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(Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune) A DABC employee opens the door of the downtown Salt Lake City state wine store to the first three customers in line, who waited early for bottles of rare whiskey from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014.
Utahns snatch up bourbon worth up to $1,200 per bottle
Liquor » At $130 before tax, price of 20-year Pappy Van Winkle a bargain for Utah buyers.
First Published Feb 06 2014 10:49 am • Last Updated Feb 28 2014 08:59 am

Aged 20 years, sold out in minutes.

Thursday morning, a State Wine Store worker told about 50 patrons waiting in the parking lot that they had received 30 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. Store workers had bought six. That left 24, and of that, "very little" of the vaunted 20-year variety.

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The queue didn’t budge.

"There’s people here who aren’t going to get any and they know it," said Salt Lake City’s Kelli Frame, second in line. "I don’t know why they’re still in line. They’re hoping we die."

Fox 13 reported Wednesday night that Utah’s allocation of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’s "wheated" bourbon (made from wheat instead of rye) was being released throughout the state this week, but many bourbon lovers would have known anyway. The hooch is just that good.

Frame — who had her first taste of the 20-year-old variety in Jackson, Wyo., last year — struggled to find the right words for it.

"It’s got a very slight taste of honey ... Oh, it’s just impossible to describe. I’d never had anything as smooth as that drink. It was just amazing."

She was among the lucky few — if there were even three, as customers and workers were coy about the exact number — to score the 20-year-old bourbon for the relative bargain price of $130 before sales tax. Each customer was allowed to buy one bottle. Other 750 ML varieties that sold for less were the 10- ($39.99), 12- ($54.99) and 15-year-old varieties ($79.99).

But the 20-year Family Reserve is particularly coveted. Twenty-some years ago, the company didn’t produce much bourbon, and, in 2014, the supply is drowning in the outsize demand. It’s touted as the No. 1 bourbon whiskey in the world by the company’s website (with a 99-rating at the World Spirits Championship and by the Beverage Tasting Institute), and a single bottle of the 20-year-old stuff sold at Bonhams auction in New York for $1,190 last October.

"It’s become like a cult whiskey in a way, because of its extreme popularity and extreme allocation," said Joseph Hyman, Bonhams whiskey and rare-spirits specialist. "It still has this allure of being something above and beyond, and its limited quantities makes it that much more attractive."

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Each state receives an unspecified allotment of Pappy Van Winkle, some of which is then parsed out for bars and clubs. Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Vickie Ashby said she does not know how many bottles were made available at other large-volume stores.

"We have received annual allocations for years," Ashby wrote in an email. "It’s only been in the last few years that the demand has increased."

Multiple stores received their allotments Wednesday and, without any apparent advertising, sold out in minutes.

Some in line Thursday wouldn’t give their names because they were skipping work. Three were let in the store at a time, until finally a store worker emerged to say they were sold out, drawing groans and curses. A woman who was first in line at the time had some choice words for "line jumpers" before heading inside for a bottle of consolatory Jameson.

Old Rip Van Winkle says it sells its product to wholesalers and has no control over retail pricing, and it would not say how much Utah gets in comparison to other states. Idaho, which like Utah operates state-run stores, sells its 20-year-old bottles at $135, with the 23-year-old variety (apparently unavailable in Utah) going for $255. Idaho State Liquor Division Director Jeffrey Anderson said they get roughly 400 bottles across all varieties in their annual shipment, and they try to adhere to a waiting list for Idaho’s bourbon aficionados.

"We just wish we could get about 10 times more, but then it wouldn’t be such an urban legend," Anderson said. "Ours basically was all spoken for by the time it arrived."

It is illegal to initiate a liquor transaction with a buyer from inside state boundaries. But that may not stop people from snatching one up at the low, low price of cost plus an 85 percent markup and selling it out of state. Some in line at the State Wine Store on Thursday acknowledged they didn’t have any particular affinity for bourbon, although at least one planned to gift a bottle to a family member.

Hyman said collectors will travel from state to state to get their hands on Pappy. "They’ll drive to every store and buy every one that they possibly can, and that’s not necessarily people who want to flip them."

The distillery drew headlines last year when 200 bottles of the 20-year-old variety was stolen near Frankfort. To learn more about Old Rip Van Winkle, check out Page 66 for Louisville Magazine’s, "The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste."


Twitter: @matthew_piper

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