Food & Drink | April 2021

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Derby Drinks

It doesn’t take Jeff Holder long to recall the date he had his first taste of Pappy Van Winkle. It was February 21, 2015 — he’s got pictures of the experience saved in his phone — and he was at DiamondBack’s. He ordered it on the rocks, and the pour was served over one big, round ice cube.

“It was really good, really smooth,” he said.

Though Holder can’t recall exactly what he spent for the drink, he figures it was in the $20 to $30 range, and, he said, that’s less than the stuff sells for in Dallas, where a similar pour could cost up to $50.

Pappy Van Winkle is a line of bourbons bottled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. It’s said to be some of the best bourbon in the world, and its most rare offering, the Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year, carries a suggested retail price of $299 but is almost impossible to find at a liquor store. On the secondary market, bottles of 23 Year are available for $3,000 to $5,000. Empty 23 bottles on eBay sell for a few hundred dollars.

“That’s not worth it,” said Hayden Smith, bar manager at Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits. “I’ve had some $60 bourbons that have been great. I would hate to spend 50 times as much for something that’s not 50 times as good.”

As of mid-March, Dichotomy had two bottles of Van Winkle bourbon on its shelves, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year and Pappy Van Winkle 12 Year. (The year in the bourbon’s name designates how long the bourbon is aged in oak barrels. Many bourbons are in the barrel for just two to four years.) Smith said about half of the bottle of 10 Year was available, and he had a few ounces of the 12 Year still in stock.

“Anything Van Winkle will be a pretty limited supply,” he said. “We’ve had it on hand for about a year now.”

Once those two bottles are empty, “I don’t know when we’ll get them back in,” he said. And even if you show up looking for a pour of Pappy and Dichotomy has sold out, “we can hook you up with something pretty rare,” Smith said, including a Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye and an Elijah Craig 18 Year Single Barrel. (Those two go for $18 a pour; the Van Winkle 10 is $20, and the Pappy 12 Year is $25.)

The Van Winkle brand bourbons are called “wheated” due to the presence of wheat in the mash bill, which is the mix of grains used to make bourbon. Most bourbons, including Van Winkle, are made primarily with corn. Van Winkle’s secondary grain is wheat, while most others use rye.

Using wheat “makes the bourbon a little sweeter,” Smith said. “It’s a rich, wheaty sweet, not sugar sweet.”

The history of the Pappy Van Winkle brand is told in the book “Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last,” by Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN. Thompson tells the story of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, his son Julian Jr. and his son, Julian Van Winkle III — the third-generation head
of the family business — and their near-mythical brand of bourbon and how it all nearly went under awhile back. A boom in the popularity of bourbon over the last 20 or so years brought the Van Winkle brand back from near death.

Thompson also talks about the history of bourbon itself and how Kentucky came to be the epicenter of the bourbon universe. (About 95% of the world’s supply of bourbon comes from Kentucky.)

The Bluegrass State is also known, obviously, for horse racing, and Thompson accompanied Van Winkle to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks, which takes place a day before the Kentucky Derby. At the race, “Julian was living another day in the endless spring break of his life,” Thompson writes, as Van Winkle was holding court in his grandstand box, a flask of bourbon in his jacket pocket that he’s quick to share.

As an homage to the Kentucky Derby, which takes place this year on May 1, we’ve included a recipe for a bourbon mint julep. (Any good bourbon will do for this recipe.)

Expensive bourbons like those in the Van Winkle line aren’t typically used for making cocktails, Smith said. The good stuff is best savored on the rocks, maybe with a lemon twist, like Julian Van Winkle III prefers his bourbon.

Since a $3,000 bottle of bourbon is out of reach for many folks, enthusiasts have created a recipe for Poor Man’s Pappy, which blends a bit of Old Weller Antique 107 and W.L. Weller 12 Year and supposedly comes close to replicating the taste of Pappy Van Winkle. A few years ago, those bottles could be found in liquor stores at a fairly reasonable price, but now, it’ll cost about $500 to buy them both. Those skyrocketing prices prompted other Pappy fans to come up with Poorer Man’s Pappy. The two bourbons that go into that — Larceny and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength — are available at most liquor stores in Waco, and you’ll spend maybe $70 for both.

“I’ve had the Poor Man’s with Wellers,” said Holder, an insurance agent in Waco whose name popped up in a Facebook discussion recently about Pappy. “That was really good.” (And for casual drinking, Holder will go with Jim Beam, maybe mixed with Coke. The expensive stuff he drinks on the rocks.)

If you’re watching the Derby and sipping a Pappy (or one of its replicas) or enjoying a mint julep, you need some munchies, so we’ve got you covered there as well, with stuffed mushrooms, a spicy snack mix and pimento cheese served on cucumber slices.

The Recipes

Poorer Man’s Pappy

  • 2 ounces Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
  • 1 ounce Larceny Wheated Bourbon
  • 1-inch lemon peel

Place a large ice cube, if desired, in a highball glass. Add the Maker’s Mark and Larceny and gently stir. Twist the lemon peel over the glass and drop the peel in the glass.

Makes 1 drink.


Poor Man’s Pappy

  • 1 ounce Weller 12 Year Wheated Bourbon
  • 2 ounces Old Weller Antique 107 Wheated Bourbon

Place a large ice cube, if desired, in a highball glass. Add the Weller 12 and the Old Weller and gently stir. Twist the lemon peel over the glass and drop the peel in the glass.

Makes 1 drink.


Bourbon Mint Julep

For the dough:

  • 4 or 5 mint sprigs, leaves only; plus more for garnish
  • 2 sugar cubes (or 1/2 ounce simple syrup)
  • 2 1/2 ounces bourbon

Place the mint leaves and sugar (or simple syrup) in a julep cup or Old Fashioned glass. Muddle well to release the oil and aroma of the mint and dissolve the sugar.

Add the bourbon, then fill the glass with crushed ice. Stir for at least 30 seconds, until the cup becomes frosty.

Makes 1 serving.


John Collins

For the dough:

  • 1 1/2 ounces bourbon
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces club soda
  • Maraschino cherry, for garnish
  • Orange slice, for garnish

Fill a Collins glass with ice, then pour in the bourbon, lemon juice and simple syrup. Stir thoroughly. Top with club soda and garnish with the cherry and orange slice.

Makes 1 drink.


Pimento Cheese

For the dough:

  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 8 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4-ounce jar pimentos, drained
  • 1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise, to taste
  • 1/4 cup sweet pickled jalapenos
  • 1 tablespoon sweet pickled jalapeno juice (optional)
  • 1 cucumber, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
  • Crispy fried bacon

In a bowl, place the cheeses, pimentos, mayonnaise, jalapenos and juice, and stir to combine. Let chill for at least one hour. When ready to serve, spoon a bit of pimento cheese onto a cucumber slice, and top with a small piece of crisp bacon.

Makes about 6-8 servings.


The People’s Spicy Snack Mix

For the dough:

  • 1 1/3 cups sesame sticks
  • 1 1/3 cups pecans
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup virgin coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, to taste
  • 3 cups pretzel sticks
  • 2 cups roasted plantain chips
  • 3/4 cup roasted salted pumpkins seeds

Heat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Place the sesame sticks and pecans on the sheet and roast until they begin to smell toasted, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a small saucepan set over medium heat, add the brown sugar, maple syrup, coconut oil, cinnamon, cocoa powder, salt and cayenne. Stir until the mixture is liquid and just begins to bubble.

In a large bowl, combine the sesame sticks and pecans with the pretzel sticks, plantain chips and pumpkin seeds. Pour in the syrup mixture and stir until well coated. Spread the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet and bake until the mixture bubbles and is fragrant, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let cool completely before breaking apart. The snack mix will stay fresh for about a week in an airtight container.

Makes 16-20 servings.


Stuffed Mushrooms

For the dough:

  • 1 pound whole baby bella mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 package (0.6 ounce) zesty Italian salad dressing powdered mix
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika, for garnish

Heat oven to 350 F.

Wipe the mushrooms clean. Remove the stems from the mushrooms. Finely dice the stems, then sauté in the olive oil until golden, about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together the cream cheese and salad dressing mix. When the diced mushroom pieces are cool, add to the cream cheese mixture and mix well.

Use a small scoop to fill each mushroom cap with cream cheese mixture. Top with a sprinkle of Parmesan and paprika. Place on a baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is golden-brown and the mushrooms are tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 14 mushrooms.