Pappy Van Winkle Is About to Get That Much More Rare

Mj 618_348_pappy van winkle scarcity
Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty Images

If you're preparing for this year's annual release of Van Winkle bourbons — which includes the brand's illustrious Holy Grail bottle, Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old — you're about to have a bad day.

As the annual countdown towards Pappy's release continues, Van Winkle's distillers announced Wednesday that the brand is only able to release about half the number of bottles that they did in 2014. But it's not entirely the distillery's fault. If you're looking for answers, they come in some combination of science, fate, and global warming.

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Bourbon is aged for a predetermined number of years in oak barrels. During the time it sits maturing, a barrel loses a percentage of its total volume to evaporation each year (often referred to as the "angel's share"). More is lost each year, at a rate of about 5-6 percent according to many distillers in Kentucky. So, a barrel of 23 years of age has significantly less volume than one only 3 years of age. "Many of the 53 gallon oak barrels often yield less than 20 gallons," explains Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director for Buffalo Trace, which produces Van Winkle. And since they can't make more of something produced 20 years ago without a time machine, the total available stock depletes significantly every year.

If they want to put more whiskey on shelves, they have to draw from older barrels to make up the difference. "The problem is, if you take 16-year-old bourbon to supplement the 15-year-old bottles, you're shooting yourself in the foot," Comstock says. "Then there's less for 20 and 23-year-old bourbon a few years later." In that case, you'll just have to wait.

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Sometimes bad things happen to good barrels. Whether it's a leak, a few bad wood staves that taint the product, or unseasonably hot summers that increase evaporation, some portion of the stock will age slower than the rest, and taste worse because of it. It happens. The problem for the Van Winkle bourbons is it happened with more barrels this year. Comstock says there's no one reason to explain the losses. He pointed to "high standards of quality," which probably means that the number of usable barrels was much lower.

Comstock also wouldn't comment on the actual production numbers, or the specific number of cases lost this year, but the brand issued a release stating that the losses across the 15, 20, and 23-year-old whiskeys could be "as much as half" of the total production. For the distributors they sell to, it's going to be a difficult process re-portioning the allocations.

Here's what it means for you:

If you have a good relationship with a retailer, the best option is to reach out and try to secure your bottle now. If you had a lucky spot where you could sometimes grab a bottle, you're probably already out of luck. And if you're hoping to start your search now, don't bother.

In restaurants, scarcity means higher prices. We've seen the cost at more than $100 a pour in Kentucky, where they're most likely to get the most stock. If you want to try it somewhere like New York or Las Vegas next year, you'd be better off buying a case of something else.

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Theoretically, buying from dealers should be twice as difficult, and the aftermarket cost would be twice as much. But people who have stocked Pappy for the past few years will be looking to sell their bottles off this year for a bigger cash out, because their supply didn't go down and demand has certainly gone up.

Comstock emphasized that the aim was keeping quality standards high, rather than just pumping out bottles to meet the market. The company refuses to lower their threshold, and to their credit they continue to win awards and make great bourbon. It just means that to try their product, you're going to have to really, really want it.

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