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Column: An introduction to the 'holy grail' of bourbon

Only 85,000 bottles of Pappy are produced each year.

From Jan. 28 to Feb. 10, select B.C. Liquor Stores will allow customers to enter a draw for a chance to purchase various rare bourbons – including a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.  Pappy is the holy grail of bourbons and very difficult to find.

Bourbon is a type of whisky made primarily from corn, and is almost exclusively made in Kentucky, USA.  I find bourbon sweeter and more caramelized than scotch whisky.  What makes Pappy unique is that it uses wheat in its production rather than rye, so that the bourbon smoother and softer.

So what is Pappy and why is it so expensive? The name of the bourbon comes from Julian Proctor “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. He was an owner of a bourbon distillery at the turn of the 20th century  and continued to be involved in making bourbon until his death in 1965.  Pappy was known for his attention to quality.  His family continued to make bourbon until 1971, when their distillery was sold.The Van Winkle family re-entered the bourbon industry in 1981, when they started producing bourbon under the Old Rip Van Winkle brand. As the popularity of their bourbon grew, they started offering aged bourbons. In 1994, they produced a 20 year old bourbon under the Pappy Van Winkle name. At that time, no one produced bourbons that were aged so long, since the distillery would have to wait 20 years before selling their product, and by aging their bourbon so long in casks, more of the bourbon would evaporate, leaving a more concentrated but smaller quantity of bourbon. With a 20-year-old bourbon, almost 40 per cent of the bourbon will evaporate during the aging process (the evaporate is known as the “Angel’s Share”).

The Van Winkle family began to run into financial problems since it was exceedingly expensive to produce their aged bourbons. Even though they were making exceptional bourbons, not many people wanted to pay for a high-end bourbon. So in 2002, they partnered with Buffalo Trace Distillery, a larger distillery who now produces the Pappy bourbons based on the Van Winkle family recipes and specifications.

Pappy is a pretty recent phenomenon, as they only started to bottle their 15-year-old bourbon in 2011, and their 23-year-old bourbon in 2016. Fortunately for Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkle family, with globalization, bourbons became more popular with a wider audience who were willing to pay astronomical prices for their bourbons.

How exclusive is Pappy? There are only 85,000 bottles of Pappy bourbon produced each year. That seems like a lot of bottles, but these bottles service the demand of the entire bourbon drinking world. 

A few years ago, I visited a bar with a huge collection of Pappy, so I tried the 12-year-old Rip Van Winkle, together with the 15-year-old and 20-year-old Pappy’s. There was not a huge difference between the 12 and 15-year-old bourbon, but the 20-year-old was much more concentrated and smoother.

For bourbon lovers, getting to purchase a bottle of Pappy is special.  Although Pappy is expensive (between $160-900 per bottle), the same bottle will sell for three to five times as much at auction. So if you’re the lucky winner of the draw at the B.C. Liquor Stores, savour your win with the knowledge that you will be experiencing one of the finest bourbons produced on this planet.

Until next time, happy drinking!

Tony Kwan is a lifestyle writer.  Lawyer by day, food and wine lover by night, Tony aims to give you an insider’s guide to the best that life has to offer.