Ten years ago it was possible to put your name on a waiting list and reliably pick up a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old.
Every expression of the brand is harder to find than Bigfoot — and if you do locate a bottle, it’ll be marked up at more than 10 times the recommended retail price. (No joke, even my empties of Pappy Van Winkle can fetch a couple hundred bucks on eBay.)
Slightly good news: The 2017 batch of Van Winkle, released this November will be slightly larger than the usual run of 7,000 three-bottle cases — this, despite the 13 Year Old Van Winkle Reserve Rye not coming out this year. Yet odds of scoring a bottle remain sketchy.
But it can’t hurt to try. You can improve your odds by following our guide:
Beware of Phonies: Remember me saying that my empty Van Winkle bottles could fetch a couple hundred bucks on eBay? Scammers have caught onto the buzz and fake Pappy is everywhere. The best way to avoid being swindled is to only buy from someone with a liquor license, like a store or restaurateur.
Cultivate Your Liquor-Store or Buddy-in-the-Bar Business: If you regularly and frequently do business at a high-end liquor store, make sure the management/ownership knows knows your name and knows your interest. Ditto if you have any contacts who are similarly placed in the upscale restaurant or bar trade. A given establishment might receive up to four bottles of Van Winkle, and maybe you can play your cards into getting one of them set aside for you.
Look for Lotteries: Cultivating those favors is a long-term strategy. For the right here and now, your best bet is to call every liquor store you think might get a bottle of Pappy within you call driving distance and ask if they are holding a lottery. Entering is usually free, but you need to attend the night of the drawing.
Monitor Distribution and Prepare to Camp Out: Pappytracker is an app for monitoring Van Winkle distribution, and websites like Bourbonr and Breaking Bourbon publish similar data. Keep a close eye on when the whiskey is coming to your area, and especially when it is about to reach your chosen liquor store. Then amp out like you are trying to score prized concert tickets (and it’s still 1994).
For those who just want great wheated bourbon and don't care about the Pappy cachet, a wiser course is to skip the bother and find a substitute. Here are four options:
W.L. Weller 12 Year Old: This stuff is known as "Baby Pappy," because it comes from the same whiskey stock as the biggest contributor of what goes into Pappy Van Winkle bottles. Because of that connection and middling age number, its also scarce on store shelves at regular retail prices, but you can usually get it on demand at a markup of about $175.
Old Weller Antique 107: Even this younger, high-proof version of Weller Bourbon is becoming harder to find, but like it's 12 Year Old sibling, you can buy it on demand if you are willing to pay a retail markup.
Jim Beam Signature Red Wheat: This much-overlooked 11 year old bourbon is the easiest to acquire middle-aged wheated bourbon around today. A bottle should run you about $55.
Larceny: For those who just want a Pappy-related wheated whiskey with zero fuss and without the premium prices, Larceny is the way to go. It's widely available, made at Heaven Hill's Bernheim Distillery (another contributor of juice to Pappy Van Winkle) and it will cost you less than 30 bucks a bottle.