Pappy Van Winkle 20, the saga continues

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When last we left our intrepid heroine, she was debating whether her gleefully-acquired Pappy Van Winkle 20 would be safer traveling in a car seat or in a box in the back of the minivan.

He made it home safely in the box, and I carried him inside, cradled against my body, to place him in the booze cabinet.  I tucked him behind some other bottles just in case, so he wouldn’t fall and get a boo-boo if I opened the cabinet too enthusiastically.

And there he waited… waited for my 40th birthday.  And I waited.  I had one of the best bourbons in the world in my house, and I managed to wait.  You all should be really proud of me.  It wasn’t easy.  Anyone who knows me knows that patience is not one of my virtues.

Finally, my birthday arrived.  Nothing to soften the sting of turning forty like finally getting to crack open my first Pappy.  I poured it into my glass.  I was excited, reverent, and a bit nervous.  Would it live up to the hype?  Let’s find out, shall we?

Pappy20wbagOak is very strong in the nose when initially poured, but recedes once you give it a moment and some air.  Once the nose settles down, either after a few minutes in the glass, or a good strong swirl of air into the bourbon, the aromas open up and become much more appealing.  The usual caramel and vanilla notes come through, and also a very strong fruity quality.   Apples, plums, a bit of citrus.

The first sip, bliss… sweet on the tip of the tongue, but nothing brash about it.  A mellow sweetness of honey and apples balances perfectly against the strong wood tones.  Mid-palate, the citrus zest re-emerges along with cinnamon and pepper spices and charred wood.

But the finish, oh my, the finish.  It lasts as long as you want it to, layer upon layer of spice, fruit, and mellow aged oak.  My breath caught in awe.  But then when I began breathing again, the finish continued.  The buttery quality of the bourbon stayed in my mouth for several moments after swallowing, adding to the length of a finish so long it seemed to come in waves.  No burn.  Zero.  Just wave on wave of wood and smoke and honey and spice that lasts as long as your attention span.  Even several minutes later, a hint of it is still there if you breathe deeply.

Did it live up to the hype?  Oh yes.  And then some.  This bourbon made every other bourbon I have ever had seem crass.  Every note in near-perfect balance, it is a symphony of subtlety and layers.

The least subtle note is the oak.  This baby stayed in that barrel for twenty years, and it shows.  Once the bourbon hits mid-palate, the oak threatens to overwhelm the subtleties of sweetness and fruit.  But then the finish comes on and the wood shines as it plays against the honey and spice.

Worth the hype? Absolutely.  Worth stalking liquor stores to get?  For sure.  Worth the money?  Well, I guess that depends on what you pay.

Empty bottle of Pappy 23 with a starting bid of $125 on eBay!

So how much should you pay for Pappy?  It’s a hard question.  Suggested retail for a bottle of Pappy 20 is $130.  If you pay that, you’re very, very lucky.  It pops up on craisglist for over $500, and has been found to go for over $1,000 at auction.  Empty bottles are regularly listed on eBay for up to half the retail value of the full bottle.

Side note: Seriously, who are these people buying empty Pappy bottles?  I want to understand.  Are they douchebags who want to have the empty bottle around as a status thing?  Are they bourbon lovers who pour cheap bourbon into an old Pappy bottle to serve it to clueless snobs want to drink Pappy but don’t actually know the difference?  Are they Pinterest crafters making Pappy wind chimes?  It’s a mystery…

But back to the point.  If Pappy 20 cost $130, I would totally buy it again when this bottle was gone.  By its nature, it is a special occasion bourbon.  It’s refined and elegant, and demands long pauses between sips to fully savor the finish.  Pappy is not really for drinking every night, unless you’re an extremely fancy person.  It’s a special occasion drink and easily worth a special occasion cost of $130.

Sadly, I did not pay $130.  I also didn’t pay craigslist prices, thank goodness, but I paid considerably more than retail, like more than double.  I don’t regret it for a minute.  But will I buy it again at that price (if I can) when this bottle is gone?  No.

See, for me, finding Pappy was about tasting it.  Pappy is considered to be the best bourbon in the world by many, and certainly in the top three by pretty much everyone.  I wanted to taste it.  I wanted the experience of it.  People pay several hundred dollars to go sky diving for the experience.  I have paid several hundred dollars for a spectacular dinner for two many times in my life.  To me, extraordinary experiences are worth paying for.

Knowing what I know now, I would buy it for the first time all over again.  But I won’t actually buy it again (at the inflated price), because I don’t need to.  I’ve experienced it.

If it was just about experiencing it, one might ask, why didn’t I just go find it in a bar for sampling?

First of all, easier said than done.

A text message from my brother showing prices of $49 for a 1 ounce pour (less than a shot), or $99 for a 2 ounce pour of Pappy.

I have yet to see it offered at a bar in my Ellicott City stompin’ grounds.  To find a pour of Pappy, I’d likely be heading down to DC.  And paying for parking.  And gas.  And paying upwards of $40 or more for a single 1.5 oz. pour.  And I’d probably also get at least one or two less expensive drinks at $10-12, and maybe something to eat… and I’m just saying… It would be a hundred dollar evening, easy.

And at the end of that evening, I would not get to taste more Pappy another day or share it with the people I love.

That’s truly the best way to try Pappy.  Find someone who has some and ask for a taste.  They will probably love sharing the experience.  Unless it’s almost gone, in which case they might vigorously defend their last few pours with a miniature cocktail sword.

So fair warning.

What is a fair price for Pappy?  The retail price, I guess, but that’s increasingly hard to come by.  For a while, there was a kind of community policing of price gouging.  Naughty gouging retailers were reported to the distillery, and in theory, would not be given any Pappy in the future.  Bad retailer.  No Pappy for you.  At this point, with the Pappy craze reaching truly ludicrous heights, that system seems to be breaking down.

On their facebook page, the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery says they are “absolutely infuriated” by price gouging, but “there is little that can be done about it.”  There are multiple reports of people seeing bottles of Pappy selling for over $1000 in retail shops.

And it will sell. Supply and demand.

I don’t begrudge a little low-level price gouging for such a rare commodity, but at some point, the price actually exceeds the awesomeness of the bourbon, and that’s not good for anyone.  For $1000, a bottle of bourbon would need to clean my house while I drink it, you know?

But in the end, I’m thrilled with my bottle of Pappy.  It has paid for itself in anticipation, excitement, awe, and delight.  I savor each glass, letting that miles-long finish fully fade before taking the next sip.

Because like all experiences, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

2 thoughts on “Pappy Van Winkle 20, the saga continues

  • December 6, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    Empty bottle is for shady bars to fill with something like Weller Old Antique and pass off to people who are just buying for status and don’t know better. Easy way to turn $25 of whiskey into a very nice profit.

    • December 9, 2013 at 3:54 AM

      Well that just makes me sad.

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