A new book, an old whiskey and the birth of a legend

Wright Thompson's latest, "Pappyland," sends Doug Moe on the hunt for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.
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“Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last" written by Wright Thompson releases Nov. 10.

Once upon a time during my checkered career as a newspaperman, I wrote a column about absinthe, the licorice-flavored green spirit enjoyed by Hemingway and Picasso but shrouded in mystery about its legality and whether it led Vincent Van Gogh to cut off part of his ear.

After that column, a person or persons unknown dropped off a bottle of absinthe for me at the front desk of the State Journal.

I don’t expect that to happen with Pappy Van Winkle.

On the contrary, to get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon in Madison, I may have to win the lottery.

This all started a few weeks ago when I read that Wright Thompson, a writer I admire tremendously, has a book coming out called “Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last.”

Over the past decade, in ESPN The Magazine, Thompson emerged as the heir to Frank Deford as a matchless writer of sports magazine profiles. The best of Thompson’s work is collected in the 2019 book, “The Cost of These Dreams.” Want to understand the hopes and fears of Michael Jordan, Pat Riley, Urban Meyer and – my favorite of his stories – wrestler Dan Gable? Read Wright Thompson.

When I heard that Thompson has a new book coming – the publication date is Nov. 10 – I knew I had to get it.

And when I heard further that it was about a legendary bourbon, I figured I would get some to sip while I was reading. I don’t drink much hard liquor anymore, but a little bourbon on a cold night – yes. As Roundy Coughlin said, “What more could be fairer?”

So I called Steve’s Wine | Beer | Spirits on University Avenue and asked the gentleman who answered if they carry Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

Steve's Van Winkle Rules Sheet

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And, well, he laughed.

“I assume I am missing something,” I said.

“You need to come into the store and sign up for the lottery,” he told me.

Before going into Steve’s, I did a little research and found an entertaining 2011 article in Grantland – by Wright Thompson! – that detailed Pappy’s (then) newly emerging status as a cult favorite.

Thompson wrote about his reaction when the Southern chef Sean Brock pulled out a bottle of 20-year-old Van Winkle.

“I’ve never seen a movie star naked,” Thompson noted, “but it’s got to be something like this.”

He added: “If you know what Pappy Van Winkle is, you’re already mad at me. If you don’t, I’m about to change your life.”

I went to Steve’s and signed up for the lottery – if my name is drawn, I will get to purchase a bottle of Pappy out of Steve’s allotment. Van Winkle is released around this time each year.

At Steve’s, I asked if I could speak to someone about this unique bourbon, and was told, “You need to talk to Bong.”

Bong Wong is the liquor buyer for Steve’s. He’s been there two decades but I go back further than that with Wong – his extended family owned the Golden Dragon restaurant in downtown Madison. A splendid array of rogues used to bend their elbows at the Dragon. Someone called it Madison’s first Chinese sports bar.

I tracked Wong down by phone last week at the Steve’s on Junction Road.

“We’ve always stocked it,” he said of Pappy Van Winkle, which comes in six varieties, five bourbons differentiated by age and a rye.

“When I started 20 years ago,” he said, “we’d carry it and just put it on the shelf.”

About a decade ago, the mystique began to build. It became much harder to get. “Call your liquor store,” Thompson wrote, “if you feel like getting laughed at.”

I should have read his piece before calling Steve’s.

“We started the raffle about 10 years ago,” Bong said, to give everyone an equal shot at getting some from Steve’s. The retail price can vary year to year, starting at around $130 for a bottle of the 10-year-old and going over $400 for the older vintages.

But it’s on the secondary market where supply and demand has driven the price into the thousands of dollars for a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

I asked Wong if he had ever had any.

The 15-year-old is Wong’s favorite. He’s never had the 23-year-old. When I looked up the 23-year-old online last week, the secondary market price was around $3,000 a bottle.

“It’s a wheated bourbon,” Bong said, “so it’s a little smoother. A lusher bourbon.”

I asked my old friend Wong how many bottles of Pappy Steve’s gets every year.

It turns out Bong Wong appreciates a legend as much as anyone.

“I don’t give that information out,” he said.

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