Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 17, 2014
Easy Tiger isn’t exactly the first bar that comes to mind when thinking about where to get a good, stiff whiskey drink in Austin. And yet the combination bake shop and beer garden on East Sixth Street actually has a pretty solid roster of reserve whiskeys that many fans of the spirit will want to sip neat.
Among Easy Tiger’s whiskey collection: four bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.
Those will be brought out and shared today and Tuesday as part of Easy Tiger’s first installment of a whiskey flight series, which Craig Collins, beverage director for the restaurant group that owns Easy Tiger, said is kicking off as a way to both showcase the varieties of whiskey available there and to educate whiskey novices on the types. Easy Tiger carries more than 30 different examples of Scotch, Irish whiskey, American whiskey, rye and bourbon.
Although in later months Easy Tiger will have multiple brands of whiskey at each tasting, Collins said it seemed like a good idea to start off solely with Old Rip Van Winkle, “one of the most highly regarded whiskeys in the world and the most prestigious bourbon.”
It’s a little different from other bourbons, Collins said, because it’s made from a secret recipe using corn, wheat and barley rather than corn, rye and barley as others are (to make the whiskey a bourbon, it’s got to contain at least 51 percent corn, so the substitution of the wheat only alters the taste, not the type). The wheat “gives the bourbon a smoother taste and allows it to age more gracefully,” he said, explaining that an information sheet with a history of the Van Winkle brand and a description of the four bottles will be provided to everyone at the tasting.
What the information sheet won’t touch on, however, is the popularity of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, all very hard to find and incredibly expensive even for high-end whiskey. That’s in part because the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., releases only 7,000 cases of the bourbon each year.
“The fact that we can pour multiple examples of Pappy is pretty amazing,” Collins said.
The two-day event will feature 3/4 oz. tastings of Old Rip Van Winkle, aged 10 years; Van Winkle Special Reserve, aged 12 years; Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year, and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year.
At $40, it’s a flight night that Austinite Craig McCullough is considering attending. A whiskey fan who has gotten his hands on some bottles of Pappy Van Winkle in the past, including a rare bottle of the 23 year (which Easy Tiger won’t have today or tomorrow), he’s grown skeptical of all the hype surrounding Pappy Van Winkle but does admit that “the 20 year has a spicy, caramel-like follow-through that I really enjoy.”
He’s taken Pappy Van Winkle bottles to birthday celebrations, New Year’s parties and other special occasions. But you won’t find it placed with all the other party booze. “It’s not left on the counter for someone to mix with Coke,” he said. “It’s brought out, poured and put away.”
Still, he said, the strategy to release a limited number of cases of the bourbon every year is partly “what creates the cult of Pappy.” A bottle of the 20 year, for example, can retail these days for more than $200, but good luck actually finding the bottles on any shelves. Many Pappy Van Winkle lovers, he said, manage to track down their beloved drink at distributors before it can even get shipped to stores. And after a theft at the distillery in October that caused 195 cases of the bourbon to disappear (in total, a value of about $26,000), Pappy Van Winkle will probably be even more difficult to find unless you’re willing to pay a pretty penny for it.
McCullough isn’t willing to fork over that much for another bottle and wasn’t able to get any this year. He does have more of the 23 year left, though, after breaking it out at a gathering of old friends a few weeks ago. “At 1 a.m., I decided this is the kind of opportunity to bring out a 23 year Pappy. At the height of revelry,” he said.