It was another slow day at the office — the sun engaged in heated battle with the drawn vertical blinds, the desk fan shifting the temperature just barely back into the double-digits. The coffee in the pot was stale, which meant it was time to crack open the office bourbon, located in the filing cabinet under "B" for "bad day."
It wasn't until I sat down with two ice cubes, a glass and a bottle of John Barleycorn's cheapest that I noticed a portly, serious man waiting in the lobby. I invited him to take a seat, and he took all of it. This was a large fellow, with a tight-fitting suit and a long, thin cigar glued to the corner of his mouth.
He needed me to find something — a whiskey, one of the best. It was called Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23 year old, a bourbon slightly less rare than actual liquid gold, with which it's often compared. I told him I couldn't make any promises, especially with something this rare, but my landlord wouldn't let me turn down another case.
The name Pappy Van Winkle name comes from Julian Van Winkle Sr., who founded the Stitzel-Weller Distillery with partner W.L. Weller in 1935. Toward the end of the century, the distillery was famous for its top bourbon, a corn, rye and wheat blend named after Van Winkle and aged in charred oak for 23 years. When Stitzel-Weller punched out 20 years ago, Buffalo Trace Distillery took over, with grandson Julian Van Winkle III taking the reigns of the Old Rip Van Winkle brand.
I started my search at Luekens Big Town Liquors, a Dunedin shop I often visit when I need something out of the ordinary. The clerk gave it to me straight: Pappy 23 is only delivered once a year, and it's gone before the first dust particle settles on the shelf. Last year it came the week before Thanksgiving — in store on Friday and gone by Sunday morning. This year likely will be a repeat. My best chance to track down Pappy until then was at one of the better local whiskey bars.
To me, that meant St. Pete's Mandarin Hide, a Prohibition era-themed cocktail joint with enough whiskeys to keep you busy for days. Mandarin Hide has been known to stock Pappy Van Winkle releases on occasion, but I was more than a year too late — the last Pappy 23 stock came in back in October 2011, and it was all gone by New Year's.
Earlier this year, Mandarin Hide stocked the Pappy 10-, 13-, and 15-year varieties, so the trail wasn't entirely cold. There also were other bottles from the same distillery, such as Blanton's, the "original single-barrel Bourbon," as well as Buffalo Trace bourbon itself.
Next I headed to Datz, a restaurant in South Tampa whose whiskey menu could double as a small-town phone book. Sure enough, there were several Buffalo Trace selections, like Eagle Rare 10-year, part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection; as well as Bernheim Wheat, which is a wheated Bourbon, just like Pappy. Another variation, Old Van Winkle, was listed, but both that one and the Bernheim were out of stock.
Datz gets Pappy in somewhat reliably, which explains why four different varieties stay on the menu, including the 23, at a cool $45 a pour. Still, Datz can't keep the stuff in stock — the most recent bottle was several months gone, as were its younger siblings.
My search came up emptier than a bottle of Pappy 23 on New Year's Day. It looked like this case was going into storage for another couple of months. I knew my client wouldn't be happy, but I had a bottle in the filing cabinet I could split with him. It was no Pappy 23, but then again, what is?