Pappy in a Panda Suit-Drilling down on the honesty issue until it hurts!
If you’re a Whiskey Geek that hasn’t been stranded on a Desert Island you would have noticed that the Non-Distilling Producer (NDP) subject finally hit the big time as of late. This “Exposing” piece made the mainstream national media but didn’t come from “one of our own” but the Daily Beast.
Although it’s a well known issue in our world it’s not something A-list Whiskey writers want to tackle properly.
Honesty, Transparency, Label Limbo with the NDP games was the gist of the piece. BUT —-if we are going there, really going there from a National perspective we MUST pick the scab off this one and it’s going to bleed! None of it will be surprising. I’ll equate it with a Zoo publicizing the acquisition of a new almost extinct Panda Bear only to find out it’s really Julian Van Winkle III in a Panda Suit!Putting it another way, blinded by its “specialness” it’s easy to overlook the warts of the Van Winkle brand.
How is Pappy different than so many other NDP’s looked down on?
Both Julian and Preston Van Winkle are both on record saying that the 23 year old Stitizel Weller distilled Van Winkle was done as of 2013. Then again, there are lots conflicting reports too so Kentucky Fairy dust could be sprinkled on some new found barrels etc.. It also doesn’t mean something creative like rebatching some Stitzel Weller bottles for bottling new bottles can’t happen. “Still Stitzel Weller in every bottle” Blah Blah Blah. (Wow, did I really use “bottle” three times? Yup!)
In actuality, no “muggle” knows for sure the brand’s inner workings other than the historical fact that the Stitzel Weller Distillery closed in 1992, 22 years ago and what’s left (if any) is in bottles.
A Van Winkle has never been a Master Distiller. On the Buffalo Trace Tour in Frankfort KY, tourists have been shown the “Van Winkle Offices” that are actually at 2843 Brownsboro Road in Louisville, 51 miles away.
The Van Winkle Bourbon labels denote the “Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery” (ORVW) of Frankfort KY that doesn’t exist. Some labels state “bottled by” and others are “Distilled and Bottled” by ORVW. They are far from alone with this ruse.
Then there is the how it’s made and why it’s special marketing “massage” or is it message?
The “official” story on the Buffalo Trace website and stated on some expression labels are that—
"bourbon was crafted according to our exclusive family Wheated recipe"
Well, it’s not. It’s the standard Buffalo Trace Wheated Recipe that doesn’t use the exact same distillation, distillation ABV, Yeast, or Barrel Entry Proof as the original Stitzel Weller/Old Fitzgerald Wheated recipe. Even the actual Stitzel Weller recipe was thought to change a bit the closer to the 1992 closing that they got. The Yeast is actually now a bagged dry yeast at Buffalo Trace that is used by most if not all of what’s made there.
I’m also unsure of this “three generations of Distilling experience” from the label above as JVW3 has none.
To be fair, the Van Winkle website history is a bit clearer and correct—
“Recently, the Van Winkles entered into a joint venture with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. All of the Van Winkle’s whiskey production now takes place at Buffalo Trace under the same strict guidelines the family has always followed in order to produce a superior quality product.”
I suspect there is a bit of a Tug of War on how the brand is represented, marketed, and promoted by its two Masters. One thing that is certain is the Wheated barrels being used for the brand are given the Rolls Royce treatment.
In 1992 the Stitzel Weller Distillery closed. In 1999 Sazerac bought the Weller brand and in 2002 Van Winkle officially moved to Sazerac/Buffalo Trace. Those 7 or 10 years are gap years and who knows what whiskey is going into a Van Winkle bottle from that period. They don’t/won’t say. It’s presumed to be from Bernheim or contract distilled at whatever you want to call Buffalo Trace back then.
Is this any different than us criticizing a brand using MGPI/LDI with a story while not disclosing it? I don’t think so. Just because you’re a potentially deserving Golden Child doesn’t absolve them of the same transgressions and criticisms.
I’m not addressing quality or how it tastes. It’s not an issue any more than Whistle Pig being a pretty good tasting Rye being sold with a deceiving message. Most Bourbon geeks love ORVW and most that want it could care less what the real back story is. I’m not knocking or bashing the juice or what’s in the bottle. I’m talking of the Transparency, lack of or mixed messages.
"Yes, its true (as a Buffalo Trace Tour Guide points and says) that Pappy is made right there”. Yes, in the same giant Column still making the other bourbon. They could do something special but I’ve never heard they have. Within Buffalo Trace is a full blown self-contained Micro Distillery. http://lukasliquorstl.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/buffalo-trace-ofc-micro-distillery.png
They could use any recipe, special yeast, in small batches and even call it the Van Winkle Distillery if they chose to but they don’t. Why bother when the current way works so well.
What it’s not is this mythical Unicorn stuff made in a special place, a special way, by special people from a special family. It’s made in a giant Whiskey factory that puts out Millions of bottles. It’s unfortunate the family hasn’t made a drop since 1972 or 42 years but it’s the truth.
Let’s not be hypocrites bashing the “Ugly” brands for doing much of the same thing as the deceptively beautiful Van Winkle brand.