The craze for Pappy Van Winkle whiskeys is so rabid that, when a writer indicated a few years back that W.L. Weller 12 Year Old Bourbon was “baby Pappy,” he sparked a run on Weller 12 that caused a shortage that continues to this very day.
Although the official asking price for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old is a mere $250, it fetches between $2,000 and $3,000 on the open market. That is, if you can even find a bottle to buy. Pappy has become, like Emily Ratajkowski’s phone number or a dignified trip through airport security, a chimera.
Now comes a new Van Winkle whiskey destined to remind everyone why Pappy Van Winkle became so lusted after in the first place: Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old Bourbon. It’s not just that this bears the magic Van Winkle name or the marble gravitas of a quarter-century age statement (although these two features alone would be sufficient to provoke hysteria among bourbon diehards).
No, it’s because Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old is also 100% Stitzel-Weller whiskey, a throwback to the stuff that made Pappy great.
A bit of history: Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, the cigar-smoking patriarch on the label, founded the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1935, but his son Julian II was forced to sell it in the early 1970s. The family continued to produce whiskey there under contract, however, giving birth to the Van Winkle brand as we have come to know it today.
The Van Winkle name came to be associated with a particularly luscious wheated bourbon (using soft, sweeter wheat in place of spicy rye as a flavoring grain), which is unsurprising considering post-Prohibition era wheated bourbon was born in the Stitzel-Weller distillery, brought there by the scion of another Kentucky Bourbon family, Pappy’s partner Arthur Philip Stitzel. Amazingly, Julian Van Winkle II stuck to the high-quality wheated stuff during the bourbon industry's 1970s nadir, when Kentucky was afloat in an ocean of whiskey no one wanted to buy.
“Stitzel-Weller was one of first distilleries to recognize quality over quantity, and stuck to that credo even in the '70s, when the industry wasn't trying to sell premium products,” says John Pogue, distiller at Old Pogue and a fellow who knows a thing or two reviving old, defunct whiskey brands. “Wheated bourbon was unusual back then, and being contrarian was arguably the right call, but it took some 30 years later for the market to realize that.”
The Stitzel-Weller Distillery closed in 1992, and the Van Winkles were forced to seek other sources for their whiskey. They retained stocks of the classic Stitzel-Weller juice, however, which would continue to age into the very old bourbons we know and would gleefully trade our left arms for today. But after the 1992 closure, no more came. Years passed, and other sources of whiskey came to the fore. Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, who makes the whiskey currently flowing into the Van Winkle brand, points to the closure as a key part of the Van Winkle mystique: “It’s one of those things that has gone away, you just can’t get it anymore.”
If you do the math, Pappy 23 Year Old should have used up the last of the Stitzel-Weller stock in 2015, and it would have ... if not for the fact that some of that bourbon was transferred into stainless steel holding tanks, freezing its maturation. So stored, whiskey neither ages nor degrades. According to Wheatley, some Stitzel-Weller whiskey continues to be used in regular Pappy to this day.
Yet the “new” Old Rip Van Winkle 25 Year Old is a thing apart, made with 11 barrels worth of 100% old school Stitzel-Weller.
Putting the cherry on top is the packaging: instead of a pedestrian bottle, Van Winkle 25 comes in a handmade decanter from Glencairn, the same people who make the famous whisky glass. That bottle is crowned with a silver topper and comes in a wood box with a lid crafted from one of those aforementioned 11 barrels. Rumor has it the release of this whiskey was delayed by more than a year while the distillers waited for those luxury bottles and boxes to be made.
When James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock held a vertical Van Winkle tasting panel in 2015, it became the subject of a Garden & Gun profile and drove many bourbon aficionados mad with envy. Only 710 bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle have been made, a tenth the usual annual run for Pappy, and the official price was set at $1,800. But now on the open market, it could go for 10 times that much, reaching up to the price range commanded by rare Scotch single malts … unless you happen to live in a control state holding a lottery like the one in Charlotte, North Carolina. In that case, you just need the $1,800 and a lot of luck.
Otherwise, if you want a bottle of Van Winkle 25, sell your car for the cash and call in all your favors at the poshest liquor store in town.