Up a Creek?

Did you get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle this year? Maybe the 15-year-old? The 20? The 23?! They usually release them around late October, did you see any at the stores?

Neither did I.

I also didn’t get one last year, or the year before that, or the year before that, and neither did 99.999 percent of the population in Ohio. There’s a few things working against us who love the world-famous whiskey, including the fact that nearly every product that Buffalo Trace (the makers of Pappy Van Winkle) produce is on allocation. Their Antique collection, which includes such prized bottles as the William Larue Weller wheated bourbon, the Sazerac 18-year rye, and the Eagle Rare 17 is notoriously scarce around these parts, with allocations of only a few cases going to the entire state.

Which brings us to the next problem: the state.

Ohio is a control state, meaning all spirits are sold by the state itself, and they don’t just sell to the public. All bars and restaurants also must buy from state stores. Remember that allocation part I mentioned earlier? This means that the brands themselves, as well as the distributors, pick and choose who gets what. So if Bar A sells 25 cases per year of whatever brand the distributor is trying to push and Bar B only sells 15 cases, guess who gets a bottle of Pappy next year?

This is grossly over-simplified and doesn’t take into account the bottles that (allegedly) mysteriously “go missing” as so many things do when in government control, but it should at least start to give you an idea of why you’ll never see a bottle of Pappy 23 sitting on a store shelf. The few cases the state receives are spoken for well in advance of the shipment, or in other words, the game is beyond rigged.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, the biggest secret here is that Pappy is not the end-all, be-all of bourbon. Is it good? Most certainly. I’ve tried all three expressions and they are all very fine bourbons. Is it good enough to wait in line for? Well, I guess it depends on how long the line is. Is it good enough to pay a 1,000 percent markup to a shady dude from Craigslist?

Nah, not by a long shot.

The fact is, Pappy mania is just a part of the greater bourbon craze in America, and that means that there is more good bourbon available now than ever before.

To help you navigate the brown waters of bourbon envy, I’ve outlined some fantastic releases that you might actually have a chance at getting your hands on. They certainly aren’t all easy to find, but you won’t have to sell a kidney. Sit back and enjoy a glass in celebration because you have broken the chains and escaped from your prison of Pappy pursuit.

Knob Creek 2001

It’s pretty easy to find Knob Creek on any shelf anywhere in the country, but when Knob Creek releases a limited edition 14-year-old bourbon, it’s probably worthy of attention. When that bourbon is some of the last bourbon to be barreled by Booker Noe II—the late, former master distiller of Jim Beam—it’s definitely worth seeking out a bottle.

Batch one, two, and three have been available for a while now, but each batch is slightly different, and over the coming months you’ll see batches four and five show up for $129 each. Batch four features caramel notes, a bit of charred wood, and a dried fruit finish, and batch five is slightly sweeter with a softer oak profile. Seek this one out.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Earlier this year, Elijah Craig dropped the age statement from their regular bottles, meaning that this special release barrel proof edition is now the only 12-year-old version available on the market. It’s released quarterly and typically ranges from 128-140 proof, so you’re gonna want to add a bit of water or pour it over ice. The intense caramel and vanilla flavors are balanced by a healthy dose of oak and cinnamon with a butterscotch finish. The price usually stays below $75, making it one of the best bang-for-your-buck bourbons on the market. Sightings are trickling in from nearby states, so be on the lookout for this one.

Heaven Hill Parker’s Heritage Collection

Alright, this one is gonna be a long shot, but it might be worth some serious hunting—like, out of state hunting. This year, the 10th edition of this special release that seeks to raise funds for ALS research will be hitting store shelves (maybe) and boy, is it a big one. Bottled in bond and aged for 24 years—which should please everyone who measures their bourbon in numbers alone—this bottle features bourbon from the original Heaven Hill distillery, which was later destroyed in a 1996 fire. With a decade and a half in the barrel comes a price tag to match, but at $250 you’re really just paying a little over $10 per year. It’s a steal, trust me. Happy hunting, whiskey nerds.