I just returned from a cruise. It was a Disney cruise (I have 2 pre-teen children). Disney feels more like a religion than a brand. The ship was filled with loyal devotees, and they all seemed to have a never-ending supply of wearables honouring their King of Kings, Mickey Mouse. I hid in the bar for most of the week. Like most bars, the whiskey section was filled with the usual suspects. “Alright Ryan, which one of these do you hate the least?” Then, I saw it. “Wow.” I said to myself. It wasn’t just any whiskey, it was the whiskey, the patient zero, the one that turned bourbon into a commodity. It was also $325 US ($430 in my dollars) an ounce.
When I think about the life of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., Forrest Gump springs to mind. Forrest Gump found a way to be involved in every defining moment in American history during the 1960s and 70s. Pappy started out as salesman for William Larue Weller in 1893. A decade or so later, he (and a fellow salesman) bought the company. For several decades after that, he ran day-to-day operations before handing things over to his son, Julian Van Winkle, Jr., in 1964. He, like Forrest Gump, saw it all. Pappy’s distillery, Stitzel-Weller, was known for doing things “the right way.” It uniquely (at the time) used wheat instead of rye as a secondary grain. (Most bourbons use corn, rye, and malted barley.) Their flagship whiskey was something that’s next to impossible to find today, Old Fitzgerald. Pappy bought the brand for $10,000 shortly before Prohibition was repealed. To give that number a dash of perspective, the cheapest Old Fitzgerald I found while bourbon hunting in California last fall was $1,300.
On the label of every Weller product today, you’ll find “The Original Wheated Bourbon.” Nope. W.L. Weller was a blender and wholesaler. One of his products was an adulterated neutral grain spirit called “cologne.” In the mid-1800s, whiskey could be whatever you wanted it to be. Straight and altered whiskies weren’t clearly defined until the Taft Decision in 1909 (more on that another time). Using wheat in the mash bill came from the Stitzels. When Weller and Stitzel merged in the 1930s, they were in better shape than most to serve a thirsty post-Prohibition population. Both supplied medicinal whiskey to pharmacies during America’s 13 year tiff with alcohol. One company that almost went under was Brown-Forman (Old Forester). Despite being active during Prohibition, they were out of money and out of whiskey by the early 30s. Pappy and his partners gave them whiskey to sell on credit. Without that gesture of kindness, Old Forester, the first bottled bourbon, could’ve been erased from existence.
The Stitzel-Weller dynasty came to an end in 1972. The shareholders, without the blessing of Julian Jr., decided to merge with an imports company out of New York. Bourbon was struggling. It was seen by many as an “old man’s drink.” In the early 1980s, Pappy’s grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, started to warehouse and bottle whiskey. His first expression was a 12-year-old. A few years later, he launched a 20-year-old. An $80 20-year-old. The price didn’t sit well with most. In those days, bourbon was rarely more than $20. Then, 1998 happened. That’s when Pappy 20 received a 99 out of 100 at the World Spirits Championship. It was the highest score ever given to a whiskey. Pappy 20, the “near perfect” whiskey, was featured in newspapers and magazines. Bourbon had finally broken free from the shackles of its reputation. It was now a premium spirit, which meant it could now command a premium price.
Buzz is an effective marketing tool. I remember when the movie, The Blair Witch Project, came out. It was dubbed, “the scariest movie ever made.” I felt as though I had no choice but to act:
“There’s no way Blair Witch is the scariest movie ever made. I’m gonna go watch it and see for myself.”
The same principle applies when it comes to Pappy:
“There’s no way Pappy’s the best whiskey in the world. I gotta find some and see for myself.”
Which leads me to last week. Did I pay $325 US for an ounce of Pappy 20? Are you crazy? I could get 3 bottles of Glen Scotia Victoriana for that price. I bought an ounce of Lagavulin 16 for 17 bucks instead. I did take a selfie with the Pappy 20 bottle though. It’s not too often you get to see a celebrity in real life.