The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle – Part Two

Back in November, I did the part one of a post about the hunt for “Unobtanium” – Pappy Van Winkle.  Coming off of another fruitless season of hunting for Pappy (and several other ‘collector’ bourbons), I wanted to share some of my experiences.  Judging from the readership stats, I seem to have stumbled upon something, because that post is the third most popular one I’ve put up this year.  I chose to hold off on the second part until now because I had a few irons in the fire, and wanted to be able to report fully and honestly if my alternate plans to procure some of the mystical elixir worked.

I can now report they did not.

Not that this bourbon hunting season has been fruitless.  I have been able to find the Parker’s Heritage Wheated, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the Woodford Reserve Sonoma, the Maker’s Mark Barrel Proof and the Black Maple Hill 6 year, all to try and report on soon – good or bad.  Nor was Pappy the only thing I struck out on.  Like most, I was wholly unable to get my mitts on any of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the 2014 Old Forester Birthday Release, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength or quite a few other sought after bourbons.  But it is Pappy, above and beyond all else, that seems to captivate and frustrate the masses (and often, myself), most of all.

So today I write about some other methods you can try to get the impossible: Secondary markets and Liquor Control states.  Maybe your luck will be better than mine.  I certainly have my doubts.

I want to be sure to state one other fact as well: media sources love to report how Pappy Van Winkle is ‘impossible’ to find, how it’s scarcity is the great equalizer, where billionaire CEOs and bourbon-loving bus drivers are equally perplexed.  That is not the truth.  If you want to but Pappy, there are plenty of places to find it.  As I post this, there are 12 listings on the Detroit Craigslist page for Pappy, the highest being $1,700 for a bottle of 23 year (the lowest being $250 for a bottle of 12 Year).  The concept that no-one can get it is an absolute myth.  The truth is very few can afford to get it except for retail price at an honest store.

Currently, my collection has four bottles of Van Winkle products.  I have a bottle of the 15 Year, that my sister kindly gave me as a birthday gift in 2011, before insanity truly took hold.  Out of respect for the gift, I’ve never asked details, but it’s my understanding she bought it on the secondary market from another state (Illinois, I believe), for a high but not unreasonable price.  I have a bottle of 10 Year that I bought through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website, a bottle of 12 Year I bought from a local Metro Detroit store (by winning the chance in a raffle), and a bottle of 20 Year that I bought from a seller on Craigslist, along with some other choice selections, when I was in Kentucky early this year.

As I detailed in my earlier post, I struck out with my local vendors.  I frequent about six different stores around Michigan. Two didn’t receive any Pappy at all this year.  Two more put it up for sale at astronomical prices ($1,500 for a bottle of 23 Year, for example, a bottle that sells for $250 retail).  And the last two sold it to people for the prices they offered – still exceeding $1,000 per bottle.  It’s an unfortunate game, but one detailed quite nicely in an article posted earlier this month on The Daily Beast.

“Pappy has become a prime example of a certain kind of product that economists called a “Veblen good.” Named for the sociologist of the “leisure class,” Thorstein Veblen, these are luxury items that defy the normal workings of the Law of Demand. Normally, when the price of a product climbs, the demand slips. With Veblen goods, the demand does the opposite, growing as the price goes up. In part this is because the person buying the Veblen good gets what economist Harvey Leibenstein called “conspicuous consumption utility.” And Pappyphiles have been nothing if not conspicuous.

But Veblen goods also function because price stands in as a measure of quality—if you can’t tell what the best whiskey is, but you very much want to be seen drinking the best whiskey, then you choose a very pricey spirit. The more expensive it becomes, the better it must be, which in turn makes it more desirable. But note the embarrassing logic of Veblen goods: they appeal to those unable to determine quality based on the evaluation of the product itself—it’s the stuff of those less than savvy folks who need price as a proxy.” – Full Article Here

Now, I’m not quite ready to go full backlash yet.  I still think that in my experience, Pappy Van Winkle is one of the best bourbons I’ve had.  But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that so much of the allure, even to me, is the scarcity of it all.  That’s why I found myself standing on a freezing downtown Louisville street corner last year, buying a bottle of Pappy 20 from a complete stranger from a Craigslist post.

The Secondary Market

And there are plenty of people on both Craigslist and boozehound websites, happy to sell you a bottle for your first-born child and a few thousand dollars.  Like I stated earlier, it’s all about how much you are willing to pay.  Yes, it is a transaction that may well be illegal in your state.  Yes, it may lead you to make an exchange of paper bags in the darkest corner of a parking garage.  And yes, it will almost definitely mean you handing over an obscene amount of money for a bottle that will potentially then be too invested in to actually open.  But it can be done.  But buyer beware – like any other exchange of the sort, it is at the least potentially illegal, and at most, dangerous.

There are a good number of Pappy Van Winkle “fan” groups on Facebook.  While a good number of the participants will undoubtedly be clueless DBs looking for a venue to brag, there are good, decent bourbon fans, and often, they will be looking to sell (or at least trade).  If you can stand posts and posts of people showing their “collection,” it might be a wise place to put your effort.

If money is no object, there are some websites that offer bottles as well.  They often make the Craigslist prices seem reasonable – a quick look today showed me bottles of 23 Year going for as much as $3,000.  I won’t post any of their names here, because I don’t want to encourage such scalping, but know that they are out there.

Liquor Control States

I’m going to quickly mention this because its fresh on my mind.  Most states have privatized liquor distribution – the state has laws, but the importing and distribution is left to private companies/persons.  A few, however, have state run Liquor Control Boards.  In these states, it is the state government itself that orders, prices and distributes liquor (and often, beer and wine).

Pennsylvania is one of these states, and my wife happens to hail from there.  She has quite a few family members there as well, so we visit several times a year.  I have been able to find some products in Pennsylvania unavailable in Michigan. More importantly, when Pennsylvania gets a particularly popular (and limited) product in, they keep it as only purchasable online.  This works for me because I can order something, and have it delivered to my mother-in-law’s house, where she will hold it until we next meet.  This has worked for me a few times and been a nice avenue.

When it comes to PVW, and to a lesser degree, BTAC, however, it has been an epic fail.  Last year, the email went out that PVW 15 Year was available.  I logged in, bought a bottle, and then found out 3 days later their site had malfunctioned and I would actually NOT be getting any.  I was upset, but I work in technology, I know that once in a while bad things can happen.

This year, the PLCB doubled down.  When the BTAC collection went up for sale, their email blast system mysteriously stopped working, so only those informed ahead of time or following them on Twitter were notified.

Last week’s PVW release went even worse.  After weeks and weeks of teasing it, and knowing that users were circling the site like sharks in the water, they released the PVW last Thursday…and watched the site crash.  And crash again.  The next 30 minutes was a comedy of errors, where the site and app couldn’t stay online for more than seconds at a time.  Within 30 seconds of the site being back up, I had a cart with three bottles of the 2014 VW release in it.  But when I went to check out – crashed again.  Meanwhile, the PLCB was posting on Twitter how products were still available, only increasing traffic – nevermind that by the time they were posting, the system was telling everyone it was sold out.

For a government agency to run something as simple as an e-commerce solution and decent bandwidth in 2014 is disappointing.  Immediately, the Social Media lanes were filled with people complaining, and rightfully so.  In truth, I have seen almost no-one posting about being successful, which makes the lack of transparency the PLCB operates with a little more suspect, and begs the question – who got the 1,000+ bottles?

There is talk of them changing the way they handle PVW sales.  I certainly hope they do.

My advice?  If you have that much money to spend on a bottle and you don’t mind the price, go for it.  I’ve been lucky enough to drink all 6 major VW releases, and haven’t had a bad one yet (OK, I admit, I find the 23 year to be way too oaky and woody for me).  If you just want a great pour, there are plenty of other ones out there worth your consideration.

The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle

In 2009, I entered the recording studio with my band (Desolation Angels) to record our second full length album.  We had chosen a famous Detroit studio, and were lucky enough to work with a great engineer in John Smerek.  For the first two days, we worked at a prodigious rate, laying down drums, bass and guitars for a dozen songs.  As we capped off the second day, a bottle of whiskey was passed around.  John, from behind his control board asked me “Are you a fan of bourbon?”

I replied that I was, although my knowledge was limited to Beam, Maker’s Mark and the occasional Woodford Reserve.

“Then I’ve got one for you to try!” he said, and began to tell me about a bourbon I could find at a store local to me, so wonderful it would make me a full-on bourbon aficionado.  That it tasted of caramel and vanilla, and was so smooth it could almost be an after-dinner drink.  The conversation ended soon thereafter, and I forgot about the recommendation.  I was relatively broke at the time, and if I wanted something that smooth, Gentleman Jack would have to suffice.

That bourbon was Pappy Van Winkle.

Two years later, after we had two recording studios close beneath us, John and I met again to mix the neverending album, now in year two.  As we drank Jack Daniels, he asked me if I ever went to the store and bought the Pappy he recommended.  I told him I had not, but that it would most assuredly make my list now.  And it did.

This began my search for the ever-elusive, now legendarily hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle.  In the three and a half-years since, the hunt for “Pappy” has led me to meet wonderful people, sample amazing bourbons and truly become an educated bourbon fan.  It also has brought me anger, sadness, frustration and driven me to the brink of madness.

When John first suggested I try it, PVW was another respected, higher-end bourbon readily available at finer stores, even here in Metro Detroit.  By the time I actually went looking, it’s popularity was on the rise.  Stores were out of it, but thought they’d get more in that spring or fall.  The Rip Van Winkle website listed stores that carried it…and none of them were mad if you called!  Sure, Anthony Bourdain and the tv show Justified had talked about it, but there was still…a hope.

Since then I’ve learned there are other bourbons just as good, sometimes better.  That, while Pappy and the Van Winkle line are guaranteed to be great, the difference between a bottle of Pappy 15 and Weller or Blantons or Elmer T Lee is hardly worth the days spent searching or the obscene amounts of money the bottle costs – if you find it.  Yet, I continue to look, because I can’t seem to help myself.

So over the next few posts, I’m gonna talk a bit about the hunt for Pappy.  Not the actual product itself, but the hunt, because at this point, Pappy is more of a myth than reality for most people.

Now, there are all kinds of ‘experts’ on the web and posting boards, letting you know the “best” way to get some of the magic known as Pappy Van Winkle.  And for some people, these methods may have actually worked.  But the truth is usually much different.  For example:

Prescribed Method: Make friends with your local liquor store proprietor, so that you are the first one he/she calls when the Pappy comes in.

This makes logical sense – you find a store that has the selection you like with an owner and workers you enjoy chatting with, and give them your business.  When that time rolls around, of course they tip you off to come by and purchase a bottle of this rarest of rewards.

How it actually works: You go to as many stores as possible, eliminating the ones that you know will never get Pappy Van Winkle.  This isn’t easy – a store can have an excellent supply of hooch, but never get the PVW because they didn’t buy a single barrel of Buffalo Trace this year, or didn’t purchase the 500 bottles of Mr. Pickles Magic Elixir Vodka, made from dry-rot potatoes that caused blindness in focus group participants, that the distributor was trying to unload.

You find a few that you know get the good stuff, and then realize half of them are staffed by miserable hipster douchebags who ride to work on unicycles so they can carefully groom their handlebar moustaches in the open.  DON’T try to befriend them – you may think you have a connection, but the truth is that they will view Pappy as “mainstream,” and the first time you let them know you covet it, you will lose their shallow, fickle ‘cred,’ and they will feel no remorse in handing the bottles they get over to a bottle flipper just to spite you.

Narrowed down, you might find a great store or two.  This is where hearts really get broken.  The truth is, unless you are buying multiple bottles a week, you probably aren’t one of their most valuable customers.  I once stood at the counter of a local store I frequent talking with the owner and his brother for an hour about new ryes coming out, and it wasn’t until I got back to my car that I realized that I had watched almost $7,000 in business go on while I stood there.  People buying thousand dollar scotches…one gentleman picking up 4 kegs for an event…my $75 bottle was insignificant.  Not surprisingly, after a year of frequenting that store, when the Pappy came in, I ‘just happened’ to miss it.

A different store got in 3 bottles of Pappy 23 year and did offer them to me…for $1,500 a bottle.  This, while I was checking out with $400 of bourbon in my hand.

One local store I love and frequent explained it to me like this: “If someone came in and offered you a ton of money for your car – more than it possibly warranted – wouldn’t you have to sell it to them?”  He explained this as an analogy for why he was quietly moving his Pappy 23 for $1,000 to someone who inquired.

In four years, I have been able to purchase exactly one bottle from a store, and it was due to a raffle system in which hundreds entered for a chance to buy one of three bottles.  I’m not saying befriending your local shopkeeper isn’t a good idea – it’s a good idea regardless of Pappy.  They can order special products, tell you when new stuff is coming out, and be a wealth of knowledge.  But to those spouting platitudes about how Pappy is easy to get if you make friends with the store, I laugh.

Next time, I’ll talk about the secondary market.  Brace yourself…