Eight years ago, anyone with a little bourbon savvy could walk into a better liquor store and score a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. But that was before it received unprecedented ratings, became a fascination among whiskey snobs and food bloggers, and was fetishized as Justified‘s beverage of choice. Eventually, conspicuous spenders were shelling out thousands for bottles that retailed in the low hundreds. “At the end of the day,” says Noah Rothbaum, author of The Art of American Whiskey, “it’s not really about what’s in the bottle — it’s the fact that they have this trophy whiskey that they can brag about. It’s become legendary.”
Now getting your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle is effectively impossible. If you do, you’ve either paid an embarrassingly large sum or you’ve wasted luck that should have been used on a Powerball ticket. We’re not exaggerating: Buffalo Trace, the home of Pappy, produces its other bourbons by the millions, while Pappy’s annual production is in the thousands of cases. The most-sought Pappy, a 23-year-old Family Reserve, trickles out a scant 3,000 bottles.
So how do you drink a whiskey like Pappy without drinking Pappy? We turned to bourbon master Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker. Minnick and a group of peers recently conducted a blind tasting to answer that same question: What other bourbon tastes the most like Pappy Van Winkle? The results were surprising.
There are typically two major traits used to compare bourbons: mash bill (the percentages of grains mixed together) and age (the amount of time it spends in the barrel). Most bourbons use corn and rye, but Pappy relies on wheat instead of rye. It’s part of the bourbon subset that includes Larceny, Weller, and Maker’s Mark. Pappy is also aged 10 to 23 years, depending on the bottle, making it significantly older than most bourbons on the market. Minnick and his friends found that a third, less obvious trait had great impact: entry proof, or the proof at which the whiskey is first put into the barrel.
It’s a significant enough factor that it can throw off an expert’s estimation of the mash bill. Minnick says his group mistook Larceny (wheated and put in the barrel around 125 proof) for a rye whiskey, and Wild Turkey (a rye whiskey barreled at 114 proof) for a wheated bourbon.
“From a quality perspective, the lower barrel-entry proofs tend to be pretty kick ass,” says Minnick. “The spirit is going in at a lower proof, so it’s cut less when they’re going to bottling. The reason they go into barrels at a higher proof is so that they’ll have more volume, and thus, more money off of it.”
After comparing other whiskeys, Minnick says there are a three somewhat-close-to-Pappy bottles, though he stressed that none are a perfect match. “The closest thing would be Old Weller Antique 107, and then maybe Maker’s Mark,” Minnick says. He also added Weller Special Reserve to the short list.
These alternatives make sense. Weller, which is also produced by Buffalo Trace, has been argued to have a similar (if not the same) recipe to Pappy Van Winkle. The oldest Weller, a 12-year, has joined Pappy as nearly impossible to find, but the Antique 107 and Special Reserve are available and pleasantly affordable. Maker’s similarly shares the wheated properties and a lower barrel entry proof.
So few Pappy alternatives exist, says Minnick, because distillers just aren’t making much bourbon in the same vein. “With Wild Turkey, I could say there are six bourbons just like it,” says Minnick, “but you don’t have a wide selection of low entry proof or wheated bourbons, of that age.”
If you absolutely must get a taste of the real Pappy, Minnick suggests buying a plane ticket to Louisville. “They seem to have an endless supply of it at the whiskey bars, and just pony up the coinage to take a sip.” But before you book, check the database at PursuitOfPappy.com. The website lists every known bar that stocks at least one member of the Pappy family. With a reasonable amount of luck, you might find a spot a little closer to home.
A five- to seven-year-old wheated bourbon made by Buffalo Trace rival Beam Suntory, Maker’s Mark is the largest wheated bourbon by volume. Its younger stock (they never go much higher than seven years) never picks up much of the wood, which limits how close it gets to Pappy. Comparisons aside though, it’s an incredible bourbon, fine-tuned to perfection over decades, and readily available anywhere, anytime. [$25; makersmark.com]
Old Weller Antique 107
Made with arguably the same mash as Pappy, Old Weller Antique 107 is bottled with a higher final ABV. At 107 proof, it’s much spicier and bolder, and shows a bit more of the wood character of the whiskey. Not everyone loves 23 years worth of wood anyway, so Weller has a nice amount of that influence for the average drinker. [$20; buffalotracedistillery.com]
Weller Special Reserve
Special Reserve is also made (allegedly) with the Pappy recipe, and when bottled, it’s the youngest, low-proof member of the Weller Family. The 90 proof and wheat-for-rye substitution make it smooth and delicate, and a hint of wood shows through. [$18; buffalotracedistillery.com]