Use to be that a Bourbon Barrel would make a nice planter or would be sold off to Canada or Scotland for a few bucks. Now, two things have happened. Some Bourbon has gained clout and fame; craft distillers want these barrels for their clout and fame. I don’t mean to keep targeting Pappy Van Winkle but they have made themselves far too easy as an example. Ask any bourbon bar what release this year they would want three cases of, and they will say Pappy. Lots of old and new fans ask for it. It sells just like a movie with a big name star in it.
Sazerac, (the parent company to Buffalo Trace, partners with the Van Winkle brand) also owns Corazon Tequila, and lo and behold, they do a collaborative barrel finish of their tequila using George Stagg, Buffalo Trace, Sazerac Rye and, yes, Pappy. So the release price of about $80 per bottle was the same regardless of the barrel/brand used, but you guessed it, the Pappy versions are now more. Seems that rather than a retailer just selling them at intended MSRP, they are jacking the prices up as much as 100 percent with Pappy aged barrel being the most.
Perhaps Goose Island started the craze but if you barrel-age your beer in a former pappy barrel you can charge a hefty premium. I’ve seen releases done at $25-$50 per 12 oz. bottle and grabbed up quickly. They used to then get resold on eBay at two or three times that price. Beer geeks prized them. There was even more segmenting of the elusive 23-year-old Pappy verses just no-age-mentioned Pappy brewer-used barrel.
Used barrel sales picked up and got crazy, and you can buy them at the Buffalo Trace gift shop for around $90 (which was much more than they got from wholesalers). All the sudden the Pappy barrels went to the choice and select few above and beyond the norm.
A funny thing then started to happen: Others starting popping up like Jefferson Bourbon-aged, Wild Turkey Barrel-aged, etc., as branded barrel-aged beers by barrel brand.
Trouble is, there is NO SUCH THING AS A PAPPY OR JEFFERSON BARREL!
Here is Jefferson barrel used for aging beer:
I’ll save you the trouble: it says Barton on it. But that’s OK, that’s obviously what was used for the Jeff Rye at that point.
And a Heaven Hill Barrel:
No problem here.
Then there is this:
Let me show you a bit clearer what one of these looks like:
Notice a few things. First the center 2/3 of the barrel looks buffed out and sanded down. A new stencil/stamp was applied without fill date and serial number. These are needed and required for a legal barrel. No problem once the barrel is dumped though. Here is what a legal barrel looks like:
So if a Pappy Van Winkle Barrel does not exist, then what is it?
Several things. It could be one of these for younger versions:
(Too young to be a Pappy 10-year-old.) These are Weller Wheated barrels being tasted for private selections and being dumped for bottling, but Buffalo Trace is using them a few years older for Pappy.
Potential Pappy barrels sleeping:
How about old ones like 20 and 23, since Buffalo/Sazerac did not make the deal with United/Diageo/SW until 1999 or the Van Winkles until 2001? Stitzel Weller stopped production of Bourbon in 1991, so there is a gap in what a Pappy barrel is. Here is what a Pappy 23 is thought to look like, as Old Fitzgerald is what I’m told is on an old Stitzel Weller barrel except one thing:
Fill dates of March and April of 1991. Stitzel Weller stopped in the Fall of 1991 but Stitzel Weller is DSP 16 not 113. These are identifiers of the distillery. Pappy Barrels from 1991 distilled at DSP-113 (what is now known as Buffalo Trace). It’s also very possible barrels that came from United had HH and AA (what would become Buffalo Trace) contract distilling. Sazerac certainly wouldn’t want people knowing that their precious Pappy was actually produced by one of their largest competitors right? (Bernheim/Heaven Hill.) What do you do to the barrel info on that?
I asked Buffalo Trace straight up that if they did not stencil “Van Winkle” on new barrels, how it got there. They told me they removed the old barrel head stencil and replaced it with a new one.
So for “cosmetic” reasons, they removed the real stencil and replaced it with an admittedly new, non-genuine stencil, missing relevant info to prove its authenticity. It’s important to point out some older Buffalo Trace-provided barrels are still being reused with older names before things were removed - those older barrels when brewers obviously didn’t care about the appearance of the brand. Brewers for the most part have no idea and are happy with (or even insist on) the Pappy identifier - after all that sells, not W.L, Weller.
Given the people what they want or smoke screen? A little of both.
Again, full disclosure that the barrel would need to be from at least ’03 to be a 10-year-old Van Winkle but would still say W.L. Weller or anything else but Van Winkle (which is only stenciled on after a barrel is dumped and stripped of the old name).
My last thought is this: If they are removing and replacing identifiers to mislead or attempting to avoid confusion (depending on your point of view), how do you know for sure? There are a lot of these barrels out there and a lot of demand. I could not get a straight answer as to whether a used Pappy barrel sells for the same as a regular Buffalo Trace barrel. I don’t know if there is an implied incentive or clout to get a barrel re-labeled as a Van Winkle. I don’t know if a brewer just assumes, plays dumb and doesn’t actually care. You be the judge for the Truth.