Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pappy Van Winkle, Cult Icon.

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery website has just been refreshed, for the first time in a long time. It's still pretty simple and doesn't contain much more information than the old one. It's just more up-to-date in its design and functionality, a welcome improvement.

There's also a film in the works, by independent filmmaker Mark Casey. He has it up on KickStarter now. It's called "Chasing Pappy," and is about the hardest of hardcore bourbon enthusiasts, Pappy fiends.

Let's see if I can explain the Van Winkle phenomenon in a few words. Van Winkle is a brand of whiskey. The Van Winkle whiskeys are always in very limited supply. Each year, at about this time, the annual allocation is released. What follows is a frenzy, as fans try to secure as many rare bottles as they can.

Much of the drama is played out online.

As you can learn from the new website, there are actually seven products in the Van Winkle line. All are limited but the frenzy is reserved for the rarest ones, the three bourbons sold under the Pappy Van Winkle banner. They are 15 years old, 20 years old, and 23 years old respectively.

Julian P. 'Pappy' Van Winkle (1874-1965) was a real person, a colorful character who owned a legendary distillery, Stitzel-Weller. Today's Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery isn't a distillery so much as a marketing company. It is run by Pappy's namesake grandson and his son, and is affiliated with Sazerac and, specifically, Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

I've written about Van Winkle before, most recently here.


sku said...

Chuck, do you have a sense for how the frenzied aspect of these releases evolved? How much of it was marketing from Van Winkle as opposed to hype generated on-line or other places?

It seems like three or four years ago, these were not in such short supply (or not in as much demand). They would stay on shelves for a while and while it might take some effort to track them down, it was doable. The rye was probably the hardest to find in California, but all the other bottlings were pretty available, including the Pappys.

Now it seems like even the 10 year olds and the Lot B are grabbed up the minute they hit the shelves. It's particularly ironic, given that years ago, more of this stuff was Stitzel-Weller than it is now.

I know in your previous post you said this was part of a marketing strategy. I'd say it's been a pretty amazingly successful one.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Deliberate scarcity is a business strategy but, beyond that, Van Winkle has done nothing to create or encourage the cult. That has happened on its own, mostly online.