There is was, just a few tantalizing feet away: the legendary Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-Year-Old, the most prized bourbon in the world. It was in Dallas, at a place called the Chesterfield. An eccentric cocktail guru named Eddie “Lucky” Campbell had stood on his bar in the middle of service, reached up to remove a secret wood panel behind a light sconce and brought out a bottle that seemed to emit an inner amber glow. I was getting Lucky’s private stash! It was a daunting moment: Spoken of in whispers, tracked by rumor and gossip, Pappy is a kind of Maltese Falcon for hard drinkers. What if I didn’t like it?
As it happened, I did. A lot. But then, it wasn’t necessarily the deeply wooded, ineffably mellow taste of the whiskey that I had been after; it was the distinction of having bagged the white rhino of American spirits. In this, I was like a whole body of bourbon customers these days, ambitious souls more than willing to pay hundreds of dollars on the black market for the rarest and most prestigious brands of bourbon. On eBay, EBAY +0.66% which doesn’t allow the sale of alcoholic beverages (except for preapproved sales of wine), bottles selling for serious money are advertised as empty (wink, wink). Pappy 23-year-old is only the most sought-after of the lot; other bourbons, like Black Maple Hill and Eagle Rare (not to mention Pappy 20- and 15-year-old) are almost as coveted. Despite being sold for $600 or even $700 on the Internet, the 23-year-old Van Winkle isn’t even the most expensive bourbon to be found on the open market: A Brooklyn, N.Y., whiskey bar and restaurant, Char No. 4, sells 24-year-old Martin Mill at an astounding $100 per ounce.
Drinkers have been willing to pay a premium for high-end spirits such as single-malt scotch and V.O.C. cognac for many years. But I can’t remember anyone hawking “empty” bottles of them online. So what is driving this bourbon frenzy? Part of it is the simple issue of scarcity. “We never know when we are going to get a case of Black Maple Hill,” said Nima Ansari, the spirits buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits, one of New York’s top liquor stores. “We can’t really say we carry it. If we have it, word gets around, and then it’s gone.” The best bourbons generally take more than 15 years to age, and no one saw the current bourbon boom coming in the ’90s; if anything, demand was down at the time. The bourbon producers are doing everything in their power to cope with a demand the simple physics of space-time makes impossible to fill. Some, like Maker’s Mark, have been reduced to the expedient of simply watering down their liquor—a plan it quickly abandoned, though not before a public-relations disaster of New Coke proportions.
Of course, as anybody who ever had a crush on someone unavailable can testify, obstacles have a way of making an objective more attractive. Plus, small-batch production speaks to a particular ideal of quality that is very much in the air: We live in an era of “artisanal” jams and candy bars. The craft cocktail movement, more to the point, put customers in a woozy and expansive frame of mind. “The revitalization of cocktail culture helped make bourbon cool again,” said Eric Gregory, the president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “People are drinking classic cocktails again. They watch ‘Mad Men’ and want to order an Old-Fashioned like Don Draper. It’s part of the culture now.”
If the pump was primed for bourbon generally, the idea of trophy bourbon came in the form of the Pappy-worship expressed by influential chefs like Anthony Bourdain, David Chang and especially Sean Brock, of Husk in Charleston, S.C., who calls it “America’s finest product.” Why not pay for the greatest of all American spirits? “Big bottles” are, after all, a huge part of high-end dining and drinking, a sector of the market that has swollen in recent years. It’s only natural that, as Americans have come to accept our own cuisine as being as good as France’s or Japan’s, we’d do likewise for our native liquor.
Things can start to get weird, though, when a bottle’s cultural value balloons out of pace with its rate of production. The connoisseur who sighs longingly over the memory of a Cheval Blanc ’47 revisits a real and precious experience; a day-trader who guzzles Rémy Martin Louis XIII because it’s the most expensive bottle at the bar is just a punch line. (The latter liquor is so highly valued that thieves once broke into Manhattan’s Osteria del Circo just to steal it, leaving the cash register untouched.) It’s inevitable that, in a seller’s market of the kind the best bourbons now command, a fog of mystery would begin to shroud some of the less well-known brands on the shelves.
For one thing, it’s not always entirely clear to buyers that very few bourbons are actually distilled by the people who sell them. There are basically a handful of big distilleries in Kentucky responsible for nearly every good bourbon you ever heard of. The Buffalo Trace distillery by itself produces not only its namesake bourbon, but also Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee and dozens of others, including the Old Rip Van Winkle brands. (Although, just to be clear, those are all made to the Van Winkle family’s minute specifications.)
The fact that so much small-batch spirit is made at a few large distilleries should come as no surprise, given how many independent outfits had to give up their stills during Prohibition and subsequent calamities. But it does take something away from the artisanal mystique to think of many singular bottles coming from the same factory. Likewise, some of the best bourbons, including Black Maple Hill, don’t really exist as a single liquor with a single recipe: They’re mixed from different bourbons acquired from multiple sources, and aged and bottled by the Willett Distilling Co. (which has its own line of superb whiskeys, some of which are labeled Willett, some of which aren’t). There’s nothing shameful about the practice; Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a blended whiskey, too, and better by far to my taste than any single-malt. You can see how a person might get confused, though, what with the hand-numbered bottle and the “limited edition” boast on the label. Still, there’s no doubt these bourbons are worth the cost. “The best of these are incredible values for what they are,” said Astor’s Mr. Ansari.
And what of the $700 Pappy? Is it worth it? I asked Julian Van Winkle what he thought. The king of bourbon laughed. “If they’re dumb enough to pay that much,” he said, “that’s their prerogative.”
Beyond the Mystique: What We’re Actually Drinking
Bourbon is, legally speaking, a whiskey made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred new oak barrels. (There are some complicated proof requirements, but they’re not important.) The original purpose of charring was to make the wood smooth and clean, but the burn imparts its own smoky taste and rich red color, too. As for the requisite newness—barrels are used only once; after that, they’re often shipped off to Scotland for aging that country’s own native spirit—it guarantees that there is plenty of the wood’s natural sugars, vanillas and tannins to impart. Other ingredients, like rye or wheat, affect the taste, as does the water bourbon is made with and, of course, the amount of time it sits in a barrel. Most bourbons are a mix from various barrels the master distiller selects, but some are from a single barrel he or she considers exceptional and are marked as such on the bottle.
Neat Bourbon Bars Around the Country
Proof on Main, Louisville, Ky. / It would just be wrong if Kentucky didn’t boast a great bourbon bar, and the bar at the acclaimed Proof on Main restaurant is one of the best to be found anywhere. The list has the usual encyclopedic quality you expect at temples of bourbon, but what sets it apart is the number of bourbon flights available to pilgrims seeking to learn the deep truths of Kentucky corn whiskey.
The Bar at Husk, Charleston, S.C. / Generally, the bars at destination restaurants—and make no mistake, Sean Brock’s Husk has become a true destination restaurant—basically serve as staging areas for expectant diners. Not so the Bar at Husk, which has a separate name, a separate menu and even a separate building. More important, there is probably no bar on this earth in which you are more likely to encounter a bottle of aged Pappy.
Char No. 4 and Maysville, New York / Both of these restaurant siblings are known as much for their whiskey bars as for their accomplished American cookery. Given that the latter, more ambitious, restaurant is named after the reputed birthplace of bourbon, you won’t be surprised to find it a great place to become knowledgeable about the stuff. There are even one-ounce tasting pours available from all the bottles, the better for you to learn about different ones without paying an astronomical tuition.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington / Though Jack Rose describes itself as a “dining saloon,” the emphasis is definitely on the saloon part of the equation. The bourbon selection is truly overwhelming. Happily, the bar has a rowdy, proletarian vibe, so you don’t feel like a student at the University of Kentucky Whiskey, which could easily happen otherwise.
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Miami / Yardbird, like Husk, is a leading exemplar of the New Southern cooking (aka lard-core). But the bourbon list here is on par with anyone’s, and the bar has created a wide range of original cocktails that take the country’s most venerable spirit and send it in new and creative directions, using elements like smoked-pear purée, cardamom, peach preserves and even bacon. Jim Beam and Hiram Walker never dreamed of these flavors.
Source: The Wall Street Journal