Wake County

In Wake County, the whiskey so popular hundreds wait on list to get it

An unusual Excel spreadsheet lives on a computer in a government office in the warehouse district just north of the Beltline.

This file is a symbol of the area’s growing taste for fine food and drink – a list of the 541 people waiting to pay as much as $250 for a bottle of whiskey from their friendly government liquor agency.

Danielle Brigman, finance director for the Wake County Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, is the keeper of Pappy Van Winkle, perhaps the most hyped liquid in the Triangle.

“They seem to know to ask for me,” she said. Some whiskey lovers call her office directly to ask about the beverage. Others are pointed there by the clerks at county-run liquor stores.

The bourbon, sold by the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company in Kentucky, is too popular and too rare to keep on shelves. The county pulled it from stores several years ago, now storing its yearly or twice-a-year shipments at its central warehouse.

“We don’t technically carry it,” said Craig Pleasants, general manager for Wake County ABC, the local liquor agency. “It’s a special order item. The day it comes in, with that waiting list, it’s sold.”

With good reason: A one-fifth gallon bottle of 20-year-old Pappy sells for $149 from Wake County. The same vintage is listed for $1,000 in local postings to the website Craigslist, which apparently serves as a black market for illegal liquor sales.

“People are constantly putting their wives or their father-in-law and their brother on the list,” Brigman said.

Each fall, the manufacturer – it’s actually distilled now by Buffalo Trace – ships the sweet, stinging nectar from a Kentucky warehouse to distributors across the country. Media estimates put the yearly output at about 21,000 bottles of liquor, ranging in age from 10 years up.

The state alcohol board got about 1,100 of those bottles in 2014. Wake County’s share was 135 bottles.

Waiting by the phone

From there, the odd duty of apportioning fancy liquor falls to the Wake staffers. Each Pappy season, Brigman calls her way down the waiting list. The first to answer her call gets dibs on the best bottle. If they don’t like the vintages that are available when their turn comes, they go to the end of the line.

“It can take years to join today and get your bottle, and there’s nothing we can do,” Pleasants said. The state is receiving more bottles now than ever, but the distillery is still playing catch-up with the resurgent popularity – and each bottle, of course, takes years to make.

Wake County’s government, however, is not the end of the proverbial bar crawl for people seeking Pappy.

A careful buyer might find a bottle out beyond the county line, in counties that don’t keep a waiting list. Craigslist sales are an option, though it is illegal to sell, buy or barter for liquor in North Carolina, unless a government alcohol store is involved.

The ‘painful’ price

The best bet may be the few bars that keep a bottle in back.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had to charge a lot of money for it,” said Will Alphin, co-owner of Foundation, a cozy den of a basement bar on Fayetteville Street.

“We literally sit there and say, ‘What are we going to charge to keep it on the shelf for a month?’ ” he said. “What’s the price that’s so painful?”

For the 20-year-old bottle now on the shelf, it’s about $70 an ounce, or $105 for the 1.5-ounce shot that North Carolina law permits. At that rate, a fifth would bring in close to $1,800.

The price has been painful enough to keep the bottle on the shelf for three weeks so far, and perhaps three weeks more. After that, it may be months more before another arrives. The longer Foundation can hold on to Pappy, the better.

“In some fashion, it’s a little bit of a bragging right to have it,” Alphin said. “We consider ourselves a serious kind of whiskey and bourbon bar. We have a good collection, and we want it to be well-rounded. So having a bottle of Pappy on our shelf is good for our reputation.”

Rarity drives demand

All this brings a question to mind: Are Pappy’s sweet, smooth notes of vanilla and spice worth the astronomical price?

Brigman, the liquor list keeper, waited her turn for a 12-year vintage a couple years ago, hoping to figure out the hubbub.

“I like mine just neat. My husband and I poured each a little cup,” she said, recalling her first sip.

“It was OK, but to be honest, I prefer the Elijah Craig that you can get every single day. The price wasn’t all that fantastic.”

Alphin, the Foundation founder, said the liquor’s popularity is a result of media attention and rarity.

“It’s a really good whiskey. It may not be the very best,” he said. “I think it lives up to its bottle price at the ABC store. I don’t know if it lives up to what people are selling it for on the Internet.”

It’s at least a good way to get people interested in the world of whiskey, he said, though some sippers scoff at its popularity.

Joe Kwon, cellist for The Avett Brothers, has probably had as much Pappy as anybody in the Triangle. He’s friends with Julian Van Winkle, the grandson of “Pappy” and current owner of the brand.

“That’s a convenient turn of events on my behalf, for my obsession with bourbon,” said Kwon, a new arrival to downtown Raleigh.

Kwon likes to keep a Pappy flask of Pappy on hand during some nights out, using it as a bribe to enter kitchens at his favorite restaurants.

His friendship with Van Winkle has spared him the trials and travails, and given him a unique perspective.

“They’ve always just been presented to me as fine bourbon, rather than as extremely rare, extremely expensive,” he said.

“If you take the hype away, and you judge it for what it is, that’s what it can truly be what it’s intended to be.”

But that’s no comfort if you can’t find a drop.