December 9, 2013

Pappy Van Winkle craze stirs up bourbon drinkers

Charlotteans are used to driving south of the state line for good deals on liquor. But they’re now going to much greater lengths for a chance at what many call the most elusive bourbon in the world.

Charlotteans are used to driving south of the state line for good deals on liquor. But they’re now going to much greater lengths for a chance at what many call the most elusive bourbon in the world.

Once a sleepy brand known only to the savviest bourbon drinkers, Pappy Van Winkle is now a full-fledged nationwide phenomenon. Now, the company’s ultra-premium offerings have become the gotta-have-it bottles among Charlotte’s professional class.

They’ve spawned lines of customers reminiscent of an Apple product launch and wait lists as long as a decade at Fort Mill stores. All that for bottles that can retail for as much as $500 – with bidding online known to hit $2,500.

Clearly, these bourbons are far from the swill that you hold your nose to drink and chase down with water. The oldest Pappy Van Winkle bourbons are aged for 23 years in a white oak barrel, smell of vanilla and oak and taste of maple and honey.

“These men, when they come, it’s like the Beanie Babies phase. Everybody needed that specific Beanie Baby,” said Joyce Sleeper, liquor manager of Frugal MacDoogal Wine and Liquor Warehouse in Fort Mill. “I’ve even had people say, ‘I’ll give you a little something if you get me a bottle.’”

Charlotte received more Pappy this year than ever before. As customers have clamored for the bourbon, North Carolina’s ABC boards received a regular allotment of Pappy Van Winkle for the first time this year instead of having it handled as a special order.

That meant more bottles on the shelves in Charlotte – or rather, in the storage rooms. Stores that receive a shipment keep a close eye on their wares and come up with elaborate plans for doling them out.

But don’t think that made Pappy any easier to find. Liquor store owners and managers across the Charlotte region say demand has been higher than ever.

In just the past few months, they’ve reported hundreds of phone calls, emails and – in some cases – verbal abuse and threats from drinkers desperate to get their hands on a bottle.

“In the last couple years it’s gotten out of control,” said Don Podrebarac, owner of Southern Spirits in Fort Mill. “Some aren’t even bourbon drinkers, but they want it because of ego. They want it sitting on their shelf so they can say they have a Van Winkle product.”

All that demand has left long-time bourbon drinkers in a tough spot.

Anna Mills, a Charlotte attorney for the Van Winkle Law Firm, said the practice has a tradition of buying bottles of Pappy for new partners because of the similar names. A decade ago, the law firm could special order a private label batch directly from the distillery. That quickly ended.

“Now we’re stuck scrambling,” she said.

This year in particular, the brand’s popularity has been spawned by word of mouth and an explosion into pop culture. When the main characters in Vince Vaughan’s recent movie “The Internship” score a gig at Google, they celebrate with a bottle of Pappy.

Compounding the problem, a thief made off with 74 cases of the spirit directly from the distillery in Frankfort, Ky., earlier this year – worth more than $26,000. The crime has drawn national attention, and the Franklin County, Ky., sheriff’s office is offering a reward of $10,000 to anyone who can help solve it.

People in the Charlotte area have already shown themselves willing to pay extraordinary prices for a chance to score a bottle.

O’Darby’s Spirits in Rock Hill auctioned off a bottle of the 23-year-old Pappy, with proceeds going to Family Promise of York County, which provides services to homeless parents and children. The winning bid came in at $1,999.

When the 81-year-old bidder drove in from Charlotte to claim his bottle, he struck a deal with store co-owner Doug Hinson: If O’Darby’s would save a bottle of the good stuff for him every year, the man would give $250 a month to Family Promise indefinitely.

“It’s unreal,” Hinson said of the demand.

Store owners locally have been shaking their heads at the Pappy mania, but it’s also been a bit of a shock to the company that makes it.

“It definitely caught us by surprise, or else we would have started making more longer ago,” said Preston Van Winkle, marketing director at the distillery. “Nobody could have predicted the explosion of demand for premium bourbon.”

Pappy Van Winkle has ramped up production, but it will take years to see a noticeable increase in the supply. And don’t expect it ever to be easy to find.

“People’s tastes change so we’re not blowing the doors off of this thing,” Van Winkle said. “We don’t ever want to be sitting on top of a lake of whiskey.”

Each store that gets a shipment of Pappy Van Winkle has grappled with how best to dole it out. Even waiting lists haven’t seemed to work.

Frugal MacDoogal in Fort Mill said the store has more than 500 names of people who are interested. At Southern Spirits, the waiting list stretched six to 10 years out.

Several have turned to a lottery system to try to be fair. The Mecklenburg ABC system sent out a message one morning to members of its whiskey email list, and awarded a bottle to the first people to reply.

Frugal MacDoogal takes the email addresses of everybody who’s on their Pappy interest list and conducts a lottery. The lucky winners have until the end of the next day to come by and claim a bottle. And at Southern Spirits, customers who had filled out an entry form gathered at the Fort Mill store on Monday evening for a live lottery.

“I’ve had customers threaten not to do business with me if they didn’t get one,” Podrebarac said. “This way, at least everybody gets a chance.”

Kurt Leedy, an executive at a private equity firm in Charlotte, said he spent three years on a waiting list before he managed to get a bottle of 12-year Pappy Van Winkle from State Line Beverage Warehouse this year.

A colleague scored a bottle of the 23-year Pappy from the Mecklenburg County ABC store, paying about $290. He put it on Craigslist, and within hours had numerous replies. He sold it for $1,100, Leedy said.

“Every person who collects bourbons has been dying to get their hands on a bottle of Pappy,” he said, adding that he’s only had one drink so far and will be limiting it to special occasions. “You never know when you’re going to get another bottle.”

But for anyone still looking for the elusive bottles, it might be too late. The only chance might just be a Christmas miracle.

The Mecklenburg ABC system received an extra shipment of a few bottles because of a company event hosted by Pappy Van Winkle’s parent. Hughes, the operations director, said he’s planning to sprinkle a few on the shelves of random liquor stores in the county on Christmas Eve.

“We’re not going to announce where,” Hughes said. “Hopefully somebody will get a nice surprise.”

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