When one has indoor plumbing some things are simply better purchased with a wingman. Not the proverbial “wingman,” but an oversized, fortified male accompanying the said female in procurement of goods, minimizing her mocking for sheer amusement of purveyor staff.
In my experience these purchases include fast cars, Cuban cigars in Paris (Churchills not cigarillos), and high-end spirits. Never have I been so unabashedly snickered at as when inquiring about whiskey.
It all started four years ago. My husband was having a major birthday and I desired a distinctive offering. I thought about a really ripe Cabernet Franc (his favorite) but we already had enough garnet-hued libations in the basement. Collecting red wine involved more babysitting and added expense than initially anticipated. It’s an indulgence requiring quick consumption after opening as it begins to decline soon after. And wine has obstinate storage needs. If you have something special waiting to peak, it can easily become soured in less than ideal conditions.
A good example was the much-anticipated 2004 Merryvale Profile finally opened on our anniversary last month–an utter disappointment. The bottle had been too close to the radiant heat floor and consequently the cork dried out, allowing air to filter through. We took a sip and puckered up, promptly committing the remaining tainted wine to the crock that houses my French Mother. What a waste.
My husband is incredibly difficult to buy for and rarely gets excited about anything—the only downside to his even keel. Before he was into wine, he really enjoyed whiskey, which was at the time absent from the liquor cabinet. I began my internet search for a spirit to parallel a major birthday for such a man and came across the annual “spirit” awards (as in alcohol, not cheerleaders).
The mentioned imported whiskeys (spelled “whiskies” in Scotland, Canada and Japan) were the Scotch and Irish bottlings, Canadian and, surprisingly, some Japanese. There were several standouts, but no solitary bottle that prompted a Hallelujah. So I headed to the American offerings in which one bourbon (we’ll get to a whiskey/bourbon comparison in a sec) won seven notable awards in 2010 and a score of 97 points by Wine Enthusiast. That bottle was the 20-year Pappy Van Winkle, referred to by loyal devotees as “Pappy.”
That solitary distilled spirit commandeered recommendations and reviews from every possible venue: lowly college kids that accidentally found a bottle hiding in the local liquor store to chefs in Manhattan to bourbon gurus in Kentucky. The 20-year Pappy seemed the overwhelmingly obvious choice, and I was relieved to find my husband’s soon-to-be birthday gift.
Then came the crushing reality. I was tremendously naïve regarding process acquisition of the illusive “Pappy.” There were thousands of folks (generally men) on wait lists across the country trying to land a bottle, and no respectable liquor store in Maryland was willing to sell to some girl wanna-be whiskey connoisseur sans wingman. The fact that shipping alcohol to Maryland was illegal at the time only upped the ante.
Three weeks later the exchange took place. Within arm’s reach was not one, but two bottles of Pappy Van Winkle in trademark velvet bottle sleeves. I had managed to talk an unnamed someone out of both a 15-year and a 20-year Pappy for the agreed price of $500. My blue-collar background objected via inner dialogue but was snuffed out the second I cradled that plain brown box in my arms. I had closed on a Hail Mary, securing honorary sainthood among future generations of American wives.
Finally the day came. He opened the box, at once astonished. After putting his jaw back into place, he snapped a photo with his iPhone and off it went to his brother in Dallas, who’d been trying to get his hands on any bottle (or even just an ounce) of Pappy Van Winkle for well over a year.
That first Pappy procurement swiftly launched me into the “Wifee Hall of Fame” (his words, not mine). I’ve never seen a tough guy act so dorky. He texted photos of himself posing with his Pappy to nearly every drinking buddy he’s ever had. But my victorious endowment also created a problem… He was hooked. The limited supply of Pappy merely tickled the scratch of increasing consumer demand in the following years.
I again called all the liquor stores who might obtain an allocation, usually one case or less, in late November. After booking my parents’ babysitting services for Pappy allocation day, the hubby and I hit every liquor store (like Bonnie and Clyde) that was expecting at least six bottles. We went in each location separately as there was a one-bottle limit per person. At the end of the day we had four new bottles. The following year we obtained another four bottles to add to our modest collection (see exhibit B below). Pappy allocation day had become a standing date between us… like a treasure hunt for grown-ups with OCD.
This past November, we were down to eight bottles and hoped to pick up two or three more. But the UPS trucks had all arrived at liquor stores with lines forming outside and the few bottles sent to each location sold immediately upon arrival. Didn’t even make it to the shelves. Other stores that were expecting a modest delivery got the big goose egg and were consequently pretty pissed off. Despite five well-managed attempts, we went home empty handed (sigh).
A few hours after returning home defeated, one of my husband’s employees called with intel regarding someone who might sell us a bottle of the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. When my dedicated spouse arrived at the nondescript liquor store, the 80-something owner looked him up and down, asked him a few questions and made small talk. After all, the guy wasn’t about to sell Van Winkle to a jerk (or worse, an unworthy palate). Luckily, my husband passed the interview. They had bonded over a mutual interest, hockey.
The older fellow then discreetly disclosed that he had rye in the back. My husband followed him to a room of what seemed to be boxes full of easily attainable American whiskeys. But the contents of the boxes did not correspond with their entry-level housing.
Not only did my husband secure a Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, he also came home with a unique bottling of Colonel E.H. Taylor, and the humdinger… the 18-year Sazarac Rye that I’d been trying to get a hold of for two years (see exhibit A). The Sazarac Rye had been the second most absurd request I made at local liquor stores. And it is absolutely delicious! Not nearly as angry as the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye because the smooth toffee-like Sazarac had another five years to mellow into an uber-refined gentleman.
So, here’s a quick education on American whiskey and bourbon. There are actually laws that specify what they can be made of, what they are aged in, the temp of the fluid when entering the barrels, and how high the alcohol content must be for each. It’s a lot of info, but Maker’s Mark generated a great visual that presents the basics in a rather unconfusing manner. I wish I would have found this back in 2010:
An unforeseen bonus to our rather tantric Pappy fixation is that it has only increased in value, nearly three-hundred percent. And, it keeps for ages, unlike the red wine stewing on our heated floors.
The Pappy purchased and opened several years ago is just as enjoyable, if not more so. And the best part? I get between twenty and twenty-five servings per bottle, under $15 for a 1oz. pour of 23-year Pappy, the brand’s flagship. In contrast, our big reds cost more per pour, offering only six servings per bottle. Buck for buck, our whiskey is by far a superior value for initial investment.
We’ve still got four ounces left of that first 20-year bottle I bought back in 2010. Those last well-loved milliliters will be finishing a long distinguished life in form of a bourbon cake in the next few weeks. I realize this is spiritual heresy, so feel free to protest should you feel led.