Say the words “Pappy Van Winkle” in front of the right person, and you may just have a fanatic on your hands.

This famous and rare whiskey has been the sort of thing whiskey enthusiasts discuss amongst themselves as a spirit to end all spirits. The unique flavor and, perhaps more importantly, the scarcity of this drink has much to do with the reason it has become such a mystery to many.

Which is why it has many people asking; what exactly is Pappy Van Winkle? And is it as good as all of these people have made it out to be?

We’ve taken a deep dive into the world of rare whiskey to uncover the truth behind this drink, the creators, and whether or not it is worth skipping out on that next vacation for you to drink. We’ll also be going into how it compares to other whiskeys similar to it and hopefully coming to a conclusion that can put the issue of this famous drink to rest.


Like we said, this particular drink is whiskey, and perhaps more specifically, a bourbon.

Bourbon is a very specific type of whiskey that needs to be made with several conditions in mind for it to carry the bourbon title. And in case you were wondering, yes—this is all legal.

Who Makes Pappy Van Winkle and How Are They Different?

Like we said, this particular drink is whiskey, and perhaps more specifically, a bourbon.

Bourbon is a very specific type of whiskey that needs to be made with several conditions in mind for it to carry the bourbon title. And in case you were wondering, yes—this is all legal.

Bourbon must be:

  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from at least 51% corn mash
  • Distilled to a maximum of 80% alcohol by volume
  • Made in new, charred oak barrels

If a spirit meets these specific requirements, it can carry the bourbon name. And while bourbon is not known to be a drink for the rich, Pappy Van Winkle certainly is.

The drink is made by Buffalo Trace Distillery, out in Frankfort, Kentucky. It is a part of the Van Winkle bourbons that are produced by the company, and while the name may seem monolithic, there is more than one kind of Van Winkle.

Van Winkle can be purchased in 23 Year, 20 Year, or 15 Year makes. The drink is also marketed as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and only a limited quantity of the stuff can be found in stores across the nation and world. However, more on this later.

The Buffalo Trace Distillery sets itself apart as a distillery that isn’t afraid to keep things old school. While the demand is certainly there for their creations, the distillery keeps things small, in-house, and in the family.

Van Winkle is the name of the family which owns the rights to making their bourbons. And Pappy, of course, is the patriarch of it all—coming up the original recipe for this drink well over 100 years ago.

Pappy’s motto was to make fine bourbon—at a profit, at a loss, but always fine bourbon. That tradition and work ethic is what kept the Van Winkle in the bourbon business both in its booms as well as in crashes.

Van Winkle is unique as a company and as a family in their ability to persevere through the ages. Now on its fourth generation, the family has a consistent appreciation for the techniques and styles sent down by the patriarch and work hard to make their product as far-reaching as possible.

However, it would not be unreasonable as to say that the family has decided to stay relatively below the radar. As they state on their website, it is more so about ensuring the quality of the bourbon never changes then it is about making a drink that many would consider premium.

However, intention or not, Van Winkles drinks, Pappy or otherwise, are very much considered premium products. And while we’ll be getting into the specifics of that quality a little bit later on, the important thing to remember about the Van Winkle’s is that they won’t be going into mass production anytime soon.

What Makes the Pappy Van Winkle Unique

All of that being said about the family, what makes this Kentucky bourbon unique?

This mostly has to do with the means of making the whiskey itself. “Pappy,” as the bourbon’s title is often shortened to, is not made with traditional bourbon ingredients.

Standard bourbon is made with corn, rye, and barley. However, the Van Winkle patriarch demanded a sweeter bourbon made from barley malt, corn, and wheat, and the company has been using these mixtures ever since.

Pappy is also unique, in large part, due to its scarcity. Only a handful of barrels are available to the public each year, and typically released in the fall season.

The Buffalo Trace Distillery makes efforts to sell their range at a reasonable price when considering the scarcity of the drink, but it is not uncommon for retailers to mark up the price or only offer a bottle or two or sale in their stores. For this reason, surging prices are very much common with this Kentucky bourbon.

The difficulty in tracking down Van Winkle is very much what makes Van Winkle unique—so much so, that theft and counterfeits are well-known to be a major problem.

In 2013, for instance, several cases of Pappy were stolen right from the distillery throughout several months. And while most of the cases were eventually found, the perpetrators were a part of an advanced organized crime ring.

And once your bourbon is the target of organized crime, you know you’ve made a good product.

Pricing

pouring alcohol drink

All of this talk about the scarcity of Pappy would lead many to wonder just how much this bourbon is sold for.

And while Pappy is known to be one of the most expensive Kentucky bourbons in the world, the retail price is anything from it.

The distillery is quick to point out on their website that their listing of Pappy is never more than a few hundred dollars. And while this makes Pappy a premium bourbon, it is still far lower in cost than what you may find Pappy online for.

So, when discussing Pappy’s price point, it is usually more helpful to see what the resale value is. Retailers are often quick to mark up the suggested price point and even refuse to sell the product publicly—either keeping it to themselves or going online for the best price possible.

And when it comes to the online price, the options are certainly not cheap. Even empty bottles sell for hundreds of dollars online, and entire applications have been developed to find the stuff. Some connoisseurs have even been known to fly across the country to find a bottle.

At the end of the day, even if you have the money to put up, finding the stuff is not cheap. Which begs the question—is it even worth it?

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Public Perception

glass of whiskey with ice cubes

Addressing the public perception of Pappy is difficult because, in reality, it is not exactly a public bourbon. Still, reports of the taste are about as enamored and positive as you may have been expecting.

The nose, or smell, of Pappy is often regarded to be a sweet affair. A rich sweetness is reported, including notes of caramel, vanilla, and even a toffee-like aroma. These notes are continued forward into the taste, in which the spice is often a backseat for the various complexities of the patriarch’s formula.

The finish has a bit of a spicy kick to it, which is indicative or bourbons, but the wheat mixed in with Pappy’s formula takes the edge off of this aspect quite a bit. Overall, this Kentucky bourbon is as sweet as it is complex, developed, and most importantly, enjoyable.

Those who have gotten a chance to taste and truly enjoy a bottle of Pappy report that it might be the best bourbon available on the market today. Pappy is also widely sought after in bars that may be carrying it. Just a single order of the drink can cost near the same price as the bottle from the company itself.

Of course, not everyone will appreciate the sweetness of Pappy’s palette, and those who may have expected a strong, complex kick to their drink would be sorely disappointed. However, even they might be interested in trying a sip, as many people report that the flavor, while described as sweet, is incredibly complex and simply needs to be tried to be believed.

How It Compares

glasses of half-filled whiskeys

There is no good direct comparison for Pappy. However, coming close to the flavor is certainly possible with a little bit of research and ingenuity.

When it comes to comparing Pappy with similar Kentucky sweet bourbons, there is a familiarity that comes with the flavor that is indicative of other spirits made in the Bluegrass state. It is widely reported that mass produced whiskey such as Weller Special Reserve or Old Weller Antique 107 can replicate the complex taste of Pappy to various degrees of success.

Otherwise, other premium bourbons and whiskeys have garnered a similar reputation and rave reviews. For example, Jameson’s 18-Year-Old is similarly priced (before the secondary market), far easier to gain, and some report enjoying the flavor more.

When it comes down to it, Pappy excels when compared to other sweet Kentucky bourbons, but doesn’t compare nearly as well with whiskey enthusiasts that like a more intense kick from their drinks. The alcohol content is kept quite low with Pappy, and those who mix their whiskey with water often report the taste is over-oaked.

Your mileage will certainly vary, although we do hope that if you’re willing to shell out the cash for a bottle of Pappy, you’d be willing to consider other comparably more affordable options as well. Otherwise, your purchase may be little more than a trophy in alcoholic form.

What We Think

We think that Pappy Van Winkle has certainly garnered a reputation for superiority, and for anyone undertaking a lifelong journey will whiskey, a pilgrimage to this drink may be in order. We also have to wonder what Pappy himself would have thought, had he known what sort of reputation his creation would have had nearly 100 years after his passing.

Still, to say that Pappy is overpriced is a gross understatement. The spirit already costs a high amount directly from the company, but you would be lucky to find a bottle at twice the listed price. The taste is reported to be one of the best in the world, but to find out, you would not only need the money, but the palette to appreciate it.

Our recommendation? Stick with more affordable whiskeys for now.

Premium aged bourbon like special reserves from Jameson and the like can produce the complex flavors that may mirror what Pappy tastes like. Likewise, there are several recipes online that would allow you to create the flavor profile of Pappy without emptying your bank account.

If you’re interested in a bottle, however, we wish you the best of luck. Pappy is released in the fall (typically November) of every year, and locating a bottle often means traveling throughout the American southeast and keeping a close eye on Twitter and Instagram.

Of course, purchasing from the secondhand market is certainly possible. Just don’t expect to pay anything under four figures, especially if you’re going for the 23-Year-Old bottle.

As for the future of Pappy? The company reports that it will be increasing its output soon. Maybe in 10 years or so, we can all experience Pappy without the cost or the hassle. Until then? There are many great options to choose from, and enjoy the great taste of bourbon without the financial ruin.

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