Next to expensive wines and some rare scotch, no other alcohol has inspired as much criminal behavior as Pappy Van Winkle, the cult Kentucky bourbon. That’s in part because it’s made in such limited quantities, and in part because chefs and other food personalities have anointed it the best bourbon in the world. Now, two new reports look at the shady resale market for Pappy Van Winkle, which has bottles of the aged whiskey selling for sometimes more than $1,000 per bottle.
This week, Esquire published “Inside the Pappy Van Winkle Forgery Scheme That’s Infiltrating Bourbon’s Black Market,” a fascinating look at how various fraudulent methods are used to exploit the demand for the prized booze. Writer Aaron Goldfarb traces the rise in fake Pappy to eBay, where empty bottles are selling for nearly as much as if they were filled with the real stuff. Why? The secondary market for Pappy means that $20 spent on an empty bottle plus a few bucks for cheap replacement liquid can yield hundreds of dollars on various resale sites and forums online.
Goldfarb admits that the depth of Pappy forgery may not be great, but it is an intriguing update on bootlegging. “What I suspect is that a few dudes here and there — maybe bourbon fans themselves, or Kentuckians with some connection to the industry — are buying up empty bottles, refilling them with Weller or some other wheated bourbon, and making a few thousand bucks in profit,” he writes, referring to Weller, an inexpensive bourbon with none of the cachet or awards that Pappy has.
As for the “wheated” part, one of the things that sets Pappy apart from other bourbons is its makeup: Bourbon is typically made from corn, rye and barley, but Pappy subs out rye for wheat. There are other wheated bourbons, but Pappy Van Winkle, derived from a formula by Julius Van Winkle, is aged longer than most bourbons; it’s available in 12-, 15-, 20- and 23-year aged versions.
This information and more about Pappy is covered in the new edition of the Gravy podcast. For this nearly half-hour episode, the Southern Foodways Alliance partnered with another podcast, Criminal, to explore how the intense demand for Pappy Van Winkle has led to this secondary or “black” or “gray” market, as well as isolated incidents like the 2013 theft of 65 cases from the Buffalo Trace distillery (where Pappy is made based on the original formula). The podcast, which notes that Pappy is “a liquor so desirable it’s driven some people to break the law,” is a great primer on Pappy in general and on why supply and demand for certain bourbons has created an intense market. The episode features interviews with New Orleans Times-Picayune dining critic Brett Anderson, bourbon historian Michael Veach, members of the Van Winkle family and a Kentucky bar owner so fed up with the overwhelming demand for Pappy and the price surge that the supply-demand equation has caused that he has used Pappy in Jell-O shots.
The only thing neither the article or the podcast reveals is how to buy an actual bottle of the legendarily rare Pappy. The SFA’s post about the podcast does have a link to howtobuypappy.com, an informational website that offers some simple advice: “Forget about it! It’s not gonna happen.”