Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, writes that "Excessive exuberance is the Achilles Heel of social media." It's the Achilles Heel of many things touted on social media too, including the sudden hipness of all things whiskey. Nothing exemplifies this better than the Van Winkle phenomenon.
Because it's end-of-the-year and holiday time, when editorial budgets run out, and your better-paid writers and editors are on their way to a beach somewhere, you're going to see lots of lists: gift ideas, year's best, party tips, and so on. The name of Van Winkle will be on many such lists.
Let's acknowledge right off that the people who most need to read this probably won't, because then they would be informed and most Van Winkle fanatics aren't.
Let's also acknowledge that there are people who have long enjoyed the whiskeys selected and bottled (but not made) by the Van Winkle family. Most of them aren't interested in all the commotion about Van Winkle, and with only a slight twinge of regret are happy to drink something else. That's because they know their way around bourbon and know that the Van Winkle whiskeys, while very good, are not sine qua non.
Here's the history. Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle used to own Louisville's Stitzel-Weller Distillery, makers of Old Fitzgerald and other bourbons. After his death, his heirs couldn't agree on the company's direction, which forced a sale. Pappy's son, JPVW Junior, started a new company using the only brand the family retained in the sale, Old Rip Van Winkle. His son, Julian (JPVW III), continues that business to this day. Assisted by his son and in partnership with the Buffalo Trace Distillery, he sells bourbons at 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23-years-old, and a 13-year-old rye, under various iterations of the Van Winkle brand.
Van Winkle primarily sells bourbon made with wheat instead of rye. That's a minority approach, but not unique. Most of the Van Winkle whiskey is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which also makes the W. L. Weller line of wheated bourbons, a former Stitzel-Weller brand.
Van Winkle has always been a very small brand. It was pricey and its extra-aged products were not to everyone's liking. Still, it always had a good reputation among enthusiasts. Then, a few years ago, a few celebrities mentioned they liked it and it started to show up on "best of" lists. Whiskey was suddenly hip and the laziest question a person can ask about whiskey is, "what's the best?" Van Winkle became the default answer and began to be very hard to get. Some retailers and scores of eBay sellers asked absurd prices for it and, in at least a few cases, got them.
Van Winkle is a problem for retailers because there’s so much more demand than supply that people who fancy themselves ‘good customers’ get testy when a store can’t fulfill their Van Winkle desires.
The phenomenon is driven largely by lazy journalists who simply copy what other people write, so everybody who writes about bourbon and desirable high-end bottles winds up writing about Van Winkles. Most of the pieces are written by people who know little or nothing about whiskey. They are ‘life style’ journalists. Their bread and butter is ‘ten best’ lists, which they simply compile from a couple of already published ‘ten best’ lists, so the thing feeds on itself.
Generally, the people clamoring for a Van Winkle are the same as the people behind the lists. They know almost nothing about bourbon. For them, it’s the lazy shortcut route to connoisseurship. They read somewhere that Van Winkle is the best, and since they only buy the best of everything, and they (apparently) have more money than they know what to do with, Van Winkle it must be.
If you actually just want a very good bottle of that type of bourbon (wheated and well-aged), the Weller line is right there for you. The Weller 12-year-old is comparable to all but the 20-23 year-old Van Winkles, and costs about $30 a bottle. It’s in short supply too, though not as crazy as Van Winkle. For that matter, purely in terms of the whiskey, most would be happy with a bottle of Maker's Mark (also a wheated bourbon and about $20 a bottle). If you want something exclusive and high end, the 2010 edition of Parker's Heritage Collection, a 10-year-old barrel proof wheated bourbon, is the peer of any Van Winkle.
If you're a real bourbon enthusiast, you already know this. If you're a typical Van Winkle fanatic, you never will.
Julian Van Winkle (JPVW III) explains the scarcity strategy well. Because there is so much more demand than supply, his cost of selling is about zero. He simply announces how many bottles he has to sell, customers tell him how many they want, he tells them how many they can have, and pretty soon it’s all gone. It's a nice business.
Most stores never put it on the shelf, and they have people on long waiting lists for it.
It’s great for Julian but it’s kind of a nuisance for the stores. Yes, they sell every bottle instantly, at a healthy markup, but they have to deal with dozens if not hundreds of unhappy customers.
There are plenty of knowledgeable bourbon enthusiasts who like Van Winkle too (it is genuinely good stuff, just not ambrosia) and wish they could find and afford it, but they’re competing with all the dopes who have to have it because they read something about it in Maxim. It's not worth the trouble.
And now there is one more year-end Van Winkle story.