It happens at least once a day, the liquor store employee admits.
No, no … it’s at least once a shift, he corrects himself, and at least once a shift per employee.
“I’ll put it this way — we’re really focused on customer service, but at this point … we’re not allowed to be rude when people ask for Pappy Van Winkle, but you almost can’t help it.”
Another store employee is originally from the Washington, D.C., area. He tells me his friends working on Capitol Hill swear it’s the new currency of choice among Beltway power brokers. Long gone are the days of trading single-malts and rare malbecs to gain an audience with a key congressional aide. Nope, now it’s Pappy.
Pappy, aka, Pappy Van Winkle, a small-batch bourbon from Frankfort, Ky., renowned for a taste and finish that’s remarkably balanced and smooth. It’s bottled at 15, 20 and 23 years, and the retail price rises accordingly. For a fifth of 15-year, you might pay around $60 at an honest store.
I’ve been drinking good bourbon for my entire adult life, and Pappy Van Winkle is damn fine bourbon, but it’s still in fact a simple bourbon.
I remember my last time: I was talking bourbons with a waiter at City House after finishing an anniversary dinner with my wife last fall. He discreetly mentioned that there was a single bottle of Pappy 15 open for the evening, and we promptly ordered a glass to accompany a plate of homemade cookies for dessert. Anyone who knows the Krystal drive-thru menu numbering by heart would strain to classify himself as a foodie, but I feel confident in describing Pappy plus cookies as a “playful, memorable pairing.”
You’ve probably heard that it cures cancer, but that remarkably smooth finish — hints of oak, wheat, a chewy, almost peppery sweetness! — has yet to inspire me to shoot it between my toes in a fit of unbridled ecstasy. Nor has it moved me to wait for hours and hours in the predawn rain for the mere chance of buying a bottle, as many folks did last Black Friday.
Store owners around Nashville don’t like admitting that they don’t know what to do about the phenomenon. Pappy is called a small-batch, which in intricate whiskey jargon means that the total batch of bourbon produced is small. None of them want to comment on the record, because of their loyalty to the distiller and distributor, neither of whom can help that a product that takes years to finish has suddenly become the cocktail crowd’s Tickle Me Elmo.
“How do you tell this one loyal customer they get a bottle, and the other that he or she doesn’t? We pride ourselves on catering to our customers, building loyalty and being able to provide new items. We simply can’t meet the demand right now. No one can,” one owner admits.
Mirroring the nation’s bourbon craze of the moment, Nashville’s Pappy hysteria crosses subgenres: sorority girls, hipsters, housewives, entertainment industry minions trying to secure a bottle for musicians and actors breezing through town, naïve everyguys who saw it on an episode of Justified and plenty of yuppie couples trying to build a home bar using dog-eared pages of Garden & Gun.
A product that once used to sit on shelves for months at a time is now sought with zeal, largely for a variety of non-bourbon drinking reasons, thus feeding a nasty black market. A note to hunters: After more than a week of calling Midstate liquor stores, I could find only one bottle for sale, at a liquor store in downtown Nashville. The price tag is five times the former going rate.
If you’re willing to abandon the pretension of “Pappy or bust,” all is far from lost: Right now at any number of local stores or bars, someone can assist you in purchasing a similar bourbon with similar results, depending on your palate. This is a renaissance for bourbon, and the choices have never been greater. Even rye whiskey, once the rotgut of choice for true salt-of-the-earth blue-collar laborers, has been smoothed, spiced and repackaged for curious new fans.
Nashville is at a particular disadvantage for an honest drinker looking for elusive bourbons. Multiple merchants I spoke to admitted that tourists frequently seek out an expensive bottle of whiskey simply to say they bought it in Nashville, the home of … bourbon?
“Yeah, they don’t quite get this isn’t Kentucky, or don’t know it comes from Kentucky, or just don’t care,” one floor rep grumbled.
“Man, I hope they don’t mention it on the TV show,” a store clerk across town worried.
Damn all that equity in our municipality’s “it” status. With Pappy leading the way, the high-end booze wave of demand has crashed down on otherwise unpretentious, humble local boozehounds.
This is partly our fault. We, the bourbon drinking collective, have been doing it for years now — haughtily referencing some tiny boutique bourbon we’ve recently tried. They snobbed up the beer and we said nothing. They snobbed up pub food and we said nothing. This was inevitable, and we ushered it in.
10 years ago: “Oh you like Jim Beam? You should try Maker’s Mark.”
Five years ago: “Maker’s, huh? Check out Bulleit next time.”
Two years ago: “Bulleit’s a solid starter bourbon, but next time try for a Jefferson’s Reserve. I had it at a tasting recently. You’ll hear about it soon.”
And so on. Before I knew the impact of my own pretentiousness, I’d contributed to the mania. The marketing has amped up America, too: I spent a good portion of a recent Sunday evening staring down the overdressed packaging of the Basil Hayden’s I was working on. The metallic crest, the faux-antique lettering, the distiller’s signature wrapped over the cork — the entire bottle looks like the get-up for some sort of steam-punk bluegrass superhero.
It’s a damn shame. More than any other popular spirit, I state without pretension — bourbon is the most American and the most alive of alcohols.
When I worked in New York 11 years ago, my scotch-drinking coworkers called me white trash for ordering Maker’s Mark. Oh, how those were the days.
Never once in its short history has the spirit been something preserved by its consumer or coveted and displayed as a status symbol.
“… And that’s the sad part,” the local store owner confessed. “In those lines you see some of your loyal customers, but a lot of collectors. People going around and buying it up just to own. Not to drink.”
I implore you, Nashville: Enjoy your passion. Drink your Pappy, and if you don’t have any, there’s some other grand and wonderful brown liquor just looking for a home.
There’s irony in lamenting good old brown liquor’s anointed “it” moment in the same “it” city routinely accused of turning authentic American expression into an industry of individually wrapped, three-minute-long FM junk food.
Don’t be that city, Nashville. If you stand in line for your Pappy, drink your Pappy. Bourbon is best appreciated as an event, and events are temporary, imperfect and the foundation of great memories. The first time I tasted Knob Creek, I was 19 and chased it with a Marlboro Light outside a keg party. I fell in love with Blanton’s drinking it from a plastic hotel room Dixie cup while toasting a friend’s engagement. At my own wedding, my future bride-to-be and I invested our reception budget in the right places — the band, and an all-bourbon bar.
Bourbon is the American event of alcohols, never to be mounted on a wall or set atop a shelf to accent the keen cultural awareness you stole from a Billy Reid ad.
Drink your Pappy Van Winkle, Nashville, because the rest of us are out of it right now. And you can bet that if I see it used as a bookend atop some thrift-store credenza at your next dinner party, I’m getting out a glass and I’m not going to ask.