Pappy Van Winkle: One Woman’s Quest

Since I am a whiskey blogger, Buffalo Trace just sends me their entire line of Pappy Van Winkle every year.

And then I wake up.

Nope, I have to harass liquor store owners and get on lists and see whether my second cousin’s best friend’s estranged ex-husband who manages a liquor store can score me some Pappy, just like everyone else.

Four bottles just sitting on the shelf? What?

Several years ago, when the Pappy craze was slightly less completely insane than it is at the moment, I walked into a liquor store and they had a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 in the case and four bottles of the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 on the shelf.

On the shelf.  Like it was just normal or something.

I bought three of them, leaving the last one for some other unsuspecting whiskey enthusiast to stumble across, because I’m a good person like that.  I guess at that time, Pappy fever hadn’t hit suburban middle-of-nowhere Florida yet, but surely some other visiting bourbon snob might pop in for a bit of fortification and discover it there.  Merry Christmas, fellow visiting bourbon snob, I thought to myself.

It was in central Florida, in a tiny booze shop in a strip mall.  I was there visiting my in-laws and had stopped in to pick up a box of wine.  Classy, yeah, I know.  Don’t judge me.  Out of sheer habit, I wandered over to the bourbon section, and there they were.  One behind the other.  Van Winkle 12.  Lot “B.”  Four bottles.  Regular retail price, give or take.

As I checked out, the clerk mentioned the bottle of Pappy 23 in the case.  And mentioned the price.  I was there to buy an $18 box of wine and already had ten times that amount’s worth of bourbon on the counter, so I passed.

Like an idiot.

In many hero quest stories, there is a moment in which the hero is extremely close to success. But he takes one wrong turn, sending him back to the beginning.  That was my moment.  I have re-lived it in my mind, questioning whether I could have plunked down several hundred additional dollars for one bottle of bourbon.  At that time in my life, I was a stay-at-home mom with twin toddlers.  Several hundred dollars for a single bottle of whiskey? I just couldn’t do it.

That day reads like an urban legend, except that it actually happened to me.  It wasn’t “a friend of a friend” who walked into a random liquor store and found a bottle of Pappy 23.  It was me.  It really happened.

That little story, in addition to demonstrating that I am a big ol’ dummy, also explains why I sent my mother on a wild goose chase.

See, my 40th birthday was last week, and when my mom asked what kind of whiskey I wanted, I gave her a reasonable list of stuff I liked, but also told her that if she found a bottle of Pappy or George T. Stagg, to pick it up for me and I would pay her back.

I didn’t really think she would wander into a liquor store and find a bottle of Pappy or Stagg, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to mention it.  It was the right time of year to find them, and she lives in a region of South Jersey chock full of peach orchards and corn fields.  It’s not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it’s not the height of cosmopolitan either.

I figured it was worth a shot.

My poor mother.  I had told her that both were “impossible to find.” But I don’t think I adequately conveyed the sheer level of impossibility.  After the second or third liquor store clerk laughed at her, or showed her a ten-year-long mailing list, she started to understand.

George T. Stagg’s little brother, Stagg Jr.

Still, she forged ahead.  Imagine my surprise when she called me to ask me if I wanted a bottle of Stagg Jr.  Stagg Jr, a younger version of the famous George T. Stagg, was released earlier this fall to considerable blogosphere fanfare.  I had known it was coming, and had stalked liquor stores accordingly, but it was gone within hours from all of my haunts before I could get a bottle.  I sighed and planned to try again with the next release.

My mom found the bottle of Stagg Jr. in a tiny booze shop that doubles as a convenience store, around the corner from my sister’s house near Annapolis.  This shop is so small, I wouldn’t have even bothered checking the whiskey section.  I mean, you can refill your propane tanks there.  To my mind, it’s the kind of place you run in to get a six of Miller Lite for that friend of yours who only drinks Miller Lite.  It just doesn’t seem like the place to check for rare, high end bourbon.

But my mom stopped in, loving and determined, and asked at the counter about Pappy and Stagg.  One guy shook his head, but the other said he thought they had a bottle of Stagg.

He pawed through some boxes and debris behind the counter, triumphantly pulling out the bottle of Stagg Jr. that was buried underneath.  I can only assume it had been hidden there by another employee, reserved for their ex-wife’s brother-in-law’s friend or whatever.  But that ex-wife’s brother-in-law’s friend’s loss was my gain!

My mom is a hero!  (And my dad too, who drives her around on these crazy fool’s errands.)

Meanwhile, I was still on my Pappy quest, regularly harassing the employees of my local boozerie.  See, while most shops have a waiting list or a call list, my shop owner and the employees kept telling me they didn’t have a list.  They did get Pappy each year, I was told, but no list.

I thought I just wasn’t cool enough to be on the list.  I spend plenty of money there, but have only been shopping there for about a year.  Maybe I had to pay some more dues.

But it turns out they were telling the truth.  I went in, a few days before my 40th birthday, to buy some beer and another bottle of the E.H. Taylor Single Barrel, which has quickly become a house favorite.  The owner was there, and I chatted with her for a moment, hoping to increase my chances of getting on their exclusive secret Pappy list for next year.  I asked, feigning casual interest, if the Pappy had already come and gone.

“I have some in the back.  What year you want?”


<Please insert the sound of an angelic chorus here.>


What year did I want?  Oh, the pressure.  The 15 had received rave reviews from my whiskey twin, but for this special round-numbered birthday, I wanted to go big.  The 20 or the 23?  Decisions, decisions.  Obviously, the 23 is the pinnacle of rarity, but some reviewers mention that it’s woodier than its 20-year-old brother, which is not necessarily a positive attribute for my particular palette.  The descriptions I’ve read of the two, as well as the price difference, led me to choose the 20 over the 23.

Red velvet, ooohhhh…

I paid my suddenly large bill and the owner went to get my Pappy from the back.  I tried to be cool.  I tried not to jump up and down or clap my hands in glee.  I did not succeed on either count.

She emerged with a luxurious embroidered red velvet bag.  Was it my imagination, or did it glow slightly with an otherworldly light?  I pulled the bottle out to examine it.  There he was, Pappy Van Winkle, smoking his fat sepia cigar.

I carried him reverently to the car, resisting the urge to buckle him into a car seat.  I figured he’d be safer in the re-used Flying Dog box with my case of beer than he would be in a car seat, but it still felt wrong to treat him like just any other bottle of bourbon.

This wasn’t just any bottle of bourbon.  This was Pappy.

And he was coming home with me.

To be continued…