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The 10 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Under $25

Even when your bourbon budget is tight, the liquor store shelf beckons like a boozy vending machine. Bourbon, despite going off like a bomb this past decade, remains an affordable man’s game. But it’s also tough. If you have, say, a twenty and a fiver in your pocket, you are spoiled for choice. And while there are no right or wrong picks on the path to loving bourbon, some decisions might be wiser than others. Here are the bourbons we’d recommend for $25 or less.

Maker’s Mark

Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Proof: 90
Price: $20-$30
King of the Affordable Wheaters: The red wax seal; the Scottish spelling of “whisky.” It’s easy to love Maker’s and its quirks. Particularly easy, since it’s an affordable wheated bourbon (mash bill: 14 percent malted barley, 16 percent red winter wheat, 70 percent corn) that was headed by the beloved master distiller Dave Pickerell until his death in 2018. It’s got a big name, which sometimes pushes its price up — but in California, I find mine for $20 at Trader Joe’s. That’s hard to beat.

Wild Turkey 101

Distillery: Wild Turkey
Proof: 101
Price: $20-$25
Bang for Your Buck: Wild Turkey bourbon has been around for a long time, since the 1940s; its master distiller, Jimmy Russell, has too (his son Eddie Russell is a master distiller now too). Wild Turkey also makes an 80-proof bourbon, but the 101 is its true flagship. It has a mash bill that’s “high rye” (75 percent corn, 13 percent rye, 12 percent malted barley) and is aged in barrels with a deep char, then bottled at near barrel-proof. The result is a flavor bomb.

Old Forester 100 Proof

Distillery: Old Forester Distilling Company
Proof: 100
Price: $25-$30
Classic Flavor Profile: Old Forester is indeed an old brand — at 145 years and going, it’s the longest-running bourbon brand. It’s so old that its big innovation was being sold only in sealed glass bottles. In the past few years the brand has gained some lost ground back in prestige, and the 100 proof is part of that. It’s a rich, flavorful bourbon with a mash bill that’s 70 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. In his 2019 Bible, Jim Murray called the Old Forester 86 “criminally under-rated,” and the same thing can be said for the 100-proof.

Old Tub

Distillery: Jim Beam Distillery
Proof: 100
Price: $15 (375ml bottle)
Kentucky Treat: Old Tub was the name of the bourbon Jim Beam himself sold back before Prohibition. Today, it’s a 4-year bottled-in-bond sour mash bottled at 100 proof. On the bottle today, they claim that prior to Prohibition, customers brought their own jugs to the distillery for filling. To get the stuff, you’ll have to drop by as well: it’s only sold at Beam’s American Stillhouse in Clermont, Kentucky. Which is a damn shame — but also makes it a great budget treat, and a special bottle to pull out and share with friends that also costs less than a Jackson.

Larceny

Distillery: Heaven Hill
Proof: 92
Price: $25-$30
The Alternative Wheater: Heaven Hill’s budget wheated bourbon took over for its Old Fitzgerald line of whiskies around 2012 (Old Fitz is available now in limited runs at high prices). The company won’t release its mash bill but claims it has “one third more wheat” than its competitors (Maker’s Mark), which is a big L in the transparency category. Still, it’s an excellently balanced wheater, with notes of baking spices and lemon peel; the bottle I bought in place of my $20 Maker’s Mark has been emptied quickly.

Buffalo Trace

Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Proof: 90
Price: $25
The Benchmark: Buffalo Trace’s flagship bottle is an industry standard — so much so that it often feels less exciting than its affordable competitors. But there’s much to be said for plain old quality. The juice in the buffalo bottle is aged at least eight years, according to BT, and it’s a younger version of some of the stuff that finds its way into some of bourbon’s most sought-after bottles. Its flavor isn’t as unique or punchy as some other bottles on this list, but it’s a great benchmark for simple, delicious “bourbony” flavors.

Old Grand-Dad 114

Distillery: Jim Beam
Proof: 114
Price: $25
Big Fat Bourbon: A quote from my editor, unedited: “OGD114 is the fullest, meatiest, fattiest cheap bourbon you can buy.” Don’t just take it from him: the stuff has a cult following. As it should. It’s cheap, it’s got huge flavors, and, if you sip it neat, it’ll get you drunk. With a mash bill of 63% corn, 23% rye, and 10% malted barley, it’s a study in the power of secondary grains.

Evan Williams Single Barrel

Distillery: Heaven Hill
Proof: 86.6
Price: $25-$30
Single Barrel Beauty: Single barrel whiskey is fun. You’re not drinking the blender’s best shot at bourbon — you’re sampling the boozy fruit of a single tree, which tends to have distinct flavor characteristics. But then, that depends on the barrel you get, doesn’t it? The problem: that sort of delicacy costs you more money. Evan Williams must have a brilliant barrel program, because it does a solid job with this affordable version, with barrels that are usually between seven and eight years old. You can give it a taste and decide for yourself if you like what Evan Williams does with their whiskey.

Four Roses Yellow

Distillery: Four Roses
Proof: 80
Price: $20-$25
The Solid Blend: Bourbon dudes clamber for the small batch and single barrel versions from Four Roses. But this baseline bottle is made combining barrels from two high-rye mash bills, making it a balanced sipper or an excellent base for a cocktail.

Jim Beam Single Barrel

Distillery: Jim Beam
Proof: 95
Price: $25-$30
The Beam Upgrade: It’s pulled from a single barrel of Jim Beam’s bourbon, which means you never know quite what you’re going to get. Overall though, it’s known as a steady-on whiskey, and a fun alternative version of your normal old black label Jim.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

How Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stouts Came to Dominate the Craft Beer World

This Black Friday, beer lovers will once again line up in frigid temperatures for the annual release of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. Over the past 15 years, the hype and excitement around these iconic bourbon barrel-aged stouts helped spur everything that American craft beer is today. Here’s everything you need to know.


In 1992, Greg Hall was eager. Goose Island’s brewmaster was seated for dinner at LaSalle’s in South Bend, Indiana with industry representatives from prominent cigar, bourbon and beer outfits, listening to a big man with a heavy Kentucky accent wax poetic on the magic of liquid sloshing around charred oak barrels. Hall loosened up. That was it.

On the eve of brewing Goose Island’s one-thousandth batch of beer, Hall had wanted to make something special. Two years earlier, his contemporary and friendly rival brewer Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery had done this Bell’s Batch 1000 Ale — a head-turning, hard-to-get copper strong ale — and he wanted to do his own spin on celebrating his one-thousandth batch. It was at that dinner Hall decided his bombshell beer would be a bourbon barrel-aged stout. The only problem was that didn’t exit yet. Not really, anyway.

The man with the Kentucky lilt was Booker Noe, Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer, then master distiller of Jim Beam Distillery and the grandson of the Jim Beam, and the beer, which he called Bourbon County Stout, changed beer forever.

The earliest Bourbon County stouts were not like the Bourbon Country stouts of today, save the basics — they’re rich, dark stouts with sweet chocolate notes and a hint of bourbon bite. In 1995, Hall decided to enter the earliest versions into the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). American craft beer was still in its infancy, and new styles were not accepted so easily (today’s hazy IPAs would have never seen the light of day back then). In the mid-90s, standard brewing practice was replicating and sticking to the tradition of old-world European styles.

Because Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) did not fit into any style category, it was disqualified by the judges. But two things happened that convinced Hall he was onto something. First, there were hoards of other brewers waiting in line for BCBS and Goose Island poured every drop of it. As Hall recalls, the positive feedback from brewers at GABF was immense. Brewers like Garret Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery, John Harris from Ecliptic Brewing (Harris was with Full Sail at the time) and others convinced him Bourbon County was indeed “special.”

(It’s worth noting that, while Hall may be credited with the proliferation of the bourbon barrel-aged stout, it was Jim Koch of Sam Adams that first put dark beer into a spirits barrel stateside. The beer was called Triple Bock, and there’s about one percent of the OG stuff in Sam Adams’ Utopias. In his 2016 memoir Quench Your Own Thirst, Koch recalls getting the idea for his first barrel-aged beer by looking at planters made from cut-in-half bourbon barrels.)

And despite being disqualified for competition purposes, BCBS still received an honorable mention from the judges. “In retrospect, it was pretty brave of the festival to begin honoring innovation in future years,” Hall said. “Recognition of new styles at GABF led to a flowering of innovation in craft beer.”

After that 1995 GABF, other American brewers — particularly those in the Midwest — took note. Founders Brewing Co. debuted Kentucky Bourbon Stout for the first time on draft in 2002. Two years later, the high-ABV bourbon barrel-aged stout would become the number two-rated beer in the world on Beer Advocate. In 2004, Munster, Indiana’s 3 Floyds released Dark Lord, a Russian-style imperial stout brewed with Mexican vanilla beans, Indian sugar and coffee, to huge fanfare. The brewery released it on what it called “Dark Lord Day” in 2005 (an event that made waiting in line for a beer release and the single-day beer festival became norms).

“An entire day revolving around one rare beer,” author and booze writer Aaron Goldfarb said. “That led to tons of copycats with their own ‘days.’ Eventually, every new beer release seemingly became an excuse for people to gather around, drink all day and celebrate.”

It should be noted that, at this point, Goose Island still hadn’t bottled BCBS for public sale. After dozens of iterations, it wasn’t until 2005 that it was first packaged and sold outside of their Fulton Street brewery.
But the technique continued to spread. Matt Brynildson, who had worked at Goose Island and been a witness to its barrel-aging experiments, moved to Firestone Walker in 2001 and expanded the existing barrel program hastily.

“I was just an observer of the program at that point,” Brynildson said. “That said, I was able to taste the beer at different stages from stainless through the barrel aging process and later as it developed in package. It gave me some ideas that stuck with me and I formed some early opinions on what I believed would work for us once we embarked on our program.”

They first began aging in spirits barrels in anticipation of Firestone’s tenth anniversary for the release of Anniversary “X” in 2006. Brynildson, as nearly all brewers who age beer in oak, views these spent bourbon barrels as simply another ingredient at their disposal.

“The flavors that develop within a bourbon barrel throughout the long process of selecting wood, building and charring the barrel combined with the even longer spirit aging process creates a perfect medium for flavor development in beer. Those flavors pair so perfectly and effortlessly with well-made stouts. It’s a match made in heaven,” Brynildson said.

Years have passed since Goose Island, Sam Adams, Firestone Walker and the rest made bourbon barrel-aging beer cool. So many years that it became uncool, and now it’s cool again. Goose Island’s current brewmaster doesn’t think they’re going away any time soon.

“I think what makes them so appealing is the time, attention and care that goes into each barrel-aged beer,” Keith Gabbett said. “The quality that’s put into the barrel by the distilleries is further enhanced by the quality of the beer that we age in those barrels.”

Here are eight great options to see what all the hype is about.

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Stouts to Try

Three Floyds Dark Lord

ABV: 15%
Brewery Location: Munster, Indiana

Heavily demonic in many ways, Dark Lord is a good example as any of what bourbon barrels can do for a stout. It’s brewed coffee, Mexican vanilla and Indian sugar to create a very special drinking experience. Unfortunately, you may have a hard time finding it.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout

ABV: 15%
Brewery Location: Chicago, Illinois

The 2019 varietal of Bourbon County Brand Stout is aged in a mix of used Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey barrels. After all these years, it continues to be an impressive expression of the style — if not its very epitome. The rich mouthfeel increases double-fold the more you drink this one and it starts to taste like a double fudge brownie. You should be able to find it in all markets eventually this year.

Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops

ABV: 12.4%
Brewery Location: Brooklyn, New York

This one is aged in Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon barrels and then re-fermented with Champagne yeast, making it something entirely different. The Champagne yeast brings a much fluffier mouthfeel to the table and is backed up with chocolate and coffee notes and a hint of vanilla-like oak. If you live in the Northeast, this should be one you’re able to get your hands on.

Revolution Brewing Deth’s Tar

ABV: 14.8%
Brewery Location: Chicago, Illinois

Revolution Brewing is another Midwest brewery adept in the ways of oak-aged stouts. Using English specialty malts along with flaked and malted oats gives this one a soft, pillowy mouthfeel. Combined with the fact that it’s available in 12-ounce cans, this one can be a sneaky chocolate doozy. Midwesterners should find it readily available.

Kane Brewing Co. A Night to End All Dawns

ABV: 12.4%
Brewery Location: Ocean, New Jersey

Kane Brewing Co. is a Garden State standout and has an exceptional barrel program. A Night to End All Dawns is the winner of a 2014 gold medal and 2018 silver medal at GABF and a 2016 gold medal at the World Beer Cup. Getting your hands on this one will be difficult, but if you’re around the New Jersey area when they release the beer, it’s worth seeking out.

Firestone Walker Parabola

ABV: 12.7%
Brewery Location: Paso Robles, California

Parabola is consistently one of the top-rated beers in the world. The delicacy it brings to the palate at 12.7 percent is second-to-none. Thanks to a year-long maturation process in Heaven Hill barrels, it offers powerful bourbon-y vanilla notes. While it’s made in a limited capacity, thanks to Firestone Walker’s national footprint you can probably find this one when it gets released annually.

Toppling Goliath Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout

ABV: 13%
Brewery Location: Decorah, Iowa

Probably one of the harder-to-find beers on this list, Iowa-based Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout is currently rated number one in the world on Beer Advocate for American Imperial Stout. It’s brewed with coffee for an extra kick and is described by the brewery as, “Chocolate chip pancakes drenched with maple syrup served with espresso and a shot of bourbon, all in one sip.” You have to enter a raffle to even get the chance to buy a ticket to the release to buy one bottle of KBBS. It’s possible to find bottles online, but you’ll certainly have to pay a pretty penny.

Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation

ABV: 13.55%
Brewery Location: Anaheim, California

Bottle Logic is one of the newer breweries on this list but has already established itself as a major player in the bourbon barrel stout style. Fundamental Observation was aged in four different types of bourbon barrels and blended with Madagascar vanilla beans. The ultra-creamy beer is currently number six in the world on Beer Advocate for American Imperial Stout and is a bit hard to come by if you don’t live in Southern California.

6 More of the Best Beers to Drink on Thanksgiving, According to Brewers

From watching football to sitting down for dinner, Thanksgiving beverages can range from beer to wine to whiskey. But professional brewers know that a crispy, tart or spiced brew at the right time during Thanksgiving day can do wonders. From IPAs to saisons to crispy pilsners, here’s what some of America’s brewers will be enjoying on Turkey Day.

Urban Family Dark Hymn

ABV: 7.5%
Beer Style: Dark Sour Ale
Availability: Local, Seasonal

“Dark Hymn from Urban Family is where it’s at. It’s a 7.5 percent dark sour loaded with raspberries. I’m a sour head so I always go for them at holiday dinners. I love this beer because it gives your mind something to focus on while you ignore your awkward family conversations. You can also drink a decent amount of it and not get burned out on the sourness.” — Kelly McKnight, New Belgium Brewing

Allagash Ghoulschip

ABV: 8.6%
Beer Style: American Wild Ale
Availability: Regional, Seasonal

“I’ll be drinking Ghoulschip by Allagash Brewing. I will likely go this entire fall-winter season without drinking a typical pumpkin spice beer, but this one as a mixed culture beer will be uniquely tart, and funky. I look forward to see where the pumpkin character is now that I have cellared it for some time. Also, this year will be the first time some of my husband’s Maine-based family will be coming all the way out to California to share Thanksgiving with mine, so a Maine beer seems appropriate. I will bust it out during the pre-meal cheese, fruit and salami platter.” — Veronica Vega, Deschutes Brewery

Chuckanut Brewery Pilsner and Pfreim Family Brewers Pilsner

ABV: 5% / 4.9%
Beer Style: Pilsner
Availability: Local, Year-Round / Regional, Year-Round

“So, I’ll be in Seattle visiting family, and consuming a steady diet of Chuckanut Pils and Pfreim Pils, two of the best lagers the PNW has on offer.” — Niko Tonks, Fair State Brewing Cooperative

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Half Acre Beer Company Daisy Cutter

ABV: 5.2%
Beer Style: Pale Ale
Availability: National, Year-Round

“My traditional Thanksgiving go-to beer is Interlude from Allagash. But this year I will be traveling to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving on Lake Michigan. So I think I’ll switch it up and drink a beer from my Chi-Town friends at Half Acre. Thinking Daisy Cutter or Pony… oh, who am I kidding, I will have both!” — Dan Kleban, Maine Beer Company

Hill Farmstead Brewery Anna

ABV: 6.5%
Beer Style: Farmhouse Ale – Saison
Availability: Regional, Limited

I’ll definitely be enjoying a Hill Farmstead Anna. With savory and heavy flavors on the Thanksgiving table plenty, something nice and light, but with enough acid and sweetness goes a long way in readjusting my palette, while accentuating all other flavors. In my book, everything is right about this beer. — Dave Martin, Mindful Ales

Deschutes Brewery Jubelale

ABV: 6.7%
Beer Style: Winter Ale
Availability: National, Seasonal

“I always make a habit of picking up some of Deschutes’ Jubelale around the holidays. I really enjoy the robust, roasted malty body and the dark, dried fruit flavors paired with its slightly spicy hop character. Jubelale really warms you up when the days get shorter this time of year!” — Carl Heinz, Breckenridge Brewery

This Belgian Beer Is the Real Champagne of Beers

Veronica Vega did not come to brewing in the traditional way. When most brewers get their start by homebrewing, Veronica was enamored with the scale of production brewing when she started at Deschutes as a tour guide. Having a degree in biology, she was blown away by the magnitude of the equipment and the delicate balance it required to operate.

Now the Director of Product Development at Deschutes Brewery, Vega’s tastes run the spectrum of fruit beers to the real champagne of beers to porters (she does work at Deschutes remember). Here’s what she’s drinking nowadays.

Best Beer You Drank Recently: Cerveceria Cyprez Saison

ABV: 6%
Beer Style: Farmhouse Ale – Saison
Availability: Local, Year-Round

“I had the pleasure of being a judge at Copa Cerveza, the competition for Mexican Craft Beer. I judged the medal round for saisons, one of my favorite beer styles, and we gave the gold to Saison by Cerverceria Cyprez. It was so magical and memorable.”

Favorite Everyday Beer: New Belgium x Primus Mural Agua Fresca

ABV: 4%
Beer Style: Fruit Beer
Availability: National, Year-Round

“Honest answer: I never drink the same beer every day, which I am annoyed at myself for admitting. I can be very seasonally or situationally inclined when it comes to any beverage really. Fall is my time for CDAs and Bier de Gardes. If it’s just a one-pint situation, I typically go for hoppy. If I’m on a boat, Modelo. Pairing with sushi or Thai food, a saison. With cheese, a beer with brett character. This summer I really dug New Belgium/Primus Mural, a beer I actually purchased twice.”

Grail Beer: Brouwerij Bosteels DeuS

ABV: 11.5%
Beer Style: Brut de Flandres
Availability: International, Year-Round

“Somewhat rare, though more so a beer I find impossible to replicate is DeuS by Brouwerij Bosteels. It’s a Brut de Flandres — the closest thing to champagne that a beer will ever be. They follow the method champenoise, a painstakingly long and tedious bottle conditioning technique that includes riddling (turning the bottle half turns regularly to motivate the yeast down towards the neck) and disgorging (freezing the yeast in the neck, removing it and then corking). It carries beautiful, elegantly light spice notes from the Belgian yeast, but also herbal elderflower, light mint, and lemon. It’s magical. Eleven percent for special occasions, or when you find yourself at a Belgian beer festival and never leave the booth because it’s the best thing there.”

The Beer That Changed Things for You: Sierra Nevada Porter

ABV: 5.6%
Beer Style: Porter
Availability: National, Year-Round

“Sierra Nevada Porter introduced me to craft in general. Brought a feeling of fulfillment and delight to my solo camping adventures in college. I would pack my dog, a stick of salami, a cheese block, crackers and mustard and Sierra Nevada Porter and all was right in the world. Porter comes back full circle in that I ended up at Deschutes, whose Black Butte Porter has defined the category and remains one of my favorite beers today, especially on nitro.”

Beer You’re in Search of (ISO): Odell Brewing Co. Mountain Standard IPA

ABV: 6.5%
Beer Style: IPA
Availability: Local, Year-Round

“This summer I got to try Odell’s Mountain Standard on a trip to Idaho and I’m in search of it in Oregon because it might be the perfect IPA. Yes, I said it. I am also currently working on NA beers. We have a really cool Irish Stout in development and so I’m always keeping an eye out for craft NA to keep my finger on the pulse.”

Like Jim Beam Bourbon? Reach for These Whiskeys Next

Everybody has a go-to bourbon, but sometimes, whether by choice or by limited selection at the liquor store, a backup bottle is needed. OG Jim Beam — the one with the white label — is about as popular as a bourbon can get. It’s the most popular bourbon worldwide and one of the most popular stateside. Aged a minimum of four years and available widely from $15 to $20, it’s the epitome of macro-bourbon. But drinking one whiskey for the rest of time isn’t exciting. Here are three whiskeys to reach for next.

Knob Creek Small Batch

Price: ~$30
Proof: 100

Older Sibling: Get Knob Creek if you don’t like drastic change. A part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection (which also includes Baker’s, Booker’s and Basil Hayden’s), all Knob Creek bourbon is made using the same mashbill — or recipe — as good ol’ JB. Plus, the Small Batch expression is in the same proof neighborhood. The biggest difference is maturation time; where Jim Beam is aged four years minimum, Knob Creek Small Batch containes whiskey older than nine years.

Evan Williams Straight Bourbon

Price: ~$15
Proof: 86

Like-for-Like: Evan Williams black label is Heaven Hill Distillery’s version of classic Beam. From the company behind Elijah Craig, it’s a lightweight bourbon that’s aged four or five years and available for under $20. It also happens to be one of the most complex bottom shelf bourbons available.

Basil Hayden’s

Price: ~$50
Proof: 80

Spicy-Smooth Upgrade: Basil Hayden’s gets a bad wrap. Not by regular drinkers — it’s one of the most popular premium bourbons in America — but by bourbon drinkers. Those who identify as bourbon-smart bemoan its low proof and light body as weak and unworthy of the $50 or so you’ll spend on a bottle. Maybe they’re right, but there’s no arguing its merits as an easy-drinking whiskey for those just getting into sipping the good stuff. A part of the Beam Small Batch Collection, it’s made with a slightly higher percentage of rye than traditional Jim Beam.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

The Best Bourbons Ever, According to One of the Biggest Whiskey Forums on the Internet

Counting nearly 110,000 subscribers strong, Reddit’s /r/bourbon community is among the largest bourbon discussion platforms on the internet. From the most soughtafter bourbons in the world to Wild Turkey 101, the majority of the board’s discussion swirls around user-submitted bottle reviews. In a thread asking for the forum’s highest-rated bourbons ever, /u/zSolaris delivered. According to Redditor reviews, these are the five best bourbons you can drink (check out the full list here).

1. George T. Stagg (2012)

Average Score: 95.36 out of 100
The King of online bourbon discussion. George T. Stagg releases annually with Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. Its hallmarks are extraordinarily high-proof points and more flavor depth than virtually anything available. The 2012 release is a 16-year-old, 142 nuclear bomb of a bourbon. There is a near-zero percent chance at finding a release from 7 years ago on shelves, but you could perhaps trade bottles or drop well over $1,000 for it.

2. George T. Stagg (2014)

Average Score: 93.75 out of 100
The 2014 George T. Stagg drop only slightly differed from the 2012 release. Its proof dropped to 138 and it’s about 5 months younger whisky (still technically a 16-year-old whiskey, though). To get a better idea just how dominant George T. Stagg is, click “Show More” on the bottle’s awards dropdown. For those who want in, this is another wallet-emptying bottle. Just about the only way to try it are at well-stocked bars or less-than-legal secondary market sources.

3. William Larue Weller (2013)

Average Score: 93.45 out of 100
William Larue Weller is the only member of the Antique Collection to rival Stagg’s rating and award recognition. It’s 136 proof, barrel strength bourbon that’s matured for a dozen years, but that’s not the root of the hype. William Larue Weller, like all bottles of Weller, shares the wheated mashbill (recipe) of the Van Winkle Collection, meaning drinking this particularly Weller is a bit like drinking barrel proof Pappy. Even without pages of “Best” awards this Weller would be pricey. But it’s got both. Prices fluctuate through the year, but spending near $1,000 for a bottle isn’t uncommon. Better off finding a good bar.

4. High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram

Average Score: 92.64 out of 100
The only non-Buffalo Trace bourbon in the top five is not what you’d expect. High West is large craft distillery in Utah that produces a number of off-the-wall whiskeys (Example: a blend of bourbon, rye and peated scotch). A Midwinters Night’s Dram is a combination of young and old very-high-rye whiskeys that are finished in French oak port barrels. Released annually, this bottle is its most exclusive drop of the year, but it’s not on the level of exclusivity as the other four bottles on this list. Bottles typically run around $90 to $100.

5. William Larue Weller (2014)

Average Score: 91.45 out of 100
The 2014 William Larue Weller hit shelves at a higher proof than the 2013 release, but most reviews report it didn’t increase the burn. Like previous Wellers and Staggs on this list, it won’t be easy to pry bottles from owners, but whiskey bars should offer a glimmer of hope. If not, seek out lowel level wheated bourbon options like Weller 12-Year-Old or Maker’s Mark Cask Strength.

The 15 Most Underrated Beers in the World, According to Brewers

Hardly a week goes by anymore that isn’t accompanied by a beer release hailed as the next best thing. This makes it all too easy to forget the many exceptional ales and lagers that have stood the test of time. So we asked 15 brewers from across the country to name a beer they consider underrated. The results run the gamut of styles, and include at least a few surprising answers. When was the last time you had one of these beers?

Editor’s Note: Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Ecliptic Capella Porter

Style: Porter
ABV: 5.2%
Brewery Location: Portland, Oregon
“Maybe it’s a stretch to call a beer that has won gold at [the] World Beer Cup and the Oregon Beer Awards underrated, but this is the kind of beer that often gets overlooked in today’s landscape where raves are reserved for bombastic pastry stouts, hazies, and crispy lagers. John Harris is a master of the brown porter, so much so that no one else in town need even attempt it! I feel lucky to be able to find this reliably around Portland, fresh, all the time.” — Ben Edmunds, Breakside Brewery

Pilsner Urquell

Style: Czech Pilsner
ABV: 4.4%
Brewery Location: Plzen, Czech Republic
“It’s refreshing and crisp, yet has enough of a malt backbone to keep it interesting. The grassy, floral hop aroma is inviting but doesn’t dull the senses as many hoppy beers are likely to do. Amazingly it makes it to the U.S. in pretty good shape, too!” — Patrick Rue, The Bruery

North Coast Tart Cherry Berliner Weiss

Style: Berliner Weiss
ABV: 4.1%
Brewery Location: Fort Bragg, California
“They blend in Montmorency cherry juice which gives it a balanced acidity, delicate aroma and a beautiful color. It is low in alcohol, very sessionable and delicious; three of the things I always look for in a beer.” — Fal Allen, Anderson Valley Brewing Company

Mayflower Porter

Style: Porter
ABV: 5.2%
Brewery Location: Plymouth, Massachusetts
“We fly through 5.5 percent stouts and porters on tap, but no one really talks about these beers and they are even becoming tough to find in a liquor store. These are malt-driven beers with no donuts, hamburgers, vanilla, yuzu or any other odd ingredient, classic but thoroughly flavorful beers with traditional ingredients. A seasonal beer that people seem to gulp down in a bar setting while talking with friends, who are likely not checking them in on Untappd.” — Mark Sigman, Relic Brewing Company

Georgetown Bodhizafa

Style: IPA
ABV: 6.9%
Brewery Location: Seattle, Washington
“Locally, people know this beer hits all the marks for an IPA: It’s balanced, fruit forward, consistent, and clean, but it’s neither west coast or hazy [and] juicy. Even despite winning a gold at GABF for American IPA a few years ago, I don’t think that many people are aware of the beer or even the brewery outside of [the Northwest].” — Steve Luke, Cloudburst Brewing Company

Birra Moretti La Rossa

Style: Doppelbock
ABV: 7.2%
Brewery Location: San Giorgio di Nogaro, Italy
“While regular Birra Moretti is a relatively bland industrialized lager, the La Rossa is a wonderful German-style doppelbock made in Italy. Clear, malty, and bitter enough to balance the sweetness. It arrives in the United States in very good condition and not as oxidized and old tasting as most of the doppelbocks from Germany and it is relatively easy to find.” — Ashleigh Carter, Bierstadt Lagerhaus

Brauerei C. & A. Veltins Pilsener

Style: German Pilsner
ABV: 4.8%
Brewery Location: Meschede-Grevenstein, Germany
“As much as I love a good hoppy IPA or a robust, malty beer, sometimes I just want something crisp, light, and refreshing. Veltins Pilsener is my go to beer when I need a palate break. It’s crisp and light without being tasteless. I love the hint of malt sweetness and grassy, floral hop bite.” — Robin Schumacher, Stoup Brewing Company

Fullers London Pride

Style: English Bitter
ABV: 4.1%
Brewery Location: London, England
“I was born close to the brewery and worked for many years close to it, driving past it every day. It exudes London—ester forward British yeast, smooth British caramel malt, and earthy hops. Such a sessionable beer, born in (parti-gyle) tradition.” — Adam Robbings, Reuben’s Brews

Schilling Schlaumeier

Style: Hefeweizen
ABV: 4.8%
Brewery Location: Littleton, New Hampshire
“There is a large amount of effort and love put into brewing this style to pull out the nuance in each batch. The goal is to balance the delicate phenolic clove and spiced flavors mixed with bold esters of banana and bubblegum notes. [This is] my personal favorite.” — Chris Naro, Throwback Brewery

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Style: Rauchbier
ABV: 5.1%
Brewery Location: Bamberg, Germany
“I think a largely unappreciated category of beer is smoked beer. And of course, the high water mark for the category has got to be Schlenkerla. I was fortunate enough to visit them at the source in Bamberg this past summer. And it was lovely to see dozens of locals drinking it as their local beer… like no big deal. Smoke and all.” — Scott Smith, East End Brewing Company

The Alchemist Heady Topper

Style: Double IPA
ABV: 8%
Brewery Location: Stowe, VT
“[John] Kimmich inspired so many of us along the way that people often consider it a trailblazer forgetting how perfectly it balances all the aspects of what an American IPA has come to mean. Blowing out different palate [and] aromatic components of an IPA is fun and wonderful, blowing them all out, and remaining tight, that far out is art.” — Augie Carton, Carton Brewing Company

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Style: Pale Ale
ABV: 5.6%
Brewery Location: Chico, California
“I think some folks have lost touch with (or have never known) how good the old school guys make beer. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the beer that opened my eyes to the magic of hops back in the ‘90s. These guys have been pounding out liquid forever and still put out the same great beer day after day. Everyone should have one every now and then, if for no other reason than as a way to say thanks to Mr. Grossman.” — Mike Halker, Due South Brewing Company

Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont

Style: Saison
ABV: 6.5%
Brewery Location: Leuze-en-Hainaut, Belgium
“Saison Dupont, a beer born before the current era of fervent rating culture, generally available, packaged in a bottle and a style that generates as much chatter as… things that generate no chatter. It’s wonderfully drinkable, dry and lightly funky, shining with its namesake yeast character and green bottle must. It’s effervescent, crisp and just tasty AF bro.” — Basil Lee, Finback Brewery

North Coast Old Stock Ale

Style: Old Ale
ABV: 10.2%
Brewery Location: Fort Bragg, California
“At least out here, North Coast Old Stock doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a bottle shop sleeper, and becomes something really special after aging for a few years. I’ve been picking some up annually since I’ve been a brewer, and it’s always fun to crack a dusty one from the back of the cellar.” — Seth Morton, Jackie O’s Brewery

Matt Brewing Utica Club

Style: Pilsner
ABV: 5.0%
Brewery Location: Utica, New York
“I like beers that are refreshing in nature, with fewer frills, great core ingredients, and flawless execution. Utica Club is produced by a great family-run business, supported by a community of wonderful employees. It has a timeless quality that speaks to a variety of beer enthusiasts.” — Andrew Hausman, Ithaca Beer Company

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Craigslist, Back Rooms & Money Launderers: Two Months Hunting for the World’s Most Wanted Bourbon

The other day I’m buying an exercise bike from a guy when I see his whiskey collection. It’s a nice one, a few shelves’ worth. The topic of Pappy Van Winkle, that white whale bottle with an enormous price tag, comes up. I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to find one at a price that wouldn’t make my nose bleed.

Ha.” It wasn’t a laugh really, just an exclamation. “Not gonna happen,” he says.

Technically, bottles of Pappy Van Winkle start at $130. But you’d be hard-pressed to find one for less than ten times that, even at legitimate liquor stores that work directly with Buffalo Trace, Pappy’s parent distillery. Older expressions — like the crème-de-la-crème 23-year-old, which should cost $270 — can top $3,000, easy. That’s more than a month’s rent where you’re drinking it.

This is no new story, of course. The phenomenon that is Pappy Van Winkle has been going on for nearly a decade. But if you’re a certain type of person, like, say, a journalist, hell no, you’ll never find it feels more like a challenge than a warning.

As I haul the bike into my car, I wonder whether I could do some digging and come up with a bottle of the stuff for retail, or close to it. You heard tales of it happening, maybe a few years back. But surely there are some unicorns left on dusty liquor-store shelves or connections I could tap into on the black market.

So a few days later, I convince my editor to give me $300 in cash. The challenge, we agree, would be to buy a single bottle of 15-, 20- or 23-year-old Pappy using that sizable lump of cash.

How hard could it be?

Pappy is more folktale than whiskey nowadays. Its namesake is Julian “Pappy” van Winkle, a slick bourbon salesman in the 1890s who eventually became the president of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Kentucky. His son and Grandson, Julian Van Winkle, Jr. and Julian Van Winkle III, ran the distillery until the family sold it in 1972, but kept the family name alive in the bourbon business by buying back old barrels from Stitzel-Weller and other distilleries and bottling it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label. In the 1980s, Van Winkle The Third started bottling blends of really good, really old bourbons. Eventually those became the modern line of Van Winkle bourbons, including the three oldest ones: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-, 20- and 23-year-old. Today whiskey drinkers simply call them “Pappy.”

As for how Pappy Van Winkle became the most-hyped bourbon ever: that appears to have started in 1996, when a sales rep in Chicago entered the 20-year-old whiskey into a Beverage Tasting Institute panel. The whiskey was awarded a 99 out of 100, the highest score ever for bourbon.

Bourbon was just beginning to boom in the late 90s. In 2002, the Buffalo Trace Distillery (owned by Sazerac), which was already supplying some of the whiskey for the blend, took over distilling full-time. Rave reviews started really rolling in. Among whiskey drinkers, Pappy became a poster child for the high end of quality. Then came the final rail in the hype train’s tracks: In a 2012 episode of his show The Layover set in Philadelphia, Anthony Bourdain ordered the 20-year-old with one rock. Watch the moment and look at Bourdain’s eyes when the waitress says they have it; they light up like sparklers. Bourdain called it “That incredibly wonderful bourbon whose name I’m not gonna mention because there are just too many sons of bitches out there who want it,” and later tweeted that he was considering getting a full-back Pappy tattoo. Demand exploded.

The Pappys, all lined up. From left to right: 10- and 12-year (both not technically “Pappy”), the 15-, 20-, and 23-year-old.

Supply, meanwhile, stayed insanely small. Word on the street is Buffalo Trace only produces around 7,000 cases a year, or something like 84,000 bottles. (Buffalo Trace would not confirm this.) Ballpark, that’s less than 10,000 bottles per state. Compare that to roughly 84 million bottles annually of Jim Beam — a million and a half bottles per state.

Absurdly high demand, absurdly low supply. Better whiskey writers than I have outlined the economics of it, but really any sober economist could tell you the result: Absurdly. High. Price.

The rest of us, well, we’re left wondering just how good the stuff tastes. What’s actually inside those bottles has always been a closely guarded secret. The original stocks of Stitzel-Weller juice appear to have been used up in the early 2000s. The Buffalo Trace version is still a wheated bourbon, with a higher concentration of wheat than rye, which ought to give it a more velvety mouthfeel and complex sweetness. In fact, Sazerac has confirmed it’s got the exact same mashbill as Buffalo Trace’s other wheated bourbons (like Weller).

But fifteen or twenty years or twenty-three years is an extraordinarily long time for bourbon to sit in new American oak casks, soaking up delightful flavors. Both Bourdain and the Pope — plus some of my favorite whiskey experts, like Jim Murray and Fred Minnick — have assured us that it doesn’t taste like licking an oak stave. They tell us, in short, that it tastes like heaven.

I had it once, the 15, at a friend’s wedding. I was so drunk I can’t remember anything about it except the burn. Whoops.

The most obvious way to get Pappy close to retail price is through a state-run lottery. To avoid all sorts of black-market shenanigans (more on that soon), a handful of states — most of them have state-run liquor stores — only sell Pappy to lucky winners.

I find this out standing in my hometown’s liquor store in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where I’m home visiting family. California, where I live, doesn’t have a lottery system for bourbon. But Pennsylvania — home of some absurd blue laws, and where they just started selling beer at grocery stores a few years ago — controls its liquor with an iron fist. The guy at the Camp Hill store says he’s never even seen a bottle of Pappy in person, but he also tells me that the winner of the state lottery could buy the bottle for retail, plus a small markup, an emergency tax of 18 percent, and a handling fee.

I walk out of the store with the flush of a successful riverboat gambler. Here is my shot! But then the adrenaline wears off, and the bottles of affordable, incredible bourbon stop dancing through my head, and I think, I’d better look into this. Turns out you have to be a resident of the state of PA to enter the lottery. But no problem. There are plenty of other states where you can enter the lottery and not be a resident. New Hampshire, for instance, where you can donate $100 to a charity and be entered into a small-ticket raffle to win the entire suite of Pappy.

Of course, that would be the bulk of my Pappy money gone. My exhilaration for the lotto game slows. Anyway, isn’t a lottery a gutless way to go about finding this? If I won, it wouldn’t be any story at all — just blind luck. I might as well have found my bottle of Pappy lying on the ground like a dirty five-dollar bill. Without the chase, would I really even be excited to drink it? Hell, wouldn’t I be tempted to turn my lottery winnings into $1,000 by selling it at street price?

I do not enter any state lotteries.

The next obvious place to look for a bottle of Pappy is, of course, to google that shit. And that is how quickly I entered the not-so-dark underworld of the black market for bourbon.

A quick thought on ethics here. Yes, it’s illegal to sell or buy liquor secondhand without a license. It’s also illegal to live-stream NFL games using a reddit thread. I might pay $900 for a bottle of bourbon, but not for a Red Zone package. The cops don’t agree, though. In 2017, a dude trying to sell a bottle of William Larue Weller for $750 on Craigslist (not a bad price!) in my home state was arrested after police set up a sting.

A bottle of Pappy 20-year and its trademark red velvet bag.

But rather than going full The Untouchables, it appears the feds would rather just turn off the biggest online marketplaces for the stuff. People used to sell bottles on eBay; that got shut down years ago. I hear myths about private Facebook groups where the Pappy flows like cheap wine. Back room deals, meetups to drink the stuff. All shut down — or maybe I just can’t find them. Bottlespot.com, a Kelly Blue Book type site, helpfully tells me the market rate for the 15-year was really closer to $900, but offers no help in finding it. The last tweet by @PappyTracker, a twitter account made to spit out Pappy-finding tips, is for a state lottery in 2018.

Craigslist, a spot I figure would be hot, shows me I’m surrounded by a Pappy desert: just two posts asking to buy the stuff, plus one guy selling the red velvet bag the bottle comes in for $35.

I email the bag guy. “I actually was able to buy a couple bottles a few years before it became famous,” he writes back, refusing to give his name. Near-retail price, for the 23-year bottle. Grail stuff.

“I feel it is totally over hyped and way over priced for sure,” he says. “To be honest, not worth the hassle of trying to find them.” He does have a second bag he’d sell me, though — I can have the pair for $70.

I just moved to LA, but I’ve already found one good liquor store within walking distance. The beer selection is good, the faces behind the counter are smiling and the bottles up high on the shelf are impressive, with prices that seem right.

I head over and ask the guy I’ve met before behind the counter about finding Pappy. Big mistake. Suddenly, he won’t look me in the eye. Why?

I spill that I could never afford a bottle, probably, but I’m curious about the way it all works. The counter guy looks me in the eye again. He tells me he used to work as a bartender, and he had a vendor hookup who got him bottles. I tell him I’m trying to find out more because I’m a writer, doing a story on Pappy. He smiles. “I’m a writer too,” he says. Gotta love LA.

Bolstered by bonhomie, my new writer friend starts telling me all kinds of stuff. Starting with the fact that the price for the 2019 15-year Pappy, bought in-store when they got it in early November, would be… He double-takes his computer screen, then laughs maniacally. “Sixteen.”

As in, sixteen hundred dollars? He nods, like he can’t bring himself to say the extra two zeroes. In a conspiratorial whisper, he tells me he thinks the 15 is better than the 20 or 23. And those ones cost three grand.

I pick his brain about how this all works. The vendors, he says, are key: they’re the ones who decide the distribution of the stuff, which is the whole game. For stores to get a bottle of Pappy, they have to sell a certain number of palates of all of the rest of Buffalo Trace’s bourbon and Sazerac’s portfolio at large. Given the scale of the operation, Sazerac and the vendors don’t make that much money off of Pappy; it’s about power. The message to liquor store owners: sell well the rest of the year, and we’ll help you make a nice Christmas bonus. (Buffalo Trace confirmed that wholesalers determine distribution.)

On my way out, I buy a bottle of Willet 4-year rye for $60, which feels like a good find. The counter guy gives me a tip: there are one or two liquor stores that might have a bottle of Pappy in a back room, saved for the owner, or the owner’s friends. These liquor stores, he tells me, are fronts for rich guys who want to clean their money.

As a rule, I try not to entangle myself with shady businesses. Asking a purported money launderer for a deal on a bottle of whiskey feels like a one-way ticket to run errands for the mob.

Then again, people have committed serious crimes to get their hands on some Pappy. In 2015, police in Kentucky busted a ring of nine people, including Buffalo Trace employees, who had stolen upwards of $100,000 worth of Pappy and other whiskies over a span of five years. The ringleader of what became known as “Pappygate” apparently nabbed 200 bottles from its storage lockers by removing the pins from the rusty old doors. (He also fired a silenced pistol in the parking lot to intimidate other employees and was very, very into selling illegal steroids.) The ringleader pleaded not guilty and got 15 years — and then was released for probation 30 days into his sentence. (Does the judge drink bourbon, perhaps?)

So before getting illicit, I try the vendors. I call and email. They don’t respond. Maybe they don’t want to spill their trade secrets to a nosy writer.

I’m short on leads. I could canvas more random liquor stores. Instead I crack and call up the maybe-shady store. The Boss of the place picks up. The Boss says he has some cool stuff, like a collection of Blanton’s bottles with every stopper (there’s eight different bottle stoppers for Blanton’s). The Boss also has a bottle of Pappy for $800. My heart skips a beat. Progress! But then he clarifies that it’s the ten year — Old Van Winkle. Not technically Pappy, and should go for $250 or $300 at most, according to my research. Damn.

The Complete Guide to Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Whiskey

Why Pappy’s famous, how to get it, how much you’ll have to pay & more. Read the Story

No Pappy, then? “We get some rare bottles in occasionally,” The Boss says. “I collect some cool stuff. You collect? Come in tomorrow. Don’t drive yourself. We’ll drink from my personal bar.”

I show up the next night, curious, a little excited. The store is long and narrow, with lots of neon lights, a line of fridges filled with boozy canned mixed drinks on one side and stocked liquor shelves all down the other. The Boss has got some interesting goods behind the counter. There on the top shelf is the full set of Blantons Bottles ($1500) arranged in two collector’s crates. He has a bottle of Thomas Handy ($550), both Nikka Coffee Grain and Coffee Malt, and a bottle of the Henry McKenna 10 year. It’s $99. “Since it won that award,” he says.

I ask how he gets the cool bottles. A lot of work, he says. “I sell a lot. Move a lot of whiskey. I get the VP of Fireball in here, other bigwigs, all the time.”

He remembers me from my phone call and asks me if I’ve heard of Weller CYPB. I have not. He got one of the twelve bottles that made it to LA, he says.

“How is it?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“Have you drank it?”

“No.”

He is suddenly suspicious. I try to work in the truth, like before, that I’m a journalist working on a story, but I freeze; saying that at the moment seems unwise. Instead, I tell him I’m a magazine writer and I write about bourbon, and I’m interested in finding Pappy.

I have blown it. His eyes sharpen into suspicious blades. I realize The Boss is jacked. “Do you collect or do you drink?” he asks.

“I drink, mostly,” I say. “I’m a writer. Can’t really afford to collect the expensive stuff, but I’m fascinated by it. You mostly collect then?”

He nods.

“You never drink your own bottles?”

“No, I don’t ever drink them.” Like I’m an idiot. Am I an idiot?

I play it cool and start asking him about other bottles. The Boss cools off. He pours us something from his “personal bar” that ends up being Blanton’s vodka in paper cups. (Disappointing, but free is free.) We go outside for a smoke. He leans on a blacked-out Tesla Model S — his. “Where do you do your laundry?” he asks. Points next door. “You should bring it over here. It’s my store, too.” A laundromat.

The Boss holds his paper cup of Blanton’s vodka and his cigarette and leans on the bumper and exhales slowly. “Small business is hard,” he says. I understand a bit, being a freelancer. “Yeah,” he says. “But business is — ” he looks at the two storefronts. “More than this. I can’t say more.” I nod like I understand. He smokes and we drink.

The Boss has been drinking since he was twelve, says he’s been collecting since then, too. I tell him I like to hunt the good stuff that’s also affordable — the Four Roses Small Batches of the world, maybe an interesting Japanese whisky. When I score a cheap bottle of Maker’s Mark, I call my dad and brag.

He makes a face at the Maker’s comment. “Never drank it,” he says. “My father said only to drink what you can’t afford.”

I cut to the chase. Does he ever get Pappy in — the 15, the 20, the 23?

He says he hasn’t before, but maybe he could.

I tell him someone I knew once found it for $500 bucks. I’m looking for it for that kind of price, maybe a little less. That’s a good deal, he agrees. Not something he expects to be able to do. But he can try. “How?” I ask. He won’t say much. He’d just call his guy, tell them what he wanted, and since he sells a lot, his guy would probably help him out.

“But say you were getting it for someone else,” he says, “like your friend who found it for five hundred. I could get it for you this amount, say eight hundred dollars, and then you could tell him it cost a little more. A thousand. Take care of yourself.”

I have been hunting through the middlemen of the black market whiskey world for weeks, and now, I get my first chance to become one myself. This feels like progress.

I like The Boss. We go back inside his store and he gives me mini shots of mezcal and the sweetest rum I’ve ever tasted. He means me no ill, personally. He is also a salesman and a hustler. He tries to sell me expensive gift sets of Jack Daniels and Heaven Hill. I pass, but I buy a couple cheap bottles to stock my bar, and show him I’m for real, and tell him to ask his vendor how much a bottle of Pappy’s 15 would run. Then I get the fuck out of there.

The next day, a little hung over from paper-cup vodka, I sit around and wonder why the hell people do this sort of thing. Not the rich people who want Pappy because it’s hard to get, or so they can show off. The people who really love bourbon — who enjoy learning it, knowing it, drinking it. How does hyper-expensive, impossible-to-find bourbon fit in with being a whiskey lover?

Willet’s 4-Year Rye is the most available of any Willet whiskey, and one of few expressions the brand distills and matures itself. The rest is sourced from other distillers.

I realize that, beside the challenge, I don’t know why I’m chasing the stuff so hard. I can’t collect consumable things worth a shit. My humidor holds cigars a few months before I burn them, tops. My parents once got me a bottle of Lagavulin, a $90 bottle, for Christmas. I threw a New Years Party a few days later and, blasted, poured every friend in the room three fingers until the bottle was empty. It was stupid. It was irresponsible. It was why I like drinking in the first place.

I take that bottle of Willet 4-year rye out on the porch, and I sit outside, and I taste the stuff. Slowly. It is good. So good that the burn in my esophagus is like slipping into a hot bath. So good that the traffic hissing by outside, and a cricket’s insistent chirp, and the passing of a news chopper on its way to shoot live wildfire footage, all flow together to become night music. So good that I remember why I love sipping bourbon. That like a lot of bourbon lovers, I’m just after something that tastes so good that the taste becomes a memory all its own.

The Willet cost $60. A lot for me, a broke writer who drinks casually. It is good because it is a treat, and because buying it gave me the small rush of a good find. But it is mostly good because its taste grabs ahold of my senses and sends my mind spinning, like good art should.

I call up my friend, the one who gave me Pappy at his wedding when I was too drunk to taste it. He was a collector before; that’s how he got the bottle. A guy he’d bought some nice bottles before on Craigslist gave him an especially good deal.

“But I don’t collect anymore,” he tells me. “When I first bought the bottle of Pappy that I gave you, I told myself I was buying it to drink on a special occasion. Then the wedding came around and I had to buy a second bottle before I would let myself uncork the first one. Just so I could keep it sitting there in my collection. That was pretty dark.”

He was right, it was dark. And I could picture something kind of dark now, when I thought about getting Pappy, which was often: on the vague day in November when Pappy hit liquor stores, the folks who wanted it and who had become regulars over the year would go streaming into liquor stores across the country, with a thousand dollars in their hands. Most of them wouldn’t get the chance to give their money away. A lucky few would get their bottle of Pappy, and hold it with two hands out to their car, looking over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being followed by the covetous horde. They’d take the bottle home and put it on the shelf and stare at it lovingly. A precious few might even dare to take a few sips. How many would share it with friends, drink half of it in one night and have a really fucked up, fun time? I’d gamble to say almost none.

During my month of hunting Pappy, two things had proved impossible: First, finding a bottle for anywhere near retail price. Second, finding anyone who’d bought the stuff to drink it and actually felt good about it afterward. How many of the people who managed to buy Pappy this year, and who drank the stuff, would really enjoy it? When has anything you’ve put that much pressure on turned out to be as perfect and amazing as you’d imagined?

On the first day of November I went down to my favorite bar, where I’d seen three Pappys sitting on the shelf. The 15-year was $55 a shot, which works out to around $715 for the entire bottle. Best deal I found. But the owner wouldn’t let anyone buy it wholesale. To get the deal, you’d have to drink it down, shot by shot.

I bought two, one for the bartender, one for me. We drank them slow.

The author’s view from the end of the Pappy-hunting rabbit hole.

Laphroaig’s New 16-Year-Old Scotch Whisky Is the Perfect Holiday Gift (For Yourself)

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Drink Blue Moon? Try These Three Beers Next

First brewed in 1995, Blue Moon was one of the first successful “craft” beer attempts by an American macro-brewery (MillerCoors). The 5.4 percent ABV Belgian-style wheat ale (also known as a witbier) was initially dubbed Bellyslide Wit and brewed by Keith Villa at Sandlot Brewery in the basement of Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. It took home the gold medal at the 1995 World Beer Championship in the White Beer category, beginning its rise as a national staple in nearly every bar, liquor store and gas station across America (plus a couple dozen other countries).

Brewed with malted barley, white wheat, Valencia orange peel, coriander and oats, Blue Moon is unfiltered, hazy and citrus-packed. If you like Blue Moon, here are three other beers to top with an orange slice.

Allagash Brewing Company White

Style: Witbier
ABV: 5.2%
Availability: Year-round, nationwide

The Standard: The ultimate American witbier, Rob Todd of Allagash Brewing Company hitched his entire wagon to witbier by releasing only Allagash White when he opened in 1995. That decision has paid plenty of dividends. Where Blue Moon leans into the use of an orange peel as a garnish, Allagash White is a little lighter on the citrus flavors and a tad spicier. White is brewed with oats, malted wheat, unmalted raw wheat, coriander and Curaçao orange peel that all complement well with Allagash’s house yeast. For something a little less like a shandy and more like a traditional Belgian beer, reach for an Allagash White.

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Bell’s Brewery Oberon Ale

Style: American Wheat Beer
ABV: 5.8%
Availability: Seasonal, nationwide

Seasonal Special: While the witbier makes use of fruit (typically orange), the American wheat ale relies more on a notable hop character. Oberon Ale from Bell’s Brewery is a much-heralded seasonal American wheat beer that is brewed without fruit but still offers tempered notes of citrus and spice. The signature noble hops Hersbrucker (German) and Saaz (Czech) impart a crisp texture and cleaner appearance that differentiates from the softness and cloudiness of Blue Moon. For those who like Blue Moon and New England-style IPAs, Oberon sits as a good middle ground between the two.

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Dogfish Head Namaste White

Style: Witbier
ABV: 4.8%
Availability: Year-round, nationwide

The Twist: Never content with creating just a traditional, Dogfish Head’s Namaste White is an off-centered spin on the classic witbier. It’s brewed with whole orange slices, fresh-cut lemongrass, peppercorns and a bit of coriander for a slightly spicy finish and a zesty mouthfeel. The citrus and spice in Namaste White balance each other a little more than a Blue Moon where citrus is a tad more prominent. For those who want a more tangy take on a witbier, Namaste White is a good bet.

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How to Read a Beer Label, According to a Beer Expert

This excerpt is from Joshua M. Bernstein’s Drink Better Beer, which is available now.

As America closes in on being home to 8,000 breweries, beer labels are becoming more and more important as a way to stand out from the crowd. Catching a customer’s eye in the beer aisle or in the fridge at a bottle shop is a major victory as the competitive landscape changes.

But you as a customer should not be buying a beer simply because you like the artwork on the can — you’re savvier than that. Instead, it’s important to know what you’re looking at and what everything on a beer label means.

Author and beer journalist Joshua M. Bernstein has just published his fifth book around beer, Drink Better Beer. It’s full of helpful information and stories about the growing craft beer world like why you should drink lager, the evolution of the IPA and how to read a beer label.

Every beer label tells a story about the liquid. Here’s your handy cheat sheet to a beer label’s most common acronyms.

A. Name

The brewing industry will never run dry on puns.

B. Tagline

Marketing speak designed to impart a brand’s desired vibe or personality.

C. SRM

The Standard Reference Method is used to measure a beer’s color. A straw-pale pilsner will measure 2, while a pitch-black imperial stout will be north of 40.

D. IBU

The international bitterness units scale is a measure of a beer’s perceived bitterness. Generally speaking, the lower the number, the less bitter a beer will be. IBUs don’t exist in a vacuum, and a beer’s strength, acidity, and sweetness play a big role in how you register bitterness.

E. ABV

Alcohol by volume measures, duh, the amount of alcohol in a beverage. For example, lagers hover around 5 percent ABV, while double IPAs hit 8 percent ABV or higher. Do basic math to monitor your intake. To wit: A 10 percent triple IPA isn’t just 3 percent more potent than a 7 percent IPA. It’s more than 50 percent stronger.

How to Make a Classic Sazerac

While early recipes for the Sazerac — America’s (alleged) first cocktail — called for Cognac, absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar, today’s iterations favor American-made parts. Anise-flavored Herbsaint for French absinthe, rye in lieu of imported Cognac. Bourbon is also a suitable substitute, says Rudy Oliva of the Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans, home to the famed Sazerac Bar, while orange or grapefruit peels can take the place of a lemon twist. Try your hand at the recipe below, and make it as local as liquids allow.

The Sazerac

Makes one cocktail

Ingredients:
1.5 ounces Sazerac Rye Whiskey
0.25 ounce simple syrup
3–5 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
0.25 ounce Herbsaint
Lemon twist
Ice

Preparation:
1. Start with two rocks glasses. Fill one with ice (or place in freezer) and set aside to chill.

2. In the second glass, add whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters and simple syrup.

3. After the first glass gets frosty, dump the ice and rinse the glass with Herbsaint.

4. Add ice to second glass and stir 30 times.

5. Strain the contents of the second glass into the Herbsaint-rinsed glass.

6. Garnish with a lemon twist, rubbing the peel around the rim of the glass.

Every Tool You Need to Outfit Your Home Bar

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The difference between a cocktail and a great cocktail lies in the details, the little tweaks only possible with the right tools. Read the Story

The Best Whiskey Glasses to Pair with Your Favorite Bourbon or Scotch

Does your vehicle for drinking matter? Any right-minded drinker, especially those who choose whiskey, will answer with an unequivocal “yes.” There are weight and balance to consider, not to mention all manner of nosing. These whiskey glasses do what you need them to, and they won’t cramp your style along the way.

The Glencairn Glass

Probably the most famous snifter ever made. The Glencairn Glass was designed by a host of Master Blenders in Scotland as a more whisky-focused (notice the lack of “e”) version of the traditional copita glass. Its base is separated from the bulb so your hands don’t warm the glass around the juice. The bulb is wide enough to swirl the liquidy but narrow enough at the top to flush the whisky’s nose straight at you.

The Neat Glass

Here you have the official judging glass at a number of high-profile spirits competitions, including the prestigious San Franciso World Spirits Competition. What sets it apart? The flared rim, a feature that runs in opposition to the mighty Glencairn. The manufacturer says you shouldn’t have to water down good booze in the name of blotting out overbearing ethanol on the nose. As to whether it works or not, you can be the judge.

Fortessa Tableware Solutions Whiskey Glass

The rise of the stemless wine glass casts an uncertain and unfair shadow over this German-made tumbler. Originally designed by Schott Zwiesel, the glasses are made with a Tritan crystal, a patented material that replaces the lead properties in traditional crystal in favor of a mix of titanium and zirconium, making them far more durable than your typical whiskey-toting cup (and scratch-resistant). And don’t let the height fool you, the wide bulb of the glass makes certain your drinks count.

Snowe Short Tumbler

Snowe’s glass isn’t quirky and it doesn’t come with a gimmick — it’s heavy, balanced and elegant. The direct-to-consumer home design company’s whiskey glass is made with leadless crystal and they just feel damn good in the hand — they also stack within each other quite well, somewhat rare in the whiskey glass world.

Norlan Glass

An ergonomic, lightweight riff on a Glencairn, the Norlan Glass essentially drops the head of that glass inside a tumbler. The whole thing is made of borosilicate glass, which is much lighter than the glass typically used to make tumblers. It’s also got a faceted base for a fingerprint-free grip, an easy fix to one of life’s smaller nuissances.

Norlan Rauk Heavy Tumbler

Norlan’s second glass is nothing like the other on this list. Whereas the classic Norlan Glass is lightweight and designed exclusively for sipping, Rauk is heavy and built to handle cocktails, too. How heavy is it? How about 1.26 pounds — each. The glass is made in an instant, as molten crystal is slammed by two machine molds, shaping the whole thing in one action. It’s perfect for an Old Fashioned.

Waterford Aras Old Fashioned Pair

Waterford has been making fine crystal glassware since 1783. Fashioned entirely of crystal, these glasses were designed as an homage to turrets lining the castles of the company’s native Ireland. If you’re one for the classics, there’s no other choice.

These Are Best Bourbons of the Year, According to the World’s Leading Whiskey Expert

Love it or hate it, longtime whiskey writer and critic Jim Murray’s tastebuds have the power to make bottles disappear off shelves. Containing upwards of 1,500 individual bottle reviews, his annual Whisky Bible is a guide to the good, bad and ugly of the whiskey world. It also crowns what Murray believes are the best whiskeys of the year. And as he’s gone on record saying, he believes Kentucky is making the best whiskeys in the world. Here are Murray’s picks for the best bourbons of 2019 (find the full list of winners here).

1792 Full Proof

World Whisky of the Year: This year, Murray crowned a $45 bottle of bourbon the absolute best whiskey of the year. Made at Barton Distillery and owned by the Sazerac Company, 1792 Full Proof, a no-age-statement whiskey from a lesser-known producer, is not a whiskey one would expect to win such an award. We expect it to fly off shelves in the coming weeks.

E.H. Tayor Jr. Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond

Best No-Age-Statement (Single Barrel): Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor line is made with its famed Mashbill #1 (the same as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, etc.) and always Bottled-in-Bond. Its Single Barrel expression is slightly more difficult to track down than the more available Small Batch, and typically runs about $55 to $75 in stores. Though it doesn’t bear an age statement, because it’s Bottled-in-Bond you can be sure it’s aged at least four years.

Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel

Best Aged 9 Years and Under: Made by Wild Turkey, this mid-priced, readily available bourbons has been a good value for years. At a solid 110 proof, it’s a non-chill-filtered bourbon aged in extra-charred American oak casks, imbuing the whiskey with added vanilla and caramael notes. Find it in most markets for around $50.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Best Aged 10 to 12 Years: A perennial award-getter gets more awards. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof drops three times a year and its contents are aged for at least 12 years. Due to its unusually high proofs (regularly above 130) and significant maturation, it’s one of the “biggest” drams you can pour. It’s usually available between $65 and $80.

Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year

Best Aged 11 to 15 Years: The first of two Pappies to land in Murray’s winner’s column. No, you likely won’t find it at retail prices. If you want to know more about America’s most famous bourbon, read this.

Michter’s 20-Year

Best Aged 16 to 20 Years: Michter’s 20-year-old juice is selected by Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann and sourced from an unknown distiller. It’s nearly impossible to find at stores, even after a two-year release hiatus to stabilize supply. What you pay for this bottle is up to the seller.

Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year

Best Aged 21 Years and Up: A king of kings. The 23-year-old Pappy is the most valuable of the wheated wonders and will not be had without strong connections or a fat check. Expect to pay multiple thousands of dollars.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

These Are Best Bourbons of the Year, According to the World’s Leading Expert

Love it or hate it, longtime whiskey writer and critic Jim Murray’s tastebuds have the power to make bottles disappear off shelves. Containing upwards of 1,500 individual bottle reviews, his annual Whisky Bible is a guide to the good, bad and ugly of the whiskey world. It also crowns what Murray believes are the best whiskeys of the year. And as he’s gone on record saying, he believes Kentucky is making the best whiskeys in the world. Here are Murray’s picks for the best bourbons of 2019 (find the full list of winners here).

1792 Full Proof

World Whisky of the Year: This year, Murray crowned a $45 bottle of bourbon the absolute best whiskey of the year. Made at Barton Distillery and owned by the Sazerac Company, 1792 Full Proof, a no-age-statement whiskey from a lesser-known producer, is not a whiskey one would expect to win such an award. We expect it to fly off shelves in the coming weeks.

E.H. Tayor Jr. Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond

Best No-Age-Statement (Single Barrel): Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor line is made with its famed Mashbill #1 (the same as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, etc.) and always Bottled-in-Bond. Its Single Barrel expression is slightly more difficult to track down than the more available Small Batch, and typically runs about $55 to $75 in stores. Though it doesn’t bear an age statement, because it’s Bottled-in-Bond you can be sure it’s aged at least four years.

Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel

Best Aged 9 Years and Under: Made by Wild Turkey, this mid-priced, readily available bourbons has been a good value for years. At a solid 110 proof, it’s a non-chill-filtered bourbon aged in extra-charred American oak casks, imbuing the whiskey with added vanilla and caramael notes. Find it in most markets for around $50.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Best Aged 10 to 12 Years: A perennial award-getter gets more awards. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof drops three times a year and its contents are aged for at least 12 years. Due to its unusually high proofs (regularly above 130) and significant maturation, it’s one of the “biggest” drams you can pour. It’s usually available between $65 and $80.

Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year

Best Aged 11 to 15 Years: The first of two Pappies to land in Murray’s winner’s column. No, you likely won’t find it at retail prices. If you want to know more about America’s most famous bourbon, read this.

Michter’s 20-Year

Best Aged 16 to 20 Years: Michter’s 20-year-old juice is selected by Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann and sourced from an unknown distiller. It’s nearly impossible to find at stores, even after a two-year release hiatus to stabilize supply. What you pay for this bottle is up to the seller.

Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year

Best Aged 21 Years and Up: A king of kings. The 23-year-old Pappy is the most valuable of the wheated wonders and will not be had without strong connections or a fat check. Expect to pay multiple thousands of dollars.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

This Simple, Somm-Approved German Lager Should Be in Your Fridge

John Slover’s tastebuds matter. The Dirty French somm and beverage director with Major Food Group has created and manages some of New York City’s largest wine lists and drink collections (including a 20,000-plus bottle list at restaurants in the Seagram Building). He’s directed drinks programs at upper-echelon dining establishments like Le Bernadin, Blue Hill, Restaurant Daniel, Cru and more. But when asked what booze he couldn’t live without, his answers are anything but stuffy. From a classic German lager to a well-balanced amaro, here’s what sommelier John Slover always keeps in stock.

Reissdorf Kölsch

“Reissdorf Kolsch is my go to as I like crisp refreshing beers with mild attractive flavor. I don’t reach for beers for complexity but rather for thirst quenching.”

Aperol

“I love Aperol as an aperitif, and I don’t do too much to it. The bitterness combined with the sweetness makes for an easy, tasty pre-meal drink to open the appetite. I usually add ice and a little soda to cut the sweetness a little, and a slice of orange.”

Amaro Braulio

“After dinner I love a small digestif, and usually alternate between amaro and chartreuses. There are many amari I like, but I find I gravitate to Braulio. I love the alpine aromatics and it’s not too bitter, not too sweet — very well balanced.”

Green Chartreuse

“I enjoy both yellow and green Chartreuses. I favor green sometimes because of the beautiful herbal notes, and slightly less sweetness. However, it’s very strong in alcohol (55 percent), so at times I favor the lighter and sweeter yellow.”

The World’s Most Powerful Whiskey Critic Reviews 1,500 Bottles a Year

A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “The Monk of Malt.” Subscribe today

Jim Murray wants to talk to me about the Bible. We’re sitting in a small conference room in a hotel in Longview, Texas, where Murray will soon be spreading the gospel. He’s dressed in a white jacket and a fedora, with a ruddy face and a Cockney accent so thick it nearly drips onto the table. His contentment seems palpable. But when I bring up the question of who publishes his Good Book — that is, his divisively popular Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible — his white whiskers twitch.

“I’ll show you a picture of a publisher I know,” says Murray. “Give me a moment.” As he scrolls through his phone, searching for the picture, I think, What the hell do I care what his publisher looks like?

Murray turns his phone and shows me a picture of a vulture.

Which is to say: Jim Murray is a goofball (and, for the record, an amateur ornithologist), and he is very sure he will only ever self-publish his intricate and shockingly comprehensive Bible, which he’s done annually since 2003. In the process, Murray has become one of the world’s most influential whiskey critics, and his Whiskey Bible has become one of the longest-running whiskey-review collections in the world. It contains three main sections: a short but extremely methodical guide to whiskey tasting using his rigorous and proprietary “Murray Method,” which includes a period abstaining from sex; some 350 pages of scores and extensive notes on over 4,500 Scotches, bourbons, ryes, Irish whiskeys and others; and a short list of that year’s top scorers, topped by a single, definitive best whiskey dubbed “World Whisky of the Year.”

When Murray Named a $30 bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the best whiskey of 2017, pundits argued but the whiskey sold out everywhere.

Murray’s decisions regarding those winners can rock the whiskey world and cause bedlam at liquor stores. After Murray named a $30 bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the best whiskey of 2017, reviewers and fans worldwide argued viciously over the decision—but the whiskey sold out everywhere, and even caused, according to Murray, “a fight over the last bottle in one Canadian store.” The police, Murray says with relish, had to be called in to restore order.

On the surface, selecting a sole winner across all whiskey categories in a given year—not to mention the feat of tasting almost 1,500 new whiskies, which he slogs through in his basement “whiskey lab” in the English countryside—can seem like hubris, or grandstanding. But watching Murray in action suggests otherwise. At the bourbon tasting in Longview, I watch as he holds a roomful of thirsty Texans in check, forbidding them from swallowing a single drop of the sweet stuff, or even talking, for over an hour. Instead they sip, spit and take notes while “listening to the whiskey.” The Texans start out frustrated. Then they turn awestruck.

Murray has immense industry expertise, a convincing personal brand and an established soap box from which to shout his commandments. Search him online and you’ll find a battle raging among whiskey nerds: Murray is either a powerhouse taster or a self-serving hack. To his credit, Murray handles it all with his oddball sense of humor and an insistence that drinkers try his method before deciding for themselves. His gospel is simply a reflection of its author: former journalist, master taster, raconteur and, above all, whiskey fanatic.

Q: You self-publish your book. Why?
A: I don’t like publishers. The Jim Murray name is protected. It is trademarked. The “Whisky Bible” is trademarked. And I’ve learned from experience that having other people publish your books is extremely painful.

I can control what goes into the book, and what doesn’t go into the book. By owning the publishing company, [I can make sure] that people don’t renege on what they’re going to say and put in advertising, which then compromises me. It makes me look as though I’m someone’s stooge. So it’s a question of control.

Q: Where are you at right now in terms of getting the new Whisky Bible ready?
A: I’m frighteningly behind schedule. I was doing some shows in India, and I didn’t actually leave the hotel I was staying at, didn’t take any chances catching anything, right? I took certain foods with me from England, everything was prepacked. And then two days after I got back I was really, really ill. I had a virus and I couldn’t work for a month. So basically, I have been doing twenty-five whiskeys a day, every single day. It is really hard work.

Q: What’s a good day like when you get through and taste all twenty-five?
A: I try to do them in batches of five. Then I rest my palate for a while, go back to taste another five. If I’m going to eat, then I will probably select a whiskey that I know has at least a fifty percent chance of having some sulfur on it. It may be a whiskey that’s been matured in a sherry cask. I will usually have one of those before I eat, because that gives me a chance for my palate to be restored. And that means I can get through the sulfur ones.

Q: What does it taste like, sulfurous whiskey?
A: It’s filthy, horrible, disgusting, mouth-numbing, vile. I mean, it’s utterly vile. There’s no particular words that can describe it. Even those words aren’t as accurate as you want them to be because it’s just a unique disgustingness.

Q: Do you taste the whiskeys blind?
A: No, I’ve got to know who they are. I will look at the distillery and say, “Okay, it’s Glenn-whatever, twelve years old.” Well, I know what kind of scope they’ve got for twelve years. I know what the first- and third-fill bourbon tastes like, and then what sherry first and third sherry tastes like. What it’s like when you blend them around, what they’re going for. You can’t judge what the blender’s trying to do if you’re doing it blind.

Buffalo Trace’s 2018 release of William LaRue Weller is Jim Murray’s reigning whiskey of the year. Naturally, (and maybe not entirely because of Murray), it’s impossible to find.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the craft of whiskey tasting.
A: When you’re tasting for the Whiskey Bible, you know full well that if you write a really bad review, that whiskey may not sell. It could certainly impact it. Just imagine how some bloke who’s mortgaged his house to the hilt, and his wife’s not happy about that, but he says, “I gotta do this,” and she supports him. And then I give that whiskey 3.5 seconds of my life, and I’m in a bad mood, and I say, “Well, this is very average.” What’s gonna happen to that distillery, that person, that marriage?

If my throat isn’t working right, I don’t taste. The responsibility that comes with what I do is quite scary. So I treat every whiskey the same. I’ll give it the same amount of time, and the same amount of respect.

If my taste buds aren’t right, I won’t work. Which is another reason my love life is shit. Because if you catch a cold off a girl—[from] the moment you get a sore throat [to] the moment you get rid of your cold is, on average, seventeen days. You’re then behind schedule for half a month. Basically, I’m the most antisocial bastard for most of my life.

Q: The way you describe your tasting and your tasting setup, it’s laboratory-like. You’re talking about controls. That’s all very scientific. Is whiskey tasting a science or an art?
A: I don’t think it’s a science, because I’m about the most unscientific person you can possibly find. Do you know soccer?

Q: Sure, a little.
A: What’s your favorite team?

Q: The New York Red Bulls.
A: Let’s say you go over and you train for six months with the first team at the Red Bulls. Would you get on the first team?

Q: No.
A: Because you don’t have inherent skill. You haven’t got the thing that cannot be trained. If I train with a [whiskey] blender, all I can do is teach him or her how to actually understand the whiskey: to get their palate sharpened, how to translate the whiskey, how to spot problems. You can only do that to a degree. If they haven’t got the empirical skill, where they actually feel the whiskey, you can only teach them so much.

Q: Who do you craft the Whisky Bible for? What are your guiding principles?
A: I stay away from other whiskey writers because I don’t think they’ve got the same perception I have. My natural instinct is to write for the public. The whole point of the Whisky Bible is not for the industry; it’s so people don’t buy a shitty whiskey.

I want to promote and make the guys who make good whiskey feel good, because I think they deserve a pat on the back. But I have no qualms about kicking a distillery that makes bad whiskey—and they might make good whiskey, but produce a bad whiskey—I have no problem whatsoever with kicking them in the nuts.

When you’re writing, you’ve learned as a genuine journalist, you write for the public. And the Bible is writing for the public. I can’t say that other people that write about whiskey are [necessarily] doing that. So I keep my distance. I do my own thing. And if it means I don’t get on with people, I don’t care.

Q: You still sound like a journalist.
A: I’m just interested in doing the best I can to make the Bible as complete and honest as it can possibly be.

At least for the Bible, if I criticize someone, they’ve been criticized in a way that they’ve gotten the fairest crack of the whip. And equally, if they’ve been praised, it’s not because I just love that brand. I spend a lot of time looking for the faults. You look for the faults of a whiskey before you look for anything else. If you don’t find the faults, you move onto the next stage, and the points start piling up.

And I’ll be honest with you, when I’m writing I don’t know what the fuck I’ve written until I come out of my trance. I’m in a daze. So by the time I get to bed, I’m mentally dead, because of the concentration that’s gone into it.

Q: What do you think of the state of the whiskey-review world right now?
A: To be honest, I don’t try to look at it too often, because I don’t want, subliminally, to have a view of a whiskey until I’ve tasted it, if that makes sense. But I don’t get, for instance—you know these competitions where you go off and get an award, gold, silver, you know? You get a bunch of people to taste sixty whiskies in one morning. I don’t get it. How can you judge sixty?

You’ve only got to get one of them that’s got a bit of sulfur on it, and then your taste buds are fucked. I mean, it takes me half an hour minimum to get the bloody sulfur [off] my palate.

I read tasting notes from other people, just out of interest. Where have they tasted it? Have they tasted it in their kitchen? Have they just eaten a spicy meal? When people buy the Whiskey Bible, I can tell them: The food that I’m going to have eaten beforehand will be the most boring food they’ve ever seen in their lives. A cheese roll is about as exciting as it gets for me when I’m writing.

I don’t smoke. The area in which the whiskey is tasted is a controlled area. If there are any aromas coming in, I stop. I don’t wear aftershave. Everything is totally controlled. It’s never tasted at the distillery, so you don’t get that extra romance.

Q: Have you ever regretted a decision you’ve made in the Whisky Bible? In picking a winner, or how you reviewed a whiskey?
A: No, I’ve never regretted it, because I think every single one has been done honestly, and I would stand by it. And every single one I’ve ever tasted, I’ve never gone back to it and thought, Oh, God, I’ve got that completely wrong. No, I’ve never regretted anything.

I’ve sometimes cursed that I’ve given an award to someone who I don’t like. You know, the point is you can’t punish the child because of the parent. So it doesn’t matter whether you like the owner or not. It’s the whiskey you’re judging, not them.

Q: How the hell do you pull off choosing a single best whiskey of the year?
A: I can’t tell you how hard that is. Actually, sometimes, the whiskey is so damn good that it just leaps out and you think, Okay, this is the winner, but I’m going to have to try against everything else, because it may be me who is wrong. And then you try against all the others, but [it] just absolutely walks it.

And then there’s other years where it really is a battle to find that winner. And you think, Well, which one is giving me a hard-on? And you know that one is doing it. It is something inside you. It’s like a whiskey song. And you can feel it.

Q: Do you feel like you know the winning formula for making whiskey? The winners that you pick are so broad: Japanese whisky, Canadian rye, Texas whiskey. Is there something that connects all of them, the fabric of a good, consistent whiskey maker?
A: I think there is. I’m a consultant blender as well, and you can tell a whiskey that has been properly blended. And the blender in me, I think, can feel it. You actually feel the whiskey.

So if I tried to create whiskey as a blender, I actually just close my eyes and think about the whiskies that they’ve got. And I literally just contemplate it and picture it in my mind and I feel it. And whether you get these great whiskies from Japan, I can feel it. I’m thinking, Christ, I can feel what the blender was doing with it. I can see what they are doing. Then you actually feel the whiskey.

That may sound complete and utter bullshit. But it’s true. It’s like a piece of music. You know, you get a piece of music, and it absolutely just goes into every pore of your body and goes through your spine and through your brain. And it’s exactly the same with the great whiskey — you feel it. That’s how I can tell whether it’s great whiskey.

Q: The Murray Method reminds me in some ways of meditation, in that it tries to remove every outside influence possible and make you really focus on the liquid.
A: I can always look up the day that John Lennon was shot, because I’d actually spent that night with a woman who was a hypnotist. And I actually said to her, “Is sex better when you’re hypnotized?” And she said, “Well, let’s find out.” So, she hypnotized me. And Christ, it was. The Murray Method is kind of a bit like that.

Q: You’ll have to explain that.
A: Because it brings everything out more vividly, doesn’t it? You know, instead of it just being a whiskey sitting in the glass, suddenly, it’s a lot more. And this is the same when you’re having sex when you’re hypnotized. It suddenly becomes a lot more.

Q: One of the most distinctive things about you and your brand of tasting is that you tell everyone exactly how you do it, and how militant you are about it.
A: Absolutely. You know, every whiskey is tasted with the Murray Method. Every single one. I will never taste the whiskey within the distillery. I wouldn’t do it. It’ll always be somewhere neutral.

And to be honest, I haven’t got time to worry about how other people do it. All I know is that it takes my entire life to do what I do. I haven’t got time for other things, and I just concentrate on doing what I do, absolutely right.

The 10 Beer Styles Perfect for Fall, and the Ones to Drink

While summer is the time to stick to light and refreshing beers, fall presents opportunities of its own. And no, that doesn’t just mean falling into the trap of pumpkin beers. It’s time to dial down the hops and drink something a little different. Here are 10 beer styles perfect for fall weather, and a few standout examples of each.

Oktoberfest

One to Try: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company x Bitburger Oktoberfest
While Oktoberfest itself is winding down, there isn’t a better beer to signal the changing of seasons. Oktoberfests are malty, medium-bodied and copper in color, presenting a perfect match for the fall. Each year Sierra Nevada partners with a German brewery to produce a collaborative Oktoberfest, and this year’s, made with Bitburger Braugruppe, might be the best yet.

Clocking in at 6 percent ABV, it’s sweet, complex and full of the perfect amount of Oktoberfest spices. Considering it’s the first time ever that Bitburger’s sealed hops and yeast were used outside of Germany, this is a special fall beer and you should get your hands on it if you still can.

Three More:
Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest
Jack’s Abby Copper Legend Octoberfest
Spaten Oktoberfest Ur-Märzen

Brown Ale

One to Try: Bell’s Brewery Best Brown Ale
Brown ales are among the most underappreciated styles out there. They provide a great balance between heavy dark beers and crisp, hoppy brews — especially the American versions.

Bell’s Best Brown Ale is a great example of that; combining caramel, cocoa and malty notes with generous use of American hops to present a light and comforting beer. At only 5.8 percent ABV, it’s one you can drink a few of in the fall and still have a good time.

Three More:
Brooklyn Brewery Brown Ale
Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale
Smuttynose Old Brown Dog

Porter

One to Try: Anchor Brewing Anchor Porter
If you’re more of a light beer drinker and want to dip your toe into the waters of darker beer this season, reach for a porter. Typically lighter than stouts, porters have a thinner mouthfeel and lower malt bitterness thanks to the lack of roasted barley. Notes of chocolate, coffee and a little sweetness make porters the easy-drinking cousin of stouts.

Anchor Steam’s Anchor Porter is as classic as it gets. The first American version ever brewed (in 1972), it offers more fruity notes like dark berries and unroasted coffee. The 5.6 percent ABV brew produces a deep black color and a thick head for a definitive example of American porter.

Three More:
Maui Coconut Porter
Deschutes Black Butte Porter
Maine Beer Co. King Titus Porter

Pilsner

One to Try: Allagash Brewing Truepenny
Pilsners and football just go together. The most popular beers in America are pilsners because everyone can understand them, they’re refreshing, they’re light and they have a much more palatable hop character than IPAs. They don’t tend to take many risks, which makes Allagash Brewing’s Truepenny Pilsner all the more brilliant.

It’s a Belgian-style pilsner fermented in two ways: one part of the batch with pilsner yeast and the other with its house Brettanomyces yeast. They then blended those two batches back together to create the first-ever Allagash pilsner. It hits crisp like a traditional lager off the bat but the backend offers more complexity than you’d expect from the style.

Three More:
Firestone Walker Brewing Company Pivo
Three’s Brewing Vliet
Oxbow Brewing Lupplo

Stout

One to Try: Guinness Open Gate Brewery Over the Moon Milk Stout
Stouts usually conjure up images of dark, heavy beers best drank next to a fire on a cold winter’s evening. But not all stouts have to be 13 percent bombs that smack you in the teeth like imperial stouts, barrel-aged stouts or pastry stouts. Even Guiness, the most popular stout int he world, isn’t like that.

But instead of reaching for old reliable, reach for Guinness’s new Over the Moon Milk Stout. Brewed out of the Open Gate Brewery in Baltimore, Maryland, it’s an approachable 5.3 percent ABV that offsets stout’s standard roasted barley by way of cream-like sweetness from milk sugars. It’s an easy entry for those looking to try darker beers in the colder months.

Three More:
Modern Times Black House Stout
North Coast Brewing Old Rasputin
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout

Flanders Red Ale

One to Try: Brouwerij Rodenbach Classic
Few beers can offer an entrypoint into sours and mixed fermentation better than a Flanders red ale. The most near-wine beer out there, oak barrel aging and fermentation by way of lactobacillus and Brettanomyces end up giving this old world style ruby to deep red colors along with a fruity tartness not disimilar to red wine.

When going for this sour ale, a tried-and-true variant like Brouwerij Rodenbach Classic is the way to go. It sets the bar for Flemish red ales, having been brewed since the late 1800s. It consists of 75 percent young beer and 25 percent beer that has been matured in oak foeders for two years. Fresh, softly acidic and sweet, at 5.2 percent ABV it’s as good as it gets.

Three More:
New Belgium La Folie
The Lost Abbey Red Poppy
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales La Roja

Saison

One to Try: Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
Ah, saisons. Where a Flemish red ale might be a bit more sour, a saison can be more citrusy, spicy and carry a earthy, hoppy bitterness. This wildly fermented style relies on lactobacillus (or Brettanomyces) yeast strains but come out with a much more pale, amber color.

Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont is the saison all other saisons are compared against. It brings a little more sweetness than others, but remains as complex an any. It clocks in at 6.5 percent ABV and thanks to refermentation that happens in the bottle.

Three More:
Oxbow Brewing Company Farmhouse Pale Ale
Boulevard Brewing Tank 7
Hill Farmstead Brewery Arthur

ESB (Extra Special Bitter)

One to Try: Great Lakes Brewing Co. Moondog Ale
ESB once had a promising presence in America, but for hop-related reasons (we’re looking at you New England-style IPAs) has fallen out of graces along with its American cousin amber ales. But the English-style beer is essentially an ode to fall: malty, mellow and easy drinking. They tend to not be very bitter compared to hop-forward IPAs, and they share a lot in common with fuller amber ales that can be enjoyed on cooler evenings.

Moondog Ale from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is a three-time gold medal winner at the World Beer Championships and is one of the best American versions of ESB. A little hoppier than the standard ESB, it brings along those floral hop scents to pair well with crisp, sweet malts and comes through at 5.5 percent ABV.

Three More:
Fuller’s ESB
Red Hook Brewery ESB
Southern Tier Brewing Co. Harvest Ale

Schwarzbier (Black Lager)

One to Try: Uinta Baba Black Lager
Schwarzbiers, German for “black beers,” are even lighter in body than porters and present another great opportunity for giving a go at dark beers. Good black lagers balance roasty malts and chocolates with hoppy crispness for a dry finish.

Produced year-round at Uinta Brewing’s Utah brewery, Baba Black Lager is one of the most readily available in the category. It’s light in body, low in alcohol (4 percent ABV) and offers notes of dark coffee and chocolate. This blends incredibly well with the hop count (38 IBUs) for a smooth dark beer that doesn’t necessarily taste like one.

Three More:
Suarez Family Brewery Bones Shirt
New Belgium 1554 Black Lager
Cigar City Ligero Black Lager

Rauchbier

One to Try: Alaskan Brewing Co. Smoked Porter
While black lagers are arguably the most accessible dark beer, Rauchbiers (also called smoked beers) are going to challenge you. A Rauchbier presents a distinct smokey flavor that comes from the drying of the malts over an open fire. Modern day versions recreate this historical style and blend it with modern brewing flavors to dial up (or down) smokiness in a myriad of different approaches.

That’s why Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Smoked Porter remains one of America’s greatest versions of Rauchbier. For over 30 years, Alaskan Brewing Co. has utilized direct heat from local alder wood to malt its barley — the same technique used for smoked salmon. This limited release seasonal comes in at 6.5 percent ABV and offers a dark, robust body that pairs perfectly with cooking dinner over a fire on a cool fall evening.

Three More:
Suarez Family Brewery Stands to Reason
Fort Point Beer Co. Manzanita
Fox Farm Brewery The Cabin

A Complete Guide to Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon: History and Hype Explained

You’d think Pappy Van Winkle is a brand that needs no introduction — except that it does. The truth is that most people don’t know anything about “Pappy,” other than that it’s supposed to be the best of its kind. So let’s set the record straight. Here’s everything you need to know about America’s most-sought-after spirit.

Pappy History, Abbreviated

Opening Shop: Pappy Van Winkle refers to Julian Sr. “Pappy” Van Winkle, who created the original line of Van Winkle whiskeys. Van Winkle is a Dutch name that loosely translates to “from shopkeeper.” After gaining some experience through jobs and an earlier distilling venture before Prohibition, Julian Sr. opened a new Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1931 at the age of 61 outside of Louisville. He influenced the business until his death in 1965 at the age of 91.

A Decades-Long Decline: In the 1970s and 1980s, the public’s drinking preferences shifted towards other spirits (especially vodka), a change that severely damaged the bourbon industry. After years of steady declines in sales and a disagreement between heirs around what to do with the business, Pappy’s son, Julian Jr., sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery and the rights to all of its whiskey brands in 1972 — except for the Old Rip Van Winkle name.

Julian Jr.’s decision to purchase back some of the Stitzel-Weller whiskey stock and bottle it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label had preserved his father’s work to some degree, but the market for Kentucky’s whiskey remained dry. Julian Jr. died in 1981, leaving the Old Rip Van Winkle line and the Stitzel-Weller stocks to his son, Julian III. Around that same time, Stitzel-Weller stopped bottling for the Van Winkle family. So Julian III switched to the Hoffman Distillery down the road in Lawrenceburg to bottle and store his whiskey.

Mr. Pappy Van WInkle himself.

Mr. Pappy Van Winkle himself.

The Comeback: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, bourbon started creeping back into American drinking culture, and Julian III’s brand began garnering attention. He began sourcing older whiskeys he purchased from other distilleries — Stitzel-Weller chief among them — and released a 10-year-old bourbon, followed by 12-, 14- and eventually 20- and 23-year-old bourbons. A Chicago sales rep entered the 20-year-old bottle into the Beverage Tasting Institute’s panel, where it scored a 99. It was the company’s first big break. According to Julian III, the bourbon inside that bottle had been purchased from Wild Turkey, who had acquired it themselves from a distillery called Old Boone. This was the genesis of Pappy hype culture.

Whiskey Craze: The question of who made the juice inside any particular bottle of Pappy Van Winkle is a huge source of debate and interest for die-hard whiskey fans, particularly in the light of the Buffalo Trace partnership. There is no possible way that Buffalo Trace could produce the exact same bourbon that had won Pappy awards in the past.

At some point after 2002, a portion of whiskey produced by Buffalo Trace was being mingled with the old Stitzel-Weller stock to create new bottles of Pappy and Old Rip Van Winkle. The speculation on which vintages of each offering stopped including Stitzel-produced bourbon, a distillery with a certain mystique, have added mystery to Pappy lore, and made older bottles far more valuable.

Today, few names in whiskey demand the money and interest Pappy does, and none trigger the same fanatical cold calling of liquor stores hundreds of miles away.

How to Buy Pappy

Spoilers: short of having a connection with a liquor store owner or distributor, there are no guarantees in the hunt for Pappy. Use these best practices wisely, but temper expectations at the door.

Get on the List: Even the best liquor stores are limited to the allocated bottle count distributed to them. After Buffalo Trace has sent out the year’s allotment, there won’t be new bottles until the next year. This means stores have very few bottles and lots of customers who want them. The most common solution for shops of all sizes is a raffle, so ask the cashier at your local spots if one exists and get yourself on it. Winning the raffle won’t net you a free bottle, but at least you get a chance to buy it.

Look at a Map: Stores in population centers are more likely to be allocated coveted whiskey, but they’re also more likely to pull huge crowds. Stores with less visitors or in lower-populated areas are allocated less of the good stuff. This makes the edges of suburbia prime whiskey hunting territory — where retailers are more likely to receive Pappy and there are fewer people fighting for each bottle.

Be a Good Customer: The simple and sagely advice of all experienced whiskey collectors. Give your business to a store near you over a period of time and you’re more likely to get a “sure” when asking about rare or allocated bottles. It should be noted that this technique is employed more effectively with smaller stores, as larger ones aren’t necessarily fighting to keep every customer that comes through the door.

Open Up Your Wallet: It can be comforting (or obnoxious) to know that once every method is exhausted, there are always sellers somewhere out there. It could be a friend of a friend, some guy on Craigslist or an exchange through Facebook direct message, but rest assured someone out there is willing to take you for all you’re worth for the whiskey you seek. It will be expensive and you could get ripped off (fake Pappy is not uncommon), but, like it or not, these secondary buying markets do exist.

Mark Your Calendar: The Pappy Van Winkle Collection releases around the same time every year — late October to November. Whether you’re chasing it at retail (best of luck!), signing up for raffles or resigning yourself to paying exorbitant secondary market prices, that’s when new bottles begin circulating. Be warned: most shop owners are either hesitant to provide, or flat-out don’t know, when their allocation will arrive. Shipping to stores can vary by region, state and city; short of having a friend who works for the distributor, you won’t know exactly when it’s landing.

Pappy-Van-winkle-Bottles-Gear-Patrol

Every Bottle of Pappy, Explained

The Pappy Van Winkle Collection is made up of six bottles. Find tasting information, retail prices and street prices for all six here.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year

Retail Price: $70
Street Price: ~$500
Proof: 107

A charming, out-of-place wizard with a rifle pressed across his chest dons the label of the most available of the Van Winkle whiskeys. It’s just under barrel proof, with a splash of water added after it’s batched to reign it in. Its proof and age mean there’s a flavor punch, but it’s mostly baking spices, wood and alcohol, rather than the sweetness that earned Pappy its rep. It’s a great bottle to track down for completionists or those who just want a bottle for bragging rights.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year

Retail Price: $80
Street Price: ~$700
Proof: 90

Special Reserve 12-year is the Van Winkle whiskey for the Basil Hayden’s drinker. Forgive the heresy of this comparison, anyone who’s tried it knows it to be true. Its lower proof (90) and average maturation time (for Pappy, at least) means you don’t get harsher alcohol burn on the nose or palate and you don’t get swallowed up by oak tannins. That said, like Basil Hayden’s, it’s satisfying for everyone from the novice to the seasoned pro.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-Year

Retail Price: $120
Street Price: ~$1,000
Proof: 107

Only three of the bottles in the greater Pappy Van Winkle Collection bear the word “Pappy” on them — this is the youngest. It’s different from its fellow PVW bottles in one major way, and a few minor ones. Major: it’s bottled at barrel proof (107), the only expression in the collection handled that way. So while you get some of the sweetness associated with older Pappy, you also get a thick, oily body and a healthy burn on the first few sips. It used to be the go-to Pappy for those tip-toeing into the collection, but its second-hand price has climbed from splurge to you-better-check-your-bank-account in recent years.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year

Retail Price: $200
Street Price: ~$1,500
Proof: 90

The most-awarded of the Pappys, it’s often said 20-year can be mistaken for a fine cognac. It’s significantly lower proof (90) than its compatriots, sacrificing its body for a wicked balance of wood tannins and fruity sweetness. This bottle hasn’t been a reasonable buy in decades, so don’t expect to find any deals here.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-Year

Retail Price: $300
Street Price: ~$2,400
Proof: 96

This is unobtanium. The oldest of the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserves sits right between its younger siblings in proof (96), but distant in flavor. The last three years of maturation it boasts over the 20-year are very clear — this is a woody, tannic, mouth-drying whiskey. Some of the floral, fruit-driven sweetness of the 15- and 20-year is diminished because of this. This isn’t to say it’s not an exceptional sipper; rather, it’s not what anyone would call “smooth.” If you find it under $1,000 anywhere, buy it — you’ll be able to sell it to some schmuck for at least twice that much.

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13-Year

Retail Price: $120
Street Price: ~$1,250
Proof: 96

This is a rye, but we can assume it isn’t a high-rye. The stuff drinks just like bourbon and is probably the second or third best-reviewed of the entire collection. It’s one of the oldest ryes on the market (Sazerac Rye from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection steals the crown) and it shows in spades — whatever spiciness you associate with rye is bowled over by a rich mix of tobacco, honey, toffee and fruit. This is the Van Winkle whiskey for the whiskey nerd in your life.

The Complete Guide to Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon Whiskey: Hype and History Explained

You’d think Pappy Van Winkle is a brand that needs no introduction — except that it does. The truth is that most people don’t know anything about “Pappy,” other than that it’s supposed to be the best of its kind. So let’s set the record straight. Here’s everything you need to know about America’s most-sought-after spirit.

Pappy History, Abbreviated

Opening Shop: Pappy Van Winkle refers to Julian Sr. “Pappy” Van Winkle, who created the original line of Van Winkle whiskeys. Van Winkle is a Dutch name that loosely translates to “from shopkeeper.” After gaining some experience through jobs and an earlier distilling venture before Prohibition, Julian Sr. opened a new Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1931 at the age of 61 outside of Louisville. He influenced the business until his death in 1965 at the age of 91.

A Decades-Long Decline: In the 1970s and 1980s, the public’s drinking preferences shifted towards other spirits (especially vodka), a change that severely damaged the bourbon industry. After years of steady declines in sales and a disagreement between heirs around what to do with the business, Pappy’s son, Julian Jr., sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery and the rights to all of its whiskey brands in 1972 — except for the Old Rip Van Winkle name.

Julian Jr.’s decision to purchase back some of the Stitzel-Weller whiskey stock and bottle it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label had preserved his father’s work to some degree, but the market for Kentucky’s whiskey remained dry. Julian Jr. died in 1981, leaving the Old Rip Van Winkle line and the Stitzel-Weller stocks to his son, Julian III. Around that same time, Stitzel-Weller stopped bottling for the Van Winkle family. So Julian III switched to the Hoffman Distillery down the road in Lawrenceburg to bottle and store his whiskey.

Mr. Pappy Van WInkle himself.

Mr. Pappy Van Winkle himself.

The Comeback: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, bourbon started creeping back into American drinking culture, and Julian III’s brand began garnering attention. He began sourcing older whiskeys he purchased from other distilleries — Stitzel-Weller chief among them — and released a 10-year-old bourbon, followed by 12-, 14- and eventually 20- and 23-year-old bourbons. A Chicago sales rep entered the 20-year-old bottle into the Beverage Tasting Institute’s panel, where it scored a 99. It was the company’s first big break. According to Julian III, the bourbon inside that bottle had been purchased from Wild Turkey, who had acquired it themselves from a distillery called Old Boone. This was the genesis of Pappy hype culture.

Whiskey Craze: The question of who made the juice inside any particular bottle of Pappy Van Winkle is a huge source of debate and interest for die-hard whiskey fans, particularly in the light of the Buffalo Trace partnership. There is no possible way that Buffalo Trace could produce the exact same bourbon that had won Pappy awards in the past.

At some point after 2002, a portion of whiskey produced by Buffalo Trace was being mingled with the old Stitzel-Weller stock to create new bottles of Pappy and Old Rip Van Winkle. The speculation on which vintages of each offering stopped including Stitzel-produced bourbon, a distillery with a certain mystique, have added mystery to Pappy lore, and made older bottles far more valuable.

Today, few names in whiskey demand the money and interest Pappy does, and none trigger the same fanatical cold calling of liquor stores hundreds of miles away.

How to Buy Pappy

Spoilers: short of having a connection with a liquor store owner or distributor, there are no guarantees in the hunt for Pappy. Use these best practices wisely, but temper expectations at the door.

Get on the List: Even the best liquor stores are limited to the allocated bottle count distributed to them. After Buffalo Trace has sent out the year’s allotment, there won’t be new bottles until the next year. This means stores have very few bottles and lots of customers who want them. The most common solution for shops of all sizes is a raffle, so ask the cashier at your local spots if one exists and get yourself on it. Winning the raffle won’t net you a free bottle, but at least you get a chance to buy it.

Look at a Map: Stores in population centers are more likely to be allocated coveted whiskey, but they’re also more likely to pull huge crowds. Stores with less visitors or in lower-populated areas are allocated less of the good stuff. This makes the edges of suburbia prime whiskey hunting territory — where retailers are more likely to receive Pappy and there are fewer people fighting for each bottle.

Be a Good Customer: The simple and sagely advice of all experienced whiskey collectors. Give your business to a store near you over a period of time and you’re more likely to get a “sure” when asking about rare or allocated bottles. It should be noted that this technique is employed more effectively with smaller stores, as larger ones aren’t necessarily fighting to keep every customer that comes through the door.

Open Up Your Wallet: It can be comforting (or obnoxious) to know that once every method is exhausted, there are always sellers somewhere out there. It could be a friend of a friend, some guy on Craigslist or an exchange through Facebook direct message, but rest assured someone out there is willing to take you for all you’re worth for the whiskey you seek. It will be expensive and you could get ripped off (fake Pappy is not uncommon), but, like it or not, these secondary buying markets do exist.

Mark Your Calendar: The Pappy Van Winkle Collection releases around the same time every year — late October to November. Whether you’re chasing it at retail (best of luck!), signing up for raffles or resigning yourself to paying exorbitant secondary market prices, that’s when new bottles begin circulating. Be warned: most shop owners are either hesitant to provide, or flat-out don’t know, when their allocation will arrive. Shipping to stores can vary by region, state and city; short of having a friend who works for the distributor, you won’t know exactly when it’s landing.

Pappy-Van-winkle-Bottles-Gear-Patrol

Every Bottle of Pappy, Explained

The Pappy Van Winkle Collection is made up of six bottles. Find tasting information, retail prices and street prices for all six here.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year

Retail Price: $70
Street Price: ~$500
Proof: 107

A charming, out-of-place wizard with a rifle pressed across his chest dons the label of the most available of the Van Winkle whiskeys. It’s just under barrel proof, with a splash of water added after it’s batched to reign it in. Its proof and age mean there’s a flavor punch, but it’s mostly baking spices, wood and alcohol, rather than the sweetness that earned Pappy its rep. It’s a great bottle to track down for completionists or those who just want a bottle for bragging rights.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year

Retail Price: $80
Street Price: ~$700
Proof: 90

Special Reserve 12-year is the Van Winkle whiskey for the Basil Hayden’s drinker. Forgive the heresy of this comparison, anyone who’s tried it knows it to be true. Its lower proof (90) and average maturation time (for Pappy, at least) means you don’t get harsher alcohol burn on the nose or palate and you don’t get swallowed up by oak tannins. That said, like Basil Hayden’s, it’s satisfying for everyone from the novice to the seasoned pro.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-Year

Retail Price: $120
Street Price: ~$1,000
Proof: 107

Only three of the bottles in the greater Pappy Van Winkle Collection bear the word “Pappy” on them — this is the youngest. It’s different from its fellow PVW bottles in one major way, and a few minor ones. Major: it’s bottled at barrel proof (107), the only expression in the collection handled that way. So while you get some of the sweetness associated with older Pappy, you also get a thick, oily body and a healthy burn on the first few sips. It used to be the go-to Pappy for those tip-toeing into the collection, but its second-hand price has climbed from splurge to you-better-check-your-bank-account in recent years.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year

Retail Price: $200
Street Price: ~$1,500
Proof: 90

The most-awarded of the Pappys, it’s often said 20-year can be mistaken for a fine cognac. It’s significantly lower proof (90) than its compatriots, sacrificing its body for a wicked balance of wood tannins and fruity sweetness. This bottle hasn’t been a reasonable buy in decades, so don’t expect to find any deals here.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-Year

Retail Price: $300
Street Price: ~$2,400
Proof: 96

This is unobtanium. The oldest of the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserves sits right between its younger siblings in proof (96), but distant in flavor. The last three years of maturation it boasts over the 20-year are very clear — this is a woody, tannic, mouth-drying whiskey. Some of the floral, fruit-driven sweetness of the 15- and 20-year is diminished because of this. This isn’t to say it’s not an exceptional sipper; rather, it’s not what anyone would call “smooth.” If you find it under $1,000 anywhere, buy it — you’ll be able to sell it to some schmuck for at least twice that much.

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13-Year

Retail Price: $120
Street Price: ~$1,250
Proof: 96

This is a rye, but we can assume it isn’t a high-rye. The stuff drinks just like bourbon and is probably the second or third best-reviewed of the entire collection. It’s one of the oldest ryes on the market (Sazerac Rye from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection steals the crown) and it shows in spades — whatever spiciness you associate with rye is bowled over by a rich mix of tobacco, honey, toffee and fruit. This is the Van Winkle whiskey for the whiskey nerd in your life.