Famous Pappy Van Winkle Label Celebrates 20 Years; New Developments in Stolen Pappy Case


April 14, 2015

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pappy Van Winkle bottle donning the iconic Pappy photo. That’s right, the lovely bottle you know and love, and have likely stood in long lines for, first appeared on a liquor store shelf in 1995, according to Julian Van Winkle III, Pappy’s grandson.

They were selling Van Winkle labels previously, but the actual Pappy photo appeared on the 20-year-old label. Van Winkle says the 23-year-old came out a few years later and the 15-year-old around 2004.

Some of my favorite Pappy stories come from these early days, when nobody cared about bourbon and certainly not Pappy Van Winkle. A former salesman told me he couldn’t give away the Van Winkle whiskey, especially the stuff dipped in red wax, which of course, is now legendary and a leading collectable. Back then, all anybody wanted was Maker’s Mark.

The iconic Pappy photo celebrates 20 years on a bottle this year.
The iconic Pappy photo celebrates 20 years on a bottle this year.

But the 1990s saw the rise of many brands like Pappy. Jefferson’s, Bulleit, Michter’s and the Van Winkles took advantage of the buyer’s market for sourced whiskey and contract distillation time. Back then, on the heels of major companies divesting in bourbon, distilleries viewed the Bulleits and Jefferson’s of the world as another revenue stream.

Today, thanks to Chuck Cowdery coining the phrase, we call this model Non-Distiller Producer. Back then, distilleries called them rectifier clients and were happy to sell them leftover whiskey stocks.

How things have changed. In 20 years, Julian Van Winkle went from giving bottles away to new friends and salesmen practically begging out-of-state liquor stores to carry the whiskey to Pappy Van Winkle being sold in lotteries at liquor stores, who are known to list Pappy for $6,000. Consumers have even posted Craigslist ads offering “Oral Services” for Pappy.

And of course, there’s the 2013 theft of 65 cases. I was expecting to attend a news conference today regarding the $26,000-worth of Pappy stolen from the Frankfort-based Buffalo Trace Distillery two years ago. That was rescheduled for April 21. The Franklin County Sheriff says he’s uncovered new developments.

Last month, a former Buffalo Trace worker was arrested in the theft of five Wild Turkey bourbon barrels. He was later charged for the Wild Turkey theft.

On April 21, at this news conference, I will likely see national, regional and other whiskey writers at a press conference about stolen bourbon. I imagine it will be largest press event I’ve attended since covering President Bush in 2006.

And to think, it was a struggle to sell this bourbon 20 years ago. Now we’re holding county sheriff press conferences?

I wonder what bourbon / Pappy will look like 20 years from now. You’re guess is as good as mine.


Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon Curious and Whiskey Women