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Beer Town: Happy to be in the Pappy (bourbon) cult

Because I write about beer, certain people sometimes feel compelled to make a joke when they see me enjoying a cocktail or glass of wine.

My stock answer is usually, “It’s my day off.” Or if I’m feeling sinister, “Haven’t you heard? I hate beer, now!”

Of course, I’m an omnivore when it comes to both food and drink. It’s true, I rarely crave sushi or chardonnay. But I’m equally happy with oysters and champagne or steak and ale.

When it comes to beverages other than beer, red wine and bourbon top the list. And if I meet a favorite vintner or distiller, my own little joke is that I wish their products were as good a bargain as the best beer.

I didn’t try that one on Julian P. Van Winkle, III, the third generation scion of Kentucky’s celebrated Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.

Van Winkle’s tiny, family-run operation produces a wondrous line of carefully

Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

crafted bourbon whiskey that’s become famous for its complex oak-aged flavors. And because it’s so expensive and hard to find, the February issue of Fortune magazine declared Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon — also known as Pappy Van Winkle’s — “the ultimate cult brand.”

Van Winkle will be in Atlanta for a series of presentations and a dinner at Parish during the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, May 19 — 22. During a recent phone conversation, I told him I was a member of the Pappy cult and asked him what he thought made his family’s bourbon so special.

“We use wheat instead of rye,” Van Winkle said. “That makes it softer and smoother and it ages a little more gracefully. It doesn’t pick up as much wood and char in the barrel, so a bourbon that’s 15 or 20 years old that’s made with wheat versus rye is going to be pretty different.”

There are 12-year, 15-year, 20-year and 23-year bourbons among the most beloved Pappy vintages. As with all bourbon, corn is the main ingredient. But beyond wheat, long, controlled aging is the secret.

“Older bourbon is just something I like and something our family has always produced,” Van Winkle said. “My granddad produced a 10, a 12, and even a 15. I just kept pushing the envelope into the 20-year and people have enjoyed that.”

Van Winkle, who speaks in laid-back tones as soft as his whiskey, seems both pleased and perplexed that craft brewers have become a major part of the Pappy cult.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver was an early adopter, aging several groundbreaking beers in Pappy barrels. And Van Winkle said he’ll be joining Oliver at Eleven Madison Park in New York City to taste a special Pappy-aged beer brewed by Brooklyn for the restaurant.

“There are major differences in barrels,” Oliver recently told me. “The Van Winkle 20 year barrels are very floral, not the big vanilla and coconut punch of Makers, for example. I’m fond of the Woodford barrels, which are complex.”

Here in Atlanta, Red Brick brewer Dave McClure is a big Pappy fan, noting the surprising number of brewers who have won Great American or World Beer Cup gold medals with Pappy barrel-aged beers.

“I’m trying to learn more about beer,” Van Winkle said. “This beer thing has gone crazy. It’s really popular and it’s really interesting. Every day I seem to get an e-mail from a brewer looking for old barrels.”

While Oliver, McClure and other brewers swear by the rare barrels, Van Winkle wonders aloud if it might just be another manifestation of the Pappy cult.

“I’d like to see the difference between, say, a Maker’s Mark barrel and a Pappy barrel aged with same beer,” Van Winkle said. “That would be fun to try.”

— By Bob Townsend, Drink blog

7 comments Add your comment

Hindu Elvis Pimp

May 11th, 2011
3:21 pm

I had the Peachtree Pale Ale aged in an oak barrel a couple of years ago at TM Metropolis. It was way better than I thought. Some tell me the barrel aging is a fad and will go away. I hope not.

Billy

May 12th, 2011
9:33 am

Great article Mr. Townsend. I enjoyed reading it. Is there any other way to purchase his bourbon in Atlanta besides attending the dinner? Also, out of curiosity, how much are his bottles?

btownsend

May 12th, 2011
10:41 am

Cheers, Billy —

Pappy is sometimes hard to find, so I would call some of the bigger metro beverage stores before you go shopping. Prices run from $60 to over $300 a bottle. But many better bars and fine dining restaurants stock Pappy with other top shelf whiskeys, and that’s a good, if expensive way to get a sample.

— Bob

kp

May 12th, 2011
2:48 pm

I like pappy. Drinking beer conditioned in Pappy barrels and seeing how they were so much better than other Bourbon aged beers is what got me to drinking Pappy and whiskey in general.

A great and lower priced Pappy option is the 10yo cask strength version.

Mac McGee in Decatur is a great place to try out various whiskeys. They have a couple hundred to choose amongst and you can create your own flights.

Gordon

May 12th, 2011
3:32 pm

I am a Boourbon drinker. I lover Bourbon and the complexity and imagination that comes with different distillers. Recently I tried the Pappy 23 yr old. This is the smoothest tastiest Bourbon I have ever had. Mr. Van Winkle is absolutely correct when he says the char and wood tastes are downplayed. I really got a good caramel and even vanilla taste.
I have many bottles of Bourbon that I consider sipping Bourbons. However my 23 yr old, is one I will define as a tasting Bourbon. I want it to last forever.

Sarah

May 12th, 2011
5:47 pm

The Virginia Highlands location of Yeah Burger carries the Old Rip Van Winkle and Pappy Van Winkle 12 year.

Thirsty South

May 12th, 2011
7:11 pm

Another member of the Pappy cult for sure. The 15 year old offers the best bang for the buck in my opinion, but the 23 is a glorious thing. Here are some notes on making a variation of the Old Fashioned with Pappy 15: http://www.thirstysouth.com/2011/01/25/playing-with-the-pappy-old-fashioned/