Ask a stranger about his or her whiskey preferences, and expect to hear about one of two extremes. There’s Pappy Van Winkle—ultra-rare, outrageously overpriced on the secondary market, and with a legion of zealots flying its flag. Then there’s Fireball—a cheap shot readily available for whoever wants to knock a few back and have a rowdy evening, also with a legion of zealots flying its flag. How is it that two such drastically different ends of the whiskey spectrum are both thriving at the same time?
Ironically, both Pappy Van Winkle and Fireball are under the Sazerac Company umbrella, an organization which manages a diverse portfolio of spirits and whiskeys, from shooters and blended whiskeys, to high-end labels, along with a handful of distilleries. In the whiskey realm, Sazerac also includes the Buffalo Trace portfolio, such as the eponymous Buffalo Trace, Blanton's, Eagle Rare, W.L. Weller, E.H. Taylor, Sazerac Rye and numerous others.
Sazerac is a privately held company with a bit of reputation for doing things their own way (they declined to provide direct information for this story). For instance, they’re an outlier in that unlike many of the major whiskey players, such as Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman and Diageo, they aren't a member of the industry’s trade association, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Further, while Pappy Van Winkle and Fireball are dominating the extremes of the whiskey market, neither has received any sort of traditional marketing push. In each case, for each craze, the explosive popularity has been produced almost entirely via word of mouth.
The Pappy Phenomenon
Pappy Van Winkle has taken the world by storm in recent years. But beyond its inherent popularity, what is Pappy Van Winkle, exactly? The brand's lineup of bourbon, along with one rye, includes the 10 year Old Rip Van Winkle 107 proof, Van Winkle Special Reserve, Van Winkle Special Reserve Rye, and the Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve series, with a 15 year, 20 year and 23 year. Over the years, Pappy has garnered a massive, feverish following based more on prestige than flavor profile.
The whiskey’s history reads like a series of acquisitions and mergers. More to the point, until relatively recently, Pappy Van Winkle had been produced by the Stitzel-Weller distillery. The brand name, along with existing stock, was sold and then production moved to the Bernheim Distillery beginning in 1992, before being sold again in 1999. Pappy Van Winkle is now made at Buffalo Trace. This means that depending on the age of your Pappy and its year of release, it could come from one of several different distilleries, with the older offerings from Bernheim, and especially Stitzel-Weller, even more highly touted and sought after.
The bourbon itself features a wheated mash bill, which means that in addition to its minimum 50 percent of corn, it includes a heavy wheat component. This is in contrast to bourbons made entirely from corn, those with a high percentage of rye grain, or those with mixtures of other grains, including barley.
Wheated mash bills aren't entirely unique, and neither is Pappy’s own exact mash bill. In fact, W.L. Weller, another Buffalo Trace and Sazerac brand, features the same exact mash bill. The only difference for what ends up as Pappy and what ends up as Weller is the specifics of the aging, including duration and warehouse location. Otherwise, it's the same juice.
Yet, even with similar options, which are cheaper and more readily available, only Pappy has become the untouchable legend.
"What has caused the greatest part of the phenomenon are people who don't know a thing about it, but want to try it because their friends said it's cool and they had to have it."-Brett Pontoni, Binny's
Brett Pontoni, spirits buyer at noted retailer Binny's Beverage Depot, says there are two types of people talking about Pappy. "Pappy lovers are very, very good whiskey people," he explains. "These are whiskey lovers who want to try Van Winkle as one of a number of things they're interested in. They're also trying all kinds of other really great bourbons that they can walk in and get on a regular basis."
But, that represents a small sliver of the Pappy market. "What has caused the greatest part of the phenomenon are people who don't know a thing about it, but want to try it because their friends said it's cool and they had to have it," Pontoni continues. " These people hear about it, and become obsessed with chasing this holy grail without even knowing it."
"Van Winkle has become very culty," concurs Mike Raymond, co-owner of Houston's Reserve 101. "There are some people who are so obsessed with it, and I understand the idea, it's the unicorn, you've heard of it but you haven't seen it." Not one to hide his true feelings, Pontoni adds, "A lot of the people are just mindless sheep. They're obsessed about it ... they don't have the foggiest idea what it is, they don't know. All they know is that it's hard to get."
Worse than that though is the faction solely interested in reselling bottles online for ridiculous prices. "Unfortunately [Pappy] ends up on the secondary market," laments Pontoni, who also works hard to retain a personal "Do Not Sell" list of people he knows will simply turn around and resell online, fetching prices north of $2,000 per bottle. "They're greedy, and they're bottom feeding scum. Those are dirtballs who do that ... They're taking great bourbon away from people who are passionate about bourbon, and jacking up the price."
Bill Thomas, proprietor of Washington DC's Jack Rose Dining Saloon, also sees both sides of the Pappy craze. "It's fantastic for the industry, because it's drawing attention," he says. "But it's also unfortunate for the industry because it prices a lot of people out from trying a lot of great whiskey."
The legend of Pappy Van Winkle was only stoked further by an October 2013 robbery from the Buffalo Trace Distillery which quickly became national news. Nine people were just indicted for the crimes at the end of April, including several employees who enabled and perhaps led the inside job. The crime simply fueled the legend of Pappy to greater heights. The stuff is so good, people are stealing it! It's easier to steal a case of Pappy than it is to buy it in the store, it must be the best whiskey ever!
"It's easier to steal a case of Pappy than it is to buy it in the store ...
The aftermath of the incident has also threatened to make whiskey lovers around the world cry, as rumors have swirled that the stolen bourbon will need to be dumped. Pontoni considers that equivalent to destroying recovered stolen art. "If you recover a stolen Picasso, you're not going to destroy it at the end of a criminal action. Hey, we recovered that $1 million Picasso, but we have to burn it," he jokes. "But luckily enough, it's a Kentucky judge, so I would be shocked if they destroyed it." Cue the sighs of relief.
Of course, it's no secret that Pappy now has its share of detractors. Not that the whiskey isn't good, or even great, but as mentioned, there are similar options for tiny fractions of Pappy’s price point, whether it's nabbing a bottle at an online auction, or trying a flight at a bar.
The backlash against the brand doesn't do it justice—not that anybody feels bad for their current market position—but all they've done is make a product with which people have become inordinately fascinated. "Hey, Van Winkle whiskeys are gorgeous wheated whiskeys," Pontoni says. "But they're not the end all, be all, they shouldn't cause people to behave as badly as it causes people to behave. And it's too bad, because you get negative ideas about Pappy, which isn't fair because it is great whiskey."
Then there's Fireball, which hasn't just risen in prominence but has exploded, well, like a fireball, all across the spirits industry. Sales of Fireball rose from less than $2 million in 2011 to $61 million in 2013, passing such noted bar favorites as Jameson and Patrón, while coming into range of the Jägermeister juggernaut.
While Fireball is touted as a "cinnamon whisky," considering it has a low 33 percent ABV, along with loads of added flavor, it's more accurately a "cinnamon liqueur." Not that anybody seems to mind or know the difference.
"People who drink it don't know, and they don't care," says Pontoni. "They probably don't ever see a label to know what it says ... because the only time they see it is when the bartender grabs it and pours a shot."
While Pappy spread via hushed online rumors, glowing reviews, celebrity shout-outs, and continued coverage of the hard to find bourbon, which in turn made it even harder to find, it was brand reps at bars which fueled the unquenchable Fireball craze.
Fireball isn't even a new product. It's been around for decades under the Dr. McGillicuddy's brand, which Sazerac purchased in 1989. While there are still 10 different flavors of Dr. McGillicuddy's, Fireball was rebranded on its own in 2006, and a gradual rise for several years suddenly snowballed with the help of shot girls and social media party photos.
Fireball has plenty of big name competition, including Jim Beam's Kentucky Fire, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire, and Wild Turkey American Honey Sting. But like its stable mate Pappy, Fireball reigns alone at the top of its field, and its competitors have garnered nowhere near the attention.
While Pappy spread via hushed online rumors, glowing reviews, celebrity shout-outs ... it was brand reps at bars which fueled the unquenchable Fireball craze.
Asked if he's seen any spirit which had such a meteoric rise, Pontoni says plainly, "Nothing like Fireball ... You're talking about a once in a history of the business phenomenon." Even last year's antifreeze controversy, from the discovery that Fireball includes propylene glycol as an ingredient, hasn't seemed to affect the freight train of Fireball momentum.
A World of Whiskey Apart
Drinkers of well-aged bourbon may scoff at Fireball shots, and perhaps rightfully so; and Fireball drinkers may well view purchasing any whiskey for thousands of dollars as a venture towards insanity, and perhaps rightfully so as well. While it may appear as though everyone in the whiskey field hates Fireball, a liqueur masquerading as a whiskey that's soaring in popularity, the frustration and confusion for bar owners and retailers lies far more with Pappy.
While it may appear as though everyone in the whiskey field hates Fireball ... the frustration and confusion for bar owners and retailers lies far more with Pappy.
Tommy Tardie of Manhattan's Flatiron Room shares a story of a taste test gone wrong, in a way. "We did a blind tasting with Pappy, the 23 year, and a few others," he explains. "I think there was 36 people in the class, and three of them chose Pappy as the number 1. And I felt a little bit bad ... of course, had we not done the blind tasting, everybody would have chosen Pappy. It's almost like you don't want to tell your kids that Santa doesn't exist."
Chad Berkey, the GM of San Diego's Aero Club whiskey bar, and the author of a review guide to North American whiskey, didn't include an analysis for Pappy. "I left the Pappy out, and I wrote that I didn't review it intentionally because I wanted to review whiskeys that people could actually go out and enjoy," he explains.
"And for the most part, you can't get a hold out of it, and if you do, it's outrageously expensive. And frankly, it kind of got bad reviews from our bartenders. And I didn't want a mob coming into the bar telling me even though they never tried it that it's definitely the best thing in the world."
Beyond the misguided perceptions of drinkers, with Fireball, as opposed to Pappy, retailers and bar owners don't have to worry about allocation issues either, or dealing with dozens of inquiries, day after day, from consumers on the prowl. As for whiskey devotees themselves, they can continue to hope that Fireball serves as a gateway whiskey for new drinkers.
But is there any reason to choose sides? A drinker may enjoy slowly sipping on Scotch by the fireplace one evening, while opting to pound down a few cheap shots the next.
"A lot of people in my position would pass judgment on Fireball, but I don't understand why," says Pontoni. "The whole point is that people like it, and if people like it, and get pleasure out of drinking it, who am I to say that their pleasure from drinking Fireball is somehow less legitimate than somebody else having a classic cocktail made with a vintage bottle of George Dickel. They both have the same smile on their face."
So whether it's a hunt for the $2,000 bottle unicorn of bourbon whiskey, or $20 spent for another round of happy hour shots, neither Pappy fanatics or Fireball freaks show any signs of slowing down. At the end of the day, people are hopefully drinking what they enjoy, whichever end of the widely divergent world of whiskey they may find themselves.