BOURBON: Losing the Pappy lottery

Christine Sismondo on the (possibly futile) pursuit of rare American whiskeys

Every mid-winter, whisky lovers in Ontario enter the LCBO Vintages bourbon lottery, hoping to win a chance to buy a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. Many submit, few are chosen. And, every year, people who come up empty ask me if the system is broken. It isn’t—humans are just terrible at processing big numbers.

Here’s my explanation, starting with a backgrounder on how we got to this point.

Roughly a decade-plus ago, when Almondo (that’s our celebrity couple name) were in the habit of doing a lot more cross-border shopping, I splurged on what, at the time, seemed like a relatively expensive bottle of bourbon at the old Premier Liquor in Buffalo.

At roughly $50, it turned out to be quite a find. We instantly recognized that this 15-year-old bourbon from Pappy Van Winkle was the best we’d ever tried and, as such, would pull it out on special occasions, with a plan to buy more the next time we went to the United States. Little did we know that would be the last bottle we’d ever get a chance to buy.

At the time, Pappy was a niche premium product that was highly appreciated by bourbon specialists. That started to change as the awards and critical acclaim stacked up, but it was the celebrity endorsements (Bourdain, especially) and the overall bourbon boom that made Pappy blow up to the point where demand utterly outstripped supply. That only boosted its popularity, human nature being what it is: The fact that it was next to impossible to get made a lot of people want it even more. If you got a bottle, it meant you were special.

Since Pappy-hunting borders on hysteria in some circles, many liquor stores quickly moved from a first-come-first-serve model to a lottery system of sorts. The LCBO, which has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in Ontario, uses an algorithm to decide who gets what from its (miniscule) allocation. (And, to be clear, we’re not just talking Pappy, since the contagion has spread from there to a number of other premium releases from Kentucky.)

As I write this, we’re in between the two biggest bourbon releases of the year at the LCBO—the mid-January “Bourbon Masterworks” (Weller 12, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Old Forester, Blanton’s Gold and Stagg, Jr.) and the forthcoming Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (UPDATE: the LCBO told me it’s scheduled for Feb. 27), which will likely feature Pappies of different ages, as well as Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17, William Larue Weller, George T. Stagg and Thomas H. Handy. Yes, they like their initials and middle names in Kentucky.

If you’re reading this and are mad I didn’t write this earlier since you missed your shot at the first lottery, well, you have a point. But don’t get too angry. After all, you probably weren’t going to win anyway. I didn’t. Neither did any of my friends who put in bids. After years of not winning though, this doesn’t faze me in the least—and I still put in my order every year, albeit with zero expectations.

Why? Well, I know roughly what the numbers are. Last week’s Bourbon Masterworks collection got 63,000 bids (the LCBO provided this number). We’re not positive how many bottles were up for grabs, but to give you an idea, last year’s allotment was reportedly 30 bottles of Pappy 15. “Math is hard,” as they say on The Simpsons, especially when it involves trying to get a grasp on big numbers. And, since we all feel we’re special, we tend to have a sense that we can beat the odds. But just because the odds of winning a Pappy are better than winning the Powerball, that still doesn’t make them good odds.  

Is life still worth living, knowing that you may never own your own bottle of Pappy? Well, I came to terms with it years ago and managed to learn to love again. In fact, I like some of those things even better, having re-discovered the joys of white spirits and realized that there is such a thing as too much caramel and vanilla notes in a spirit. Call this sour grapes if you will, but there’s a world of, say, pricey and rare single varietal grappa to be discovered, as well as other things that we write about regularly here.

So, Ontarians, take a flier. We don’t know the date yet, but we’re guessing early February. UPDATE: It’s scheduled for Feb. 27! Unlike the lottery lottery, it costs you nothing to enter. When you lose, though, don’t blame the system—buy some grappa from Tawse instead.