whiskies, which adds wheat to the more traditional corn and malted barley in the whiskey’s mash recipe. Wheat is considered to provide a softer flavor to the final product. The gold standard for the Van Winkles are the “Stitzel-Weller barrels” — whiskey made according to the family recipe and traditions.
In the decades since Pappy passed away in 1961, ownership of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery passed to an international whiskey conglomerate, control passed from Julian, Sr. to his son, and finally to current president Julian, III. The family tradition continued through lean years and location shifts — from the south Louisville complex to a small bottling plant in Lawrenceberg, KY. In 2002, the two-man Van Winkle operation entered a joint operations venture with the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort (formerly Ancient Age), where the new Van Winkle whiskey is distilled, aged, and bottled.
Compared to its competitors in the state, Van Winkle’s scale is among the smallest, with an annual production of six thousand cases for all of its six offerings — from the 10-year Rip Van Winkle to the coveted 23-year Pappy.
Filling up on premium
One of Julian Sr’s business philosophies was “sell premium whiskey and keep it in seemingly short supply,” an adaptation of the classic supply-and-demand equation that foreshadowed the rise of the boutique bourbon industry.
Spurred by the popularity of single malt Scotch whiskies in the 1990s, drinkers started to reconsider the virtues of the native spirits. This curiosity turned to obsession and launched the now-familiar premium categories of bourbon — small batch, single barrel, limited release.
“It’s around here somewhere. ” says Van Winkle. He flips a set of green cardboard sheets that form the companies pre-computer accounting system. ” This is a list of every bottle from the early days.”
The first of the Van Winkle’s highly aged bourbons — Pappy’s Family Reserve 20 year — hit the market in the mid-1990s at the price of $42.50 a bottle. Today, the retail price is $100.
“We just wanted to see if people would like it,” he said. “We were basically giving it away.”
In short order, the 20-year attracted attention from prestigious publications and competition judges. In 1997, the Wine Enthusiast magazine gave the bourbon a near perfect 99 rating in its new Luxury Bourbon category.
As time passed, Van Winkle bourbons collected awards such as multiple Best in Class medals at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, Best New American Whiskey from Food and Wine magazine and “best in tasting” nods from the New York Time’s chief wine critic, Eric Asimov.
The growing community of fine bourbon aficionados started to recognize the brands with a shorthand reference to the company’s founder — “Pappy 20,” “Pappy 23.” Bartenders and liquor store owners presented Van Winkle’s products as the pinnacle of the bourbon maker’s craft.
“Van Winkles make a superior product,” said food and spirits writer Fred Thompson, author of Bourbon (Harvard Commons Press, 2009). “There’s a distinction and quality that goes into each one. They’re so well blended, they have a honey nose and a vanilla finish that expresses the complexity of great bourbon.”
And with each passing year, the brand remains a standby on most bottle-lined backbars in the commonwealth and extends its reach and demand among deep-pocketed bourbon geeks around the world.
And that, for the Van Winkles and their fans, has become part of the problem.
“Subject to Availability”
With a constant small supply and demand that grows with every magazine mention and tasting award, the good stuff goes quickly. And as demand increases, so do street prices and the headaches that go with an enthusiastic following.
The long aging process gives any Kentucky bourbon its dictinctive character, but for fervent customers and the store owners that serve them, that can often mean frustration. Fifteen-year-old whiskey takes fifteen years to age, and there’s no way of shortcutting what Pappy Van Winkle’s referred to as whiskey’s friends — Mother Nature and Father Time.
“I spend most of my time trying to talk people down from being mad,” said Julian. “We try to be fair with who gets what, but there’s only so much to go around.”
To run a business based on short stocks means that Juian and his son Preston have to toe a fine line when it comes to promotion and distribution.
“I went to business school at UK, and when I came to work here I had to throw 90 percent of what I learned out the window,” said Preston Van Winkle. “Textbook business practices just doesn’t work in the bourbon business.”
The pair estimates that they would need three or four times their existing stock to fill international interest in the various bourbons.
“We’re getting requests every day from distributors in Engand, India, Spain, Israel, the Ukraine…” says Preston. “But we just don’t have the juice.
On the Shelf, Behind the bar
Luckily for bourbon lovers in the Bluegrass State, Kentucky recieves the largest allocation of Van Winkle’s stock every year. Van Winkle estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the bourbons released end up in kentucky’s bars or liquor stores, more than the next two markets — New York and Chicago — combined.
Van Winkle’s yearly release is functionally split into four batches — two in September and November (each representing about 35% of the total release) and two more in spring (about 15% apiece).
If they released them all at once, the year’s supply would be snapped up by lurking bourbon lovers. The four-stage release, though frustrating to some retailers, ensures a measured supply through the winter holiday season and Lousiville’s trademark spring event, the Kentucky Derby.
“But people still get frustrated,” said Julian with a shrug. “When people are waiting for that fall allocation to hit, you can’t find it anywhere.”
The Van Winkles try to offset liquor store frustrations by making sure that local bars, restaurants and other on-premise accounts have a consistent supply of their bourbons.
“We hate to do it, but once the supply gets too low, we have to cut off the liquor stores.”" said Julian. “If you’ve got a bottle on a bar, then ten people get to taste it — once it hits the liquor store shelves, one guy buys a bottle and drinks it all.”
Playing the short side
Despite the frustrations of working with high demand and a very short supply of his family’s bourbon, Julian says that it beats the alternative.
“This can get bad, but you don’t want to be stuck sitting on a lake of whiskey, no matter what. I’ve been there, and it’ll keep you from sleeping at night.”
At this point in the business cycle, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real danger of a surplus. Even with plans to increase production by over sixty percent by 2020, buyers will likely wait patiently for each successive release. And as the word spreads — the popular lifestyle Garden and Gun recently recommended the 20-year in its “Best of the South” issue — demand will likely continue to outstrip supply.
“In my lifetime,this brand will always be in short supply,” said Van Winkle. “but given the option, I like to run it on the short side. It’s a lot more fun that way.”