For bourbon enthusiasts, Pappy Van Winkle is the holy grail. The Kentucky whiskey can be traced back to 1893, when its namesake, Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, then eighteen years old, become a traveling liquor salesman. Over time he bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and joined forces with W.L. Weller and Sons, the wholesaler who employed him as a salesman, to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, where Pappy Van Winkle was produced. The distillery opened for business in 1935—on Kentucky Derby day, fittingly.
The Stitzel-Weller Distillery was sold in 1972 but the family continued making whiskey through the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. In 2002 the Buffalo Trace Distillery—its parent company, the Sazerac Company, makes the whiskey in the iconic New Orleans drink—acquired the operation. To this day, Pappy Van Winkle whiskies are made through a partnership between Buffalo Trace and Old Rip Van Winkle, overseen by Julian Van Winkle III and his son Preston.
Pappy Van Winkle remains special for two reasons. One, it’s incredibly rare, with roughly only 7,000 cases—or 84,000 bottles—made per year. Secondly, it tastes like liquid gold, distinguished by using wheat instead of rye in its grain mix, rendering it soft, creamy, and round, with a strong terroir.
People will go to great lengths to get their hands on a bottle. One of the most extreme examples of this fixation occurred in 2013, when bourbon bandits stole 195 bottles of Pappy as part of a $100,000 multi-year heist. The theft included rare offerings from Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace’s own branded line.
“Pappy is one of those things that everyone should experience if they love booze,” says Alex Fletcher, the corporate beverage director for the Bread Winners Group, in Dallas, which recently came into four of the prized bottles. “It’s been called the unicorn of bourbons. It’s one of those things that when you do get it, it’s like, ‘Oh crap, I had Pappy finally.’”
On Thursday, Fletcher will share those bottles with 25 patrons willing to shell out $385 each for a seat at the Pappy Van Winkle Whiskey Dinner. Henry’s Majestic, part of Bread Winners, will host the event. It will include a four-plate pairing with four 1-ounce pours of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year, and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year.
How anyone gets Pappy is somewhat of a mystery, some serendipity combined with a little bit of luck. Each year around Thanksgiving, Buffalo Trace begins allocating their yearly allotment. Only a ridiculously small amount of Pappy is distributed to liquor stores; most of the bottles go to bars and restaurants.
“It’s kind of crazy, because we don’t know,” Fletcher says. “Whatever we get is whatever we get.” Fletcher sells a lot of whiskey at the Bread Winners enterprises and has a good relationship with Buffalo Trace. That perhaps enabled him to procure the coveted bottles, highlighted by the 20 Year, but that is all he will get for the year.
“Twenty years is a lot for a bourbon to be aged,” Fletcher says. “Some people argue that you lose too much of the flavor when you age it for X amount of years. But then Pappy comes along and releases a twenty-year bourbon and it’s one of the best bourbons anyone’s tasted. It kind of changes the game.”
As of press time, there were only eight seats left for the Whiskey Dinner. The idea for the affair came to Fletcher when he figured the cost to the average customer for drinking just a flight of the four whiskeys might seem like too much money. By pairing it with food, it created better value. The trick then was to create a menu that didn’t mask the whiskey. There will be three “savory” plates and one dessert plate with ingredients from local farms and chef Adam Kovac’s own personal garden. Kovac is particularly psyched about his second course, a rye agnolotti filled with duck confit and mortadella, served with the 12 Year. “At the end of the day,” Kovac says, “whiskey is my spirit of choice, so I feel pretty confident about my pairings.”
If you miss out on the Whiskey Dinner, there is another great opportunity to sample some Pappy. The Austin pub drink.well came into six bottles spanning six “marks,” including the 10 Year, 12 Year, 13 Year, 15 Year, 20 Year, and 23 Year. The standouts here are the exceedingly rare Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year, which uses a rye base instead of corn and is therefore not bourbon but straight rye, as well as Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Year. Three years ago Julian Van Winkle III revealed that the 2013 bottlings of the 23 Year may be the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, since at that point there was very little left of the aging stock held over from the defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery.
“These are iconic labels and at some point will never be able to be replicated,” says Jessica Sanders, the proprietor of drink.well. “So you’re in a sense drinking history and that has some value.”
On Sunday, Pappy Hour at drink.well will feature 1.5 ounce pours at 20 percent off everything but the 13 Year, ranging from $14 to $70 a pour. And once they’re out, they’re out.
These may very well be the most important sips of someone’s adult life. A word of advice: there is no acceptable way to order this drink other than neat. Also, consider water as an additive.
“Water is a really important ingredient to whiskey,” Fletcher says. “The alcohol molecules, they’re super tightly bound, so to get some of the in-between flavors and some of the nuances and notes that are kind of constricted, you have to add like a drop or two of water to loosen everything up.”
Henry’s Majestic, January 26, 6:30 p.m., henrysmajestic.com & drink.well, January 22, 2 p.m., drinkwellaustin.com
OTHER EVENTS ACROSS TEXAS
Avid readers will be blown away by “Book From the Sky,” the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award–winning installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, on display through Sunday only. And it won’t necessarily be because of the scale of the piece—1,500 square feet of the Blanton Museum of Art have been converted into a sanctuary of the printed word comprised of books, hanging scrolls, and wall panels—but instead by Bing’s otherworldly word choice.
Blanton Museum of Art, January 20–22, blantonmuseum.org
AUSTIN / DALLAS / DENTON
Good Will Hunting
The Denton rock band Centro-matic never got the mainstream recognition it deserved and as of 2014, after a decade in the game, ceased to exist, but Will Johnson, the group’s prolific singer-songwriter front man, never stopped dreaming up tunes. He has a new solo album, Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, coming out March 24, but you can catch him at one of three Texas tour dates next week.
Mohawk, January 26, 9 p.m.; Club Dada, January 27, 8 p.m.; Dan’s Silverleaf, January 28, 9 p.m.; will-johnson.com
DALLAS / AUSTIN
Basketball genius Gregg Popovich, the coach of your San Antonio Spurs, also knows a thing or two about wine, and for his money, the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, Oregon, is where it’s at. Case in point: he is a partner in Willamette-based Rex Hill, one of more than sixty wineries participating in “Pinot in the City,” a showcase of the Willamette area’s finest offerings, happening in Dallas and Austin.
Westin Dallas Downtown, January 24, 6 p.m. & JW Marriott Austin, January 26, 6 p.m.; willamettewines.com
A cold beer is often the best medicine for closing the gap on differences of opinion between two people, according to Vox, a Houston nonprofit that promotes unifying society for the greater good. At the Vox Beer Summit, whose theme is “Know Your Neighbors,” liquid courage from Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. will aid a discussion on racial inequalities in Houston, featuring spoken word poetry and a presentation by the City of Houston’s Neighborhoods and Community Development Department.
Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., January 20, 6:30 p.m., voxculture.org
Keep On Truckin’
The idea in Texas that bigger is better is especially true when it comes to trucks. At Monster Jam, some of the most bodacious monster trucks in all the land, including El Toro Loco, Grave Digger, and Stone Crusher, will compete in races and freestyle routines wherein their drivers will perform jumps on par with Evel Knievel.
Alamodome, January 21 at 7 p.m. & January 22 at 2 p.m., monsterjam.com