People are obsessed with Pappy Van Winkle. Anyone remotely familiar with bourbon knows this all too well. But with demand far exceeding supply, it's natural to go looking for the next best thing.
Obsession is a powerful and an all-encompassing thing. When something grabs a hold of a person and sparks their interest, they eventually begin to wonder, “what’s the best” of that particular thing. During the mid 2000’s when bourbon was gaining popularity, Pappy Van Winkle’s name got thrown into the ring when people started asking that question about bourbon. Whether that answer is truth or merely just hype began to matter less as bourbon’s popularity really started to skyrocket in the early part of the decade.
As more bourbon drinkers sprung up, demand increased as did the dollar amount people were willing to spend on just one bottle. In what seemed like overnight, a growing premium bourbon scene exploded. A perfect storm of money, demand, and obsession swept into the bourbon industry and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon found itself at the frontlines of it.
With increased media attention and their relentless focus on Pappy, “the bottle with the old man smoking a cigar,” quickly became a “hot ticket” item. After Pappy sat on shelves year round in the early 2000s, it now sells out in a matter of minutes. As with anything you can’t have, it only makes you want it more.
But when people couldn’t get a bottle of Pappy and weren’t willing to pay many times over the MSRP for it, they began searching for the next best thing. For a time, bourbon drinkers had a fair shot. Companies were slow to react to the sudden influx of new drinkers and prices remained fairly steady. It wasn’t unheard of finding an exceptional bottle of bourbon - sometimes on the self and at MSRP - any day of the week. Unfortunately, those days of exceptional bourbon generally being undervalued and underappreciated have ended.
Distilleries aren’t stupid and are becoming more and more confident as bourbon’s growth remains healthy. They know their businesses better than we do. They no longer have to buy our love. It’s now very hard to find truly exceptional bourbon priced at market value and it certainly won’t be undervalued as long as the boom is still happening.
Times are too good for distilleries and they’re reaping the rewards of bourbon’s continued popularity. They’re now much more willing to take a chance and price exceptional bourbon - even average bourbon - higher than they would have a few years ago. They know they can release a slightly above average bourbon, sometimes even non age stated, and charge $75-$150 or more and consumers will buy it. They know they can charge secondary prices for their limited releases, regardless of quality, and many distilleries are doing just that.
Some of the best reviewed bourbons in the past two years - some that probably would have been dubbed “the next Pappy” if it wasn’t for their price - have cost north of $200. A new upper pricing tier has quickly developed and in some ways, bourbon is starting to resemble what happened to scotch during its heyday.
As a result, the days of finding “the next Pappy” are over. Pappy Van Winkle is a phenomenon that happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s quality, price, and for a time, availability were in perfect balance. Increased social media discussion about bourbon combined with increased mainstream media attention helped turn it into something bigger than it probably should be.
There will always be some bourbon that is reasonably attainable at a great value for its quality, but it’s highly unlikely in the current climate that there will be another bourbon quite like Pappy Van Winkle. So for everyone that missed the boat with Pappy and is buying anything with a “limited edition” on its label in hopes of it become the “next Pappy” - just stop. Get over your fear of potentially missing out on a new second coming of Pappy because chances are, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. If having a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle is that important to you, put the time in or simply pay up. The Pappy ship has sailed and if you’re waiting for it to return, or hoping to jump on the next one, just stop, because that ship has also sailed.