October. When the weather gets cooler (except when it’s 85 degrees outside) and drinkers turn to thoughts and tumblers of whiskey (unless, like me, your thoughts never left it, even on the hottest of summer days), and Pappy Van Winkle begins to slowly rumble like that Hobbit dragon with hints that they might be releasing their annual allocation of whiskey upon the world any week now. Lazy newspaper and website writers will then conspire to fill up their page with yet another list of “the best whiskey in the world,” in which they repeat the exact same thing they said last year and the year before and the exact same thing every other lazy content generator has coughed up (calling slapping together a slideshow and accompanying sentence “writing” is a bit much). This means it’s also the time of year that liquor store employees start to get the nervous, annoyed shakes in anticipation of a legion of status seekers and well-meaning new buyers and gift seekers flocking to the store to inquire as to the availability of what will inevitably be listed as the best, most desirable whiskey: Pappy Van Winkle.
They won’t have any in stock, of course. Pappy Van Winkle is produced in incredibly small supply, and since every paper and website copies the same article, they all send legions of neophyte and trend-following consumers off in search of a whiskey they will not be able to find. And that means store employees will have to politely weather the “Do you have any Pappy Van Winkle?” question over and over for weeks on end, until websites and papers have exhausted themselves of the article and have moved on to making top ten holiday gift idea lists (pray Pappy isn’t on it). This also means that spirits websites will write at least as many articles about how silly the whole Pappy thing is and how everyone is following a trend, so on and so forth. I don’t want to add my voice to that chorus (at least, not any more). It’s not any more productive than the “Oh my God, you have to have Pappy” articles. Instead, in the interest of taking a more positive look at things, I thought I’d add my voice to the chorus of third-tier predictable Pappy articles: the ones where we explore the options you as a consumer (or you as the weary liquor store employee) have when you realize that, yet again, you will not be buying any Pappy Van Winkle.
But first, a quick paragraph’s history of this most in-demand of bourbons. Pappy Van Winkle is named after legendary Stitzel-Weller master distiller Julian Van Winkle (for that story, check out my article on Stitzel-Weller). His bourbon, and that of the distillery as a whole, was legendary up until the place was shuttered. Some years later, the new generation of Van Winkles tapped the long-dormant bottles resting in the old Stitzel-Weller rickhouses and, through a partnership with Buffalo Trace, launched the Van Winkle line: five bourbons and a rye. Despite the fact that all of the whiskey gets lumped under the “Pappy” monicker by some, only three of them are actually Pappy Van Winkle — three bourbons, aged fifteen, twenty, and twenty-three years respectively. The other bourbons are the Old Rip Van Winkle (aged ten years) and the Van Winkle Special Reserve (aged twelve years). The rye is marketed under the name Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye.
It used to be that a bottle of fifteen year old Pappy Van Winkle was, while not common, not difficult to find and would set you back about $40. Once it started making the top of every whiskey list ever printed, it rapidly became impossible to find, with stores continually upping the price while collectors on eBay and other outlets charged even more astronomical sums. people even auction off the empty bottles, and any product “made with Pappy Van Winkle” gathers huge crowds and instant sell-outs. Pretty soon, Pappy 15 took the entire line over the top with it. Old Rip 10 used to be everywhere and cost next to nothing. Now it’s as scarce as anything in the Pappy line. I haven’t seen a bottle of the rye or Special Reserve on a store shelf in years. I don’t even know if they still make them. Deluged by people seeking out this suddenly rare and very in-demand whiskey, stores started implementing all sorts of crazy, if necessary, policies. First there was rationing. Then a lottery. And all the while, the actual supply of Pappy — dead stock from a dead distillery — was dwindling.
Eventually, the Van Winkles started contracting with Buffalo Trace to keep the line alive. If you happen to luck into a bottle of Pappy now, it is not the same Pappy you would have bought seven or eight years ago. But it will be very close, and what gets lost sometimes in the hype and stampede is that it really is quite a good bourbon. But it’s not the only bourbon. And chances are, you aren’t getting any. So as a buyer who has been told to look for Pappy and is now facing the harsh reality of that assertion, you have a choice to make about what kind of person you want to be. You can get pouty at the liquor store, tell them the article you read said you should come here and you made a special trip, and no you are not interested in anything else. You want Pappy because that’s what the article said!!! Or you can be the type of consumer that realizes how difficult it is to get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, and you can ask the store clerk for a recommendation on something similar but not as elusive. Guess which kind of person the store clerk will like? Guess which kind of person I think you should be?
You can also go in armed with a couple alternatives ahead of time, making the shopping process even easier for you and whoever might be helping you at the store. So here are five great bourbons, of varying price, that are every bit the measure of pappy without requiring you to compete in the Hunger Games or hire Indiana Jones to find them for you. And I’m leaving out the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection — it’s as difficult to find as Pappy, but that’s another story I probably won’t ever get to.
The Nearest: Weller
Calling Weller “the next best thing” to pappy does a tremendous disservice to Weller, which is a world-class bourbon in its own right. It’s so similar in flavor to Pappy 15 that pretty much every “Pappy alternatives” article begins with this one. Julian van Winkle III, current boss of the Van Winkle brand, himself names Weller as the top alternative to his own impossible to find bourbon. It even comes from the same distillery (Buffalo Trace). As a result, the formerly common Weller line has become a bit elusive itself, though still plenty available (especially when compared to Pappy) and the price is still very low (though not as low as it used to be just a couple years ago). I’m not going to buck the trend here. Weller is fantastic, a wheated bourbon very similar to Pappy. It comes in three varieties: Old Weller Antique (107 proof), Old Weller 12 Year Old, and W.L. Weller Special Reserve, a seven year old, 90 proof whiskey (there is also the William Larue Weller Antique, but we’re not getting into that one). Any of the three will do, but my personal favorite is the Old Weller Antique. If you or whoever it is you are shopping for is looking for the taste and quality of Pappy rather than just the name Pappy, Weller is the one. Hell, it practically is Pappy.
The Pricey Bottle: Jefferson’s Presidential Select
At 17, 18 or 21 years old, depending on the bottle, Jefferson’s Presidential Select can set you back financially at about the same rate as a bottle of Pappy. The only difference is that you can actually find and purchase Jefferson’s. All of the Jefferson’s whiskies please me, but Presidential Select is a breed apart. It has even been rumored that for a while, the Jefferson’s 17 year old and Pappy were the same bourbon, both coming from old Stitzel-Weller stock and the same mashbill. No idea if that’s true. It certainly isn’t true now, whatever the case. At this point, neither is coming from Stitzel-Weller stock. Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17 has sadly been discontinued, though you can still find it around. The replacement 18 year old is similar, the 21 year old is a very different, though equally delicious, bourbon (the primary difference being that, unlike the 17, the 21 contains no wheat). For the purposes of replacing Pappy Van Winkle, the 17 year old is ideal, but since it can be difficult to come by, the 18 or 21 year old is still suitably great and comes at a price point that makes it a fancier gift or indulgence than Weller (though not necessarily better — remember that age and price are never a dependable criteria for judging of quality).
Hobo’s Alternative: Rebel Reserve
If you happen to be a penniless dandy bluffing your way through the upper-crust of society with naught but a quick wit and smart set of clothes, consider your best Pappy alternative to be Rebel Reserve. Association with bottom shelf mainstay Rebel Yell makes some people turn up their nose at this scrappy, inexpensive option. Like Pappy and Weller, it is a wheated bourbon, and unlike the more disreputable Rebel Yell, Rebel Reserve packs a warming burn that isn’t just alcohol and mayhem. The combination of good quality, cheap price, and easy availability (you can find it pretty much anywhere, and no one is storming liquor stores to buy it because the New York Times said to) makes Rebel Reserve my personal go-to Pappy replacement. Actually, it’s pretty much just a go-to even when Pappy is the farthest thing from my mind.
The Oddball: Bernheim Original
Pappy, Weller, Jefferson, and Rebel Reserve — these are all wheated bourbons. Bernheim, made by powerhouse Kentucky distiller Heaven Hill, is a wheated whiskey. The difference? It’s the old “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” thing. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Among other rules, bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Wheated bourbon is usually at least that (the most common percentage seems to be somewhere in the 70s) plus some combination of wheat and barley (some bourbons even use four grains, keeping rye in the mix). Bernheim, the only wheated whiskey I know of, is designated as such because it’s majority grain is wheat, not corn. So it is a whiskey, but it cannot legally be called bourbon. Ehh, whatever. It’s fantastic, and the purest expression of what wheat can do in a whiskey. Like Rebel Reserve, it is produced in higher quantity and with less demand than the Jefferson’s or the Weller, so it is very easy to find. Unlike Rebel Reserve, it costs more. Not break the bank, but you will know you spent a little money. Still, it’s worth every penny and is one for the drinker looking for something beyond Pappy but not unlike Pappy.
The Dark Horse: Old Scout
Everything I’ve listed so far has been a big product from a big distiller, easy to find and generally well-known if not always as well-regarded as it should be. Old Scout, from West Virginia micro-distiller Smooth Ambler, is the underdog of the bunch. Like many micro-distillers, Smooth Ambler splits its time between distilling and aging their own product (they are waiting for it to age properly) and sourcing barrels from other distilleries to bottle as part of their Old Scout line. They actually had a release called Very Old Scout, a 19 year old bourbon more than one person referred to as “the Pappy killer.” Unfortunately, Very Old Scout is hard to come by and won’t be coming back, but the more available Old Scout is a phenomenal option. I don’t know whose juice is in the bottle (Smooth Ambler is very up front and open about sourcing whiskey, but like most American independent bottlers, they are obliged to be coy about the specific source. I don’t really care. Sometimes, you just have to let the mystery solving be and enjoy the whiskey. It comes at ten, six, and seven years of age, and either will do right by you — though for Pppy fans, the ten will probably be your best bet.
The whiskey comprising this list is on here because it is great, it is available, and it bears some resemblance to the taste and high quality of Pappy and all the other Van Winkles. But there are other whiskies out there, just as good but with slightly different taste profiles. If you walk into a store looking for Pappy, which they won’t have, be open to other suggestions, whether you are looking for something similar to Pappy or more generally just looking for really good booze. The options are myriad, and the great thing about American whiskey is how much incredible stuff can be had for a surprisingly low price. And you can only imagine how relieved a store clerk will be when you walk in and say, “I read about Pappy and know it is impossible to find; I’m interested in good whiskey though and am open to suggestions. In fact, I have this article I printed out from Teleport City…”