Was Pappy Van Winkle A Real Person?

Even if you're not a bourbon drinker, you've probably heard of the ultra-collectible Pappy Van Winkle, which fetches astronomical prices on the secondary bourbon market ... if you're lucky enough to be able to get your hands on a bottle. Exactly how much do people pay for Pappy Van Winkle? The suggested retail prices from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery don't give a complete picture of the brand's value. The entry-level Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year carries an MSRP of a modest $69.99, but your chances of walking into a liquor store and finding a bottle at that price are virtually nil. Online retailer Wooden Cork lists the current sale price at $1098.99, and that's reflecting a $301 discount.

The holy grail for many bourbon aficionados is Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year-old Family Reserve, listed at a retail price of $299.99, and currently for sale from Wooden Cork for the sale price of $5389.99, showing a discount of $610. Why is Pappy so pricey? In a word: scarcity. Retailers lucky enough to purchase bottles from liquor distributors have allocations measured in bottles, rather than in cases, which means more people want the bourbon than there are bottles to go around. Those of us whose budgets don't stretch to cover thousand-dollar bottles of booze might wonder what the fuss is. Is the brand a made-up phenomenon, invented by a marketing genius? Or was there a real Pappy Van Winkle?

Is there a man behind the hype?

There really was a Pappy Van Winkle! According to Buffalo Trace, which partnered with the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery in 2002 (per Vine Pair), Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle Sr. began what would be a legendary family journey in the liquor business when he became a salesman for the liquor distributor W. L. Weller & Sons. Pappy was a mere 18 years old, and the year was 1893. In 1908, he jointly acquired the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which was based in Louisville, Kentucky, and known for its excellent whiskeys. The distillery and distributor consolidated to become the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and survived Prohibition by selling whiskey "for medicinal purposes."

When Pappy died at the age of 91, in 1965, he was the oldest living distiller in the country. His son, Julian P. Van Winkle, took over and eventually sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1972, though he would go on to found a new family venture that resurrected a pre-Prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle. Julian Jr. handed Old Rip Van Winkle to his son, Julian III, who in turn brought his son, Preston Van Winkle, on board. Pappy Van Winkle's legacy is not only an enduring one, but The Bourbon Review also points out that a chapter of its story — the notorious Pappygate theft of half a million dollars' worth of bourbon — is featured in two episodes of Netflix's 2021 limited series "The Heist," titled "The Bourbon King."