I drink bourbon. I've got my favorites (at the moment, the daily bourbon is Rowan Creek; the special occasion bourbon, subject to the final paragraph of this essay, is cask strength Angel's Envy), but I also try several new ones a year.
In 2002 I bought a bottle of 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. (I'm writing this essay many years after the fact; my memories of dates and prices might therefore be mistaken in some of the details.) I hadn't had it before, and it wasn't yet the thing. I bought it because a bartender I used to play poker with predicted I'd like it. He was right. Of the 75 or 80 bourbons I'd taste-tested by then, it was easily the best. PVW-15 was hard to find, but not impossible, and at that time (as best I recall), it sold for around $50 / bottle.
Within the next couple of years, it became it. And as PVW became increasingly popular, it became increasingly hard to find, and of course, because it was it, as it became increasingly hard to find, it also became ever more popular. Yet it was still possible to find a bottle on the shelf, and the price was still not crazy, well south of $100 a bottle.
In August of 2005, my wife, son, dog, and I were renting a small condo in Aspen. I walked across town to Carl's pharmacy, which is also (oddly) a liquor store. There were two bottles of PVW-15 on the shelf. I asked the owner, Carl (obviously), if there was any more in back. He came out with a case. I bought all his stock. As I was paying, he asked what was so special about the bourbon. I pointed at a couple of lowball glasses on the shelf behind him (yes, they sold those too) and said, May I? He said sure. I opened a bottle and poured us a couple of shots. He said he should have saved a bottle for himself.
Within a year or so, the craze reached a solid eleven on the Spinal Tap dial. You just could not find the stuff. Friends of mine knew to call me if they ever happened to come across a bottle, and I would jump in my car and drive over to buy a bottle or two. But such sightings were increasingly rare. I took to scouring liquor store inventories online, hoping I'd spy a new shipment and be in the bourbon aisle when it arrived at the store.
Then it happened. I returned to my office after teaching a class on the Supreme Court's decision in Randall v. Sorrell, a mess of a decision striking down a Vermont law regulating campaign contributions. I went to the website of my go-to liquor store, and there it was. I clicked on PVW-15 and bought a case, entering my credit card information and pickup time. I printed out the page with my confirmation and headed to the store.
When I showed up and presented my confirmation and ID, the person behind the counter told me I would have to wait a moment, then she picked up her phone and made a call. Three minutes later, the liquor department manager appeared. The following transcript is not verbatim, but it is, to the best of my recollection, the gist of our conversation:
Me: I am here to pic up my case of 15-year-old pappy.
Him (an arrogant pinhead named Bert): I am not going to sell you a case.
Me: I am not asking you to sell me a case. I already bought a case. I am here to pick it up.
APB: I am not going to sell it to you. I save that bourbon for my best customers, bars and restaurants. You are not my best customer. I do not even know you.
Me: I admire your loyalty. I myself prize loyalty as among the most important human qualities. But possibly you didn't understand what I said. I said I already bought it. The confirmation number for my amex charge, which went through two hours ago, is [XXXXX]. I am here to pick it up.
APB: I understood what you said. You might not have understood me. But I tell you what, I will give you a bottle and refund the charge.
Me: I bought a case.
APB: You can have two bottles, or leave with nothing.
Not that this matters.
It shouldn't. A liquor store manager should not treat someone who wears a
three-piece suit and a tie more respectfully than he treats a guy wearing blue
jeans, a white t-shirt, a black hoodie, and boots. But it happens. And as a guy who teaches law school but
doesn't wear three-piece suits, I have first-hand experience in this regard. So
I took my two bottles, drove straight back to my office, sat down at my desk, and
wrote an email to the store's general manager. Again, the following is not
verbatim, but I believe it is reasonably close to what I sent:
Dear general manager:
My name is David R. Dow. I am a professor at the University
of Houston Law Center, a fact I
mention solely so you or your counsel can evaluate the accuracy of what I am about to tell you. In
this email, I am speaking solely for myself,
not for the Law Center.
This morning I purchased a 12-bottle case of 15-year old
Pappy Van Winkle on your website. I
provided my credit card information and received a confirmation. If your website represented an offer, I
accepted your offer to purchase one
case. If my filling out the form for a case was the offer, you accepted when you charged my credit
card. In either case, a contract for sale was
When I arrived at your store to pick up the case, your
liquor store manager refused to give it
to me. This refusal represents breach of contract.
Under section 712 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, in view of your
nondelivery of the bourbon, I, as the purchaser, am entitled to cover. This means I may purchase
from another seller the goods (i.e., the bourbon)
you were obligated to give me.
I am writing to let you know i intend to cover by the close
of business today. Pursuant to section 712(b), you will be liable for the difference between the contract price (i.e., the price i agreed to pay you
[approx $80/bottle, as I recall]) and
the market price (i.e., the price I pay in good faith to obtain the identical product from another seller),
as well as any incidental damages
I might incur. I will contact you to let you know what you owe me as damages as soon as I have effected cover.
David R. Dow
At the time, the online trading price for PVW-15 was about twice what I had paid.
Thirty seconds after I sent the email, my phone rang. The general manager apologized for the miscommunication and told me my bourbon was ready for pick up.
Back at the store, I noticed APB was a bit cool toward me as wheeled the basket holding my case to the checkout register. He did not offer to carry it out and load the case into the back of my truck. He did not offer to shake my hand. I wished him a pleasant afternoon.
Within the next several months, the supply of PVW-15 dried up, and as the supply dried up, the price went nuts. A hundred bucks a bottle, then two, then three. It kept going, and as it did, I stopped drinking it. I had to. Drinking my own stock was like drinking diamonds. Today, an empty bottle will cost you more than $100. A full bottle will cost you at least $2000, and I've seen it selling for as much as three. (Click here to see some representative prices.) My remaining unopened ten bottles could just about buy me a new Tesla series 3 sedan.
I hid the bottles. I was not worried about somebody stealing them. Delano and Soul, a hundred and fifty pounds of dog, would not allow that to happen. I hid the PVW so I did not have to see the bottles in the evening when I fixed my wife and myself a drink.
And so for a decade it went, until finally, just last month, on the very day Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo was issuing a stay-at-home directive. As we sat down to dinner, I looked at my wife, who prefers Tequila, and at our son, who doesn't drink, and said, I don't even want a Tesla. They looked at me, as they sometimes do, with an expression that translates roughly as What the hell are you talking about? I got up, and returned with a glass holding two fingers of PVW-15 and said, This is what I am talking about. And since that evening, every Saturday, at the cocktail hour or even a bit before, I pour myself two fingers (or sometimes three) of PVW-15 and give thanks for another week.