If someone told me they were going down a dark alley to score a little pappy van winkle, I would have an idea what they were talking about, but I would be wrong. Well, I haven’t had my pappy winkled in a while.
Pappy Van Winkle is however a thing that exists, apparently most people have heard of it, and a lot of them would like to get their hands on some. It’s a barrel-aged Kentucky bourbon that might retail for about $300 per bottle but can fetch up to $4000 on the street. And it made the news here in Oregon because apparently a lot of high-level employees of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission have been discovering a lot of Pappy Van Winkle in their possession. Which is clearly a striking coincidence—in spite of which they are accused of “running afoul” of state ethics laws, and have been duly reprimanded. By a small arthritic nun with a rubber ruler. They’re all still showing up for work, even the top guy whose resignation was politely requested by the governor.
And they’re still diverting bourbon. Evidently the state warehouses emergency safety bottles of booze in case any of it runs afoul of gravity on the way to the liquor stores. I had no idea the state was running a Strategic Whiskey Reserve, or that we needed one, but apparently it does get tapped from time to time, such as when the managers of the OLCC direct the bottles to be delivered to specific liquor stores and set aside so that they can go buy it for themselves. (Hey, this ain’t New Jersey.) Weirdly, some of it ends up in state lawmakers’ possession too.
Problem is, the reason that $300 bottle of hootch has such a thumping secondary illegal market is that it’s really hard to find. Unless you socialize with the top officials at OLCC, you are not likely to see it. In fact, it’s so rare, the state runs a lottery for the chance to buy a bottle. Odds are slim, but if your ticket comes up, why, you will be allowed to drop a few hundred bucks for a bottle of liquid that could strip a new Corvette down to primer, and if that’s not lucky, I don’t know what is.
It can’t be any good. It’s whiskey. I’ve tried it so I know. It’s clearly poison. You have enough of it and you’re in doornail territory. It’s like taking a chance on that homicidal pufferfish. I have watched people sipping away at the stuff with studious and even rapturous looks on their faces. “Smooth,” they say, nodding knowingly, or off. I don’t know what they mean by “smooth.” Every sip is clearly an assault on the corpus, and altered consciousness can be the only point of it. As the street gentleman who asked me what I’d bought in the little paper bag said, when I showed him the small gift bottle of inexpensive whiskey, Yeah, that’ll get you there.
I think “smooth” means you can get it all the way down your gullet without bursting into flame, but it’s not much of a recommendation. And these people are not to be trusted. These are people who will suck the snot out of an oyster shell. These are people who freely indulge in voluntary licorice. If you really like this stuff, you’ve got a problem. Not me. I like my alcohol in measured, modest, foamy, friendly, frequent doses administered a few times a day for fifty years or so. I like it very much. I don’t have a problem.
The more you age a whiskey, the more the flavor of burnt wood seeps in to delight the connoisseur. Also, the more of it evaporates. So your nice barrel of aged whiskey has considerably less whiskey in it than it started with and acquires even more rarity. Mo’ money, mo’ money! If the people in charge of controlling alcohol in your state skim a batch right off the top, you’re looking at serious resale value on the street. The executive director of the OLCC says he bought his fair and square and kept it for himself, and didn’t resell it at a thousand percent or more profit, but no one could blame him if he did; he’s scraping by on $220,000 a year.