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The Bourbon So Exclusive That Even Billionaires Can't Buy It

Bourbon fans are camping out in front of liquor stores for days, ready to pay hundreds of dollars for the exclusive elixir known as Pappy Van Winkle.
Robert Corrigan at Soho Cleveland, March 2015

Ten years ago, no one imagined that bar snobs would eagerly pay upwards of $100 for an ounce of whiskey, or that a loosely organized crime syndicate would steal $100,000 worth of it in 2013.

But with the $2.9 billion bourbon industry facing critical shortages, connoisseurs are going to increasingly wild lengths to get their hands on the most coveted prize of all: Pappy Van Winkle.

Pappy’s devoted — some would say crazed — fans camp out in front of liquor stores for days and pay hundreds of dollars to charity raffles for the chance at winning a bottle. With demand far exceeding supply, theft and counterfeit have crept into the market too.

Why all the hype?

Chris Brantley, creator of a Pappy-centric website, said his first taste of the Family Reserve 20-year bourbon “blew everything else out of the water.”

"It’s all about craftsmanship and aging," said Preston Van Winkle, marketing manager for the Van Winkle brands. But before the rebirth of bourbon’s popularity, “We just didn’t make enough” to account for the demand now, he told NBC News.

“We’re trying to play catch up,” he said. But, “You can’t make 15, 20, 23-year bourbon in less than that time.” After a 2002 agreement with Buffalo Trace Distillery, production is ramping up, Van Winkle says, and the 2016 release expected this fall should see more bottles of the 23-year Family Reserve but fewer of the 15-year.

Michael Veach, bourbon historian, agrees that there’s little to be done about the shortage until production catches up with demand. “You’d have to be a fortune-teller” to predict bourbon’s market variables, he says. “You’d have to know in 20 years how much you’re going to need and how much you’re going to sell.” Customers should be patient, he advises.

Counterfeit Pappy

In the meantime, those desperate to get what little stock exists should be warned of the danger of counterfeit Pappy. Although only specific, licensed vendors are permitted to auction full bottles of whiskey online (and often charge well over $2,000), a growing boom of empty Pappy Van Winkle bottles is popping up on sites such as eBay and fetching up to $200. While Van Winkle insists that “we’ve seen only a handful of counterfeiting issues,” Veach sees instances of duped customers “buying $1500 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and they’re actually drinking a $20 bottle of Old Fitzgerald.”

It’s not just retail customers feeling the Pappy pinch. The murky system of allocations, regulated by individual states, often leaves bar owners wondering why they’re granted less of the bourbon than they’d expected. When it does come in, Gates Otsuji of New York’s Top of the Standard, says, “It lasts a week at most. We have regulars who will come in when they know we have it, text all of their friends to join them, and essentially buy most of a bottle.”

Jell-O shot protests

For Jeremy Johnson of Louisville’s Meta bar, the allocation system is “a circus.” He’s had enough of distributors’ demands that he buy “pallets of junky vodka” in order to meet quotas just to be on the list for Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23-year. "It’s important that we respect what they’ve built — but it’s okay to hate what they’ve become,” he said.

In protest, when Johnson's yearly allocation of Pappy arrives, he turns it into Jell-O shots and charges his customers only his cost.

Another popular option for bars to spread the wealth and make some of their own is to portion out tiny doses and do a full Pappy Van Winkle Family tasting. Cleveland’s Soho takes this approach: For $165, patrons sample a half-ounce of each of the five Pappy expressions, along with light hors d’oeuvres. Tickets generally sell out within an hour or two.

For retail customers, websites like Brantley’s Pursuit of Pappy or the Pappy Tracker Twitter feed do their best to point thirsty Pappy fans towards releases, raffles and auctions.

Sometimes a bourbon lover’s best bet, though, is sheer luck. Bourbon lover John Notarianni from Portland stumbled into Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year in a tucked-away dive bar in Missoula while on a road trip. He promptly bought the remainder (about a quarter, he says) of the bottle right from the bartender’s hands for $30.

So when is the next batch available?

It's a speculation game, in more ways than one, as to exactly when the consumer will find Pappy at a local bar or liquor store.

If previous years are any indication, it should start from Kentucky in late October and spread to larger markets from there.