Dr. Peter Hasselbacher just wanted a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Any kind, really. Having no luck going store to store, he joined the mailing list at Party Mart on Brownsboro Road.
When he later received an announcement that the store would hold a lottery for the right to buy a bottle, he figured he would go check it out.
“The parking lot,” he said. “You couldn’t find a spot. I had to park across the street.”
Could this massive crowd be about the bourbon? Oh yes. Hasselbacher described the scene as Black Friday-esque. Party Mart manager Garret Brown said 641 people showed up on Nov. 18 to pick a number and pray theirs was called.
No one even knew how many bottles were available, but the place was crawling with people who craved Pappy, all there hoping to win a lottery that would give them the opportunity to buy a single bottle of the stuff.
“If the fire marshal had known,” Hasselbacher said, “they would have come in and shut down the store. There were so many people that you sort of lost track of where you were. It was an event purely driven by marketing and scarcity.”
Incredibly, Hasselbacher’s number was called. Better yet, he lucked upon two more bottles via Party Mart on Shelbyville Road, meaning he will have a very Pappy Christmas.
The story is familiar for those chasing high-end, hard-to-find bourbon in limited supply. One imagines the Van Winkle family sitting somewhere, laughing as bourbon lovers everywhere chase ghosts.
Much has to do with where you look and how you look. If a bar has Pappy, it will be expensive. If a liquor store has it, it won’t be on the shelf; more than likely, it will be sold via the aforementioned lottery or held back for regular customers.
And what most don’t know is the fact that how much Pappy bourbon any given store or restaurant scores has a lot to do with the vendor playing nice with the distributor.
“It’s tough to get as much Pappy as you can,” said Joe Riggs, spirits director at Vincenzo’s. “[The distributors] have allotments they distribute based on how much of everything else you sell of their spirits. They have specific loyalties based on what is in your well, what is on your wine list, and what cocktails you sell.”
For instance, while Vincenzo’s does have Pappy Van Winkle bourbons in its stock, it was not able to get Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. It’s a seller’s market. You want Pappy? You want Antique Collection? Stock this line of wines and this flavored vodka, and we’ll see what we can do.
Larry Rice, co-owner of Silver Dollar, doesn’t have any trouble getting Pappy Van Winkle products when they are released twice each year, but he has made a commitment to maintaining the type of relationship with his distributor — Republic National Distributing — that will keep him well stocked.
“It’s not easy for everybody to get it,” Rice said. “You’ve got to show support for the distributor and the Sazerac [maker of Pappy and Buffalo Trace] brand. It’s a year-long project; they have a lot of other great products. If you show a lot of support throughout the year, you are more likely to get a good allocation.”
Party Mart’s Garret Brown feels the lottery is the most fair means of selling such bourbons. He said 360 showed up for a spring lottery, followed by the 641 just a few weeks ago at which Hasselbacher scored his bottle of Pappy 12 Years Old.
When asked how many bottles Party Mart received in its fall allocation, Brown balked. “They don’t like for us to tell exactly,” he said.
He finally revealed 60 as the number, saying it was a variety of bottles of different ages over which he has no control — he just takes what the distributor provides.
Brown remembers just a few years ago when it was easy to get any age of Pappy bourbon, from 10-year all the way up to 23-year and even 25.
“They just sat on a shelf next to Maker’s and everything else,” he said. “I remember it going for $28 a bottle. The last four years, people have gone crazy over it.”
Wine-Searcher.com reports that the average selling price in the United States for a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year is now $2,699.
So, short of a lottery, how could one hope to find a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon this Christmas?
“My advice is to go to a little pa-and-ma store that’s out of the way,” Brown said. “You might find it on the shelf.”
In researching this story, I stopped at a number of liquor stores, small and large. At one small place in the Highlands, I asked about Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, and the employee behind the counter seemed almost nervous to respond. When I told him why I was inquiring, he reached under the counter and produced a bottle of Pappy 12-year.
“It’s my last bottle,” he said. I didn’t buy it, but I was tempted. I have to admit, the tension almost made it feel like some sort of black market exchange was about to go down. Over a bottle of bourbon. I thought I heard a voice in my head say, Just step away from the Pappy.
At Highland Liquors, Hal Salsbury didn’t have a drop of Pappy Van Winkle or Antique Collection.
“If it’s boutique,” he said, “it’s hard to keep in stock. I’ve been selling booze for 17 years, and I’ve never seen the market like this.”
Louisville-based bourbon author Fred Minnick said some of the most sought-after bourbons on the market include not just Pappy and Antique Collection, but Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch (2012 and 2013), Michter’s 20 Year Old, and Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye. Heck, Minnick noted that bourbon is so popular now that even the widely distributed Maker’s Mark has been known to run out, which prompted the distillery to dilute the product, creating a consumer backlash on social media earlier this year.
Other bourbons that “fly off the shelves” at Highland Liquors, according to Salsbury, include Angel’s Envy, Black Maple Hill, E.H. Taylor and Old Forrester Birthday.
So, what does one do for good bourbon if your local store can’t get it for you? If you can’t have your Pappy, should you just drink water? Not at all. Salsbury said there are plenty of good bourbons with the same flavor profile as the hard-to-find brands. For instance, he prefers a brand called Wathen’s, a single-barrel bourbon made in Owensboro. It’s plentiful and affordable — which is probably why there isn’t a frenzy over it.
Salsbury said he also sells a lot of Elmer T. Lee and Johnny Drum bourbon, along with Four Roses brand bourbons. In fact, Four Roses is getting creative with how it promotes its bourbon. Highland Liquors has a Four Roses in stock that is exclusive to the store. Essentially, the liquor store’s owner went to Four Roses, picked a barrel, and Four Roses bottled that bourbon exclusively for him as “Bryan’s Pick.”
The Silver Dollar’s Larry Rice recommends Weller 12 Year Old or Weller 107 Wheated as a replacement for Pappy.
“That’s your closest flavor profile,” he said.
Rice actually likes Old Fitzgerald, which is easy to find and under $20. He also said he likes Pappy bourbon, but called the Van Winkle family “marketing geniuses.”
“It’s great bourbon,” he said. “Is it as good as 1,000 people showing up to a liquor store to get a bottle? I don’t know.”
But the Hasselbachers of the world will keep chasing. He even admits he’s “a creature led by marketing,” but he will keep hunting it down nevertheless — the incredible fact that he managed to score three bottles during the latest Pappy release is not lost on him.
“I’m probably going to have to savor these bottles for the next few years, because I’m not going to get that lucky again,” Hasselbacher said. “Maybe you’d better not tell people I have more than one bottle.”