In the Spirit: The Allure of Pappy


What makes this trophy bourbon so prized? Twenty ticketholders will find out at this year’s Lake Oconee Food & Wine Festival.

Every fall Matt Garofalo has a problem.
Garofalo, the owner of The Oconee Cellar, a Lake Oconee wine and liquor store, has one day to make a few people extremely happy and, conversely, disappoint hundreds.

Around Thanksgiving, the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery company releases its family of bourbons which include the rare Pappy Van Winkle brand. Approximately 84,000 bottles of the bourbon are released to liquor distributors across the world. Stores, Garofalo says, get a bottle or two of the bourbon, if they’re lucky.

The corn and wheat whiskey is produced in 10-year; 12-year; 15-year; 20-year and 23-year batches. There is also a 13-year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye whiskey released. The whiskey, now produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, is distributed based on how much of the distillery’s other brands are sold in the store.

“People don’t understand what you have to do to get this stuff,” he says.
And everyone wants a bottle.

The elusive liquor comes from a lineage begun by founder, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., who started as a sales rep for a bourbon company before working his way up to becoming an owner of the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1931. Pappy died in 1965 at the age of 91. It is his image, smoking a Churchill sized cigar, that graces the label of Pappy Van Winkle.

Following Pappy’s death, his son, Julian, Jr., sold most of the company stock in 1972 but retained the rights of the Old Rip Van Winkle name. In the early 1980s, as bourbon began making a notable comeback, Julian Van Winkle III began introducing older whiskeys to market under the Pappy Van Winkle brand. A 20-year-old bottle scored a 99 out of 100 from the Beverage Tasting Institute’s panel.

Following that score came stories in Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal. With the low production numbers (comparatively, Jack Daniels produces more than 100 million bottles per year) Pappy Van Winkle became a trophy bourbon. A 23-year-old bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can be found on Ebay for $185.

That’s for an empty bottle. Seriously, an empty bottle. An empty bottle of 10-year-old Pappy Van Winkle on Ebay is more affordable at $85.
A full bottle, if you can find it, goes for thousands.

In 2000, Garofalo says he was unfamiliar with the brand until a customer came in asking for a bottle of 20-year-old. He looked it up, told the buyer, at the time, that the bottle would cost $100. “I don’t care what it cost,” the buyer told him. “Get it.” Garofalo says he did and when the customer arrived, they opened the bottle and sampled the bourbon. He liked it and told the customer, “I’m going to start carrying it.”

Initially, the bourbon just sat there, Garofalo says. No one was interested. In 2005, the hype began after the 99 score.

“No bourbon had ever scored that high,” Garofalo says.
And now, once a year, he holds a lottery for his customers to determine who would take home the coveted bottle. Every year, more than 300 people put their name in the hat. Every year a few people would go home, after paying the price, with the prize.

But this year is different. This year, 20 people will have the chance to taste not just one bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but the entire six bottle brand, including the elusive 23-year-old. Garofalo is hosting an exclusive tasting at the Lake Oconee Food & Wine Festival on March 21 open to 20 participants at $500 each.

No lottery tickets this year, just a guarantee.

“I’m at least going to make 20 people happy,” Garofalo says.
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