I know that you’ve been hearing a lot about Pappy. “Pappy, Pappy, Pappy,” all the cool chefs seem to say. The fabled Kentucky bourbon is made by the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery and is sold under the sepia-toned label of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve; it’s the hallowed golden quaff often pictured at the elbow of David Chang and in the general vicinity of Anthony Bourdain. In the HBO series Treme (not coincidentally penned, in part, by Bourdain), Pappy is a recurring prop in the storyline that tracks the food-world struggles of Chef Janette Desautel. Pappy Van Winkle’s cultishness is only enhanced by its scarcity. Pappy’s production is limited and its supply is spotty, which raises the price of a single bottle into the multi-hundred-dollar, if not thousand-dollar, range.
But I’m going to let you in on a secret: Most chefs and bartenders don’t drink from the priciest bottles in the house. Those are reserved for the customers (read: suckers) willing to pay upwards of $60 to $150 per glass. Instead, those in the know are hitting unsung whiskies, even the lowly “well” whiskies whose shameful labels are generally hidden in the steely dungeon that is the bar’s speed rail. The Mill, a new Hastings-on-Hudson bar and restaurant operated by the team behind The Tapp in Tarrytown, is a post-service haunt of several River Town chefs. At various times, I’ve run into Alex Sze, Chris Vergara, and David DiBari there. Barman Jeremy McLellan recommends inexpensive Bird Dog Bourbon. “All of the whiskeys that I use in my cocktails are affordable, but the Bird Dog has completely flipped my lid. It’s fairly new to the scene, but it’s extremely affordable—you can certainly get a bottle of it for less than $30. There’s also a really good Canadian rye out there now made by J.P.Wiser’s, and it’s delicious. And Canadian ryes to me are usually on the mild side, but this one has a nice, full body—it’s just a beautiful rye. It’s like $28.”
“I like the Dickel,” Restaurant North’s Chef Eric Gabrynowicz says magnanimously of the Tennessee maker of bargain rye and bourbon that retail for less than $25 per bottle. “But I have an even better one for you: Kentucky Gentleman.” This James Beard Award-nominated chef’s pick is produced by the octopus-like Sazerac Company, the Louisiana-based spirit company that also owns Tennessee’s Buffalo Trace Distillery (where Pappy Van Winkle is made). “It’s available all over and no one really knows about it,” says Gabrynowicz. “I can taste test Kentucky Gentleman side-by-side with Jack Daniel’s and people can’t tell the difference. So I started drinking it because a liter costs $9.99 in a liquor store as opposed to $37 for Jack Daniel’s. I’ve turned anyone who is a Jack drinker onto Kentucky Gentleman—and I’ve changed lives.”