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Rare booze in Central Arkansas 

click to enlarge Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve bourbon at the Capital Bar & Grill image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve bourbon at the Capital Bar & Grill

Truffles aren't really that good, you know. They just taste better because some Frenchman's pig had to be talked into sniffing them up in the middle of nowhere, and it's hard to talk a pig into doing anything. People love rarity. Ditto on rare cars, rare comic books, rare baseball cards, rare anything. It's all neat to have, but when you get right down to it, nobody wants Superman No. 1 because of its riveting storyline. People want it because every other guy on the block can't have it.

Which brings us to rare hooch. In Central Arkansas, because of a number of factors — from seasonal offerings, to small-batch craft beers, to persnickety Arkansas liquor laws that only allow one distributor to handle each brand — there are some things that you're just not going to find with any regularity in your corner package store. With that in mind, here are a few of the rarities that probably aren't coming soon to a liquor cabinet near you.

What is it? Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve bourbon

Who makes it? Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, Frankfort, Ky.

What's the big deal? Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve — named after the long-gone father of the current owner of Kentucky's Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery and available in 15-year, 20-year and 23-year-old varieties — is consistently ranked as one of the best whiskeys in the world. It's crazy rare, with very low production numbers and a rabid online following of fans who trade leads about availability and are willing to drive hundreds of miles on a "might have." Only a few bottles make it into Arkansas every year, and those that do get snapped up quickly by collectors and whiskey geeks. If you ever see a bottle anywhere, wrestle it away from the guy next to you and stash it back for a bender on your deathbed.

Where can I try it? One of the very few reliable hookups for a glass of Pappy Van Winkle's is at the Capital Bar and Grill, but even they sometimes run dry.

What is it? Yuengling beers

Who makes it? Yuengling Beer Co. of Pottsville, Penn.

What's the big deal? Yuengling is distributed widely, but only east of the Mississippi. Out here in flyover country, we're a Yuengling wasteland, with Arkansas devotees forced to stop for a case or two anytime they're on the far side of Old Man River and then — in the grand tradition of Coors and "Smokey and the Bandit" — truck the suds back to their home base in Arkansas while being relentlessly pursued by Jackie Gleason. Beyond the rarity-fueled covet bump, though, it's apparently pretty standard stuff, coming in seven varieties including a porter, lager and black and tan.

Where can I try it? Put that hammer down and give it hell to Memphis and points east, son. The shelves are apparently awash in Yuengling there.

What is it? Abita Strawberry Harvest

Who makes it? Abita Brewing Co. of Abita Springs, La.

What's the big deal? One of Abita's three "harvest beers," Abita Strawberry Harvest is a pilsner to which fresh Louisiana strawberry juice is added after the filtration process, giving it a sweet flavor. It's a seasonal offering, and like most seasonals, it's a limited edition. John Crow, the owner of 107 Liquor in Sherwood, said Strawberry Harvest has been made even more rare in recent years due to Abita's "tenuous relationship" with its Arkansas distributor, Glazer's, so that Abita sends only a smidgen of the coveted springtime brew to Arkansas (it's fairly easy to get in other places when it's in season, he said, noting that he got his first taste at a friend's house in Los Angeles). The local rarity in the state never fails to set off a phone-tag scramble among beer fans when it's released.

Where can I try it? Unless you've got a generous friend with a Strawberry Harvest tucked in the back of the fridge, better luck next year. This year's small allocation to Arkansas liquor stores disappeared about the time the regional strawberries did.

What is it? Rock Hopera Imperial IPA

Who makes it? Vino's Brewpub in Little Rock (or at least they do sometimes).

What's the big deal? Available irregularly, only at Vino's, and only served in very limited quantities when it has been available in the past, Vino's Rock Hopera Imperial IPA — developed by former Vino's brewmaster Bill Riffle — won a gold medal in 2008 at the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado and has since developed a near-mythical reputation among local beer fans, scoring a 92 out of 100 on the website ratebeer.com. "John the Beer Snob" Wells, who runs the beergeek newsletter "The Official Size & Weight E-beer E-news E-mail" from his website johnthebeersnob.com, said that part of the reason Rock Hopera is rare is because it's a very labor-intensive brew, requiring "multiple, multiple, multiple" batches of soaked grain at carefully controlled temperatures to make one batch of beer. "You just have to know somebody to know when they're going to break out one of those casks," Wells said. "They serve it in tiny little glasses. They don't even let you have a full serving of it."

Where can I try it? Good luck with that. Wells said they've served Rock Hopera very rarely at Vino's in the past, with no warning that they're pouring other than word-of-mouth. When he hears it's going to be available, he'll usually alert the subscribers to his newsletter.

What is it? Goose Island Bourbon County Stout

Who makes it? Goose Island Beer Co. of Chicago.

What's the big deal? A very low-production series of specialty brews that also happen to be consistently ranked as some of the best in America, Goose Island's Bourbon County beers — stout, coffee and bramble rye — are all coveted, but it's the stout that's legendary enough in beergeek circles that it's often referred to as just "BCS." Bourbon County Stout was one of the first craft beers to be aged in used whiskey barrels, a technique that lends both a storied flavor and an alcohol content of 15 percent by volume. Scoring a bottle has become job one for many local collectors, but availability is so limited that's just a dream for even some of the most dedicated. Bryce Nall with Goose Island distributor Golden Eagle said that only five cases of Bourbon County Stout made it to Arkansas this year — a number so low that Golden Eagle decided to reserve what they received solely for tastings and special events.

Where can I try it? Nall said Golden Eagle will be bringing its remaining bottles of Bourbon County Stout to the Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival, so you might get a sip there. Either that, or just be patient. According to a recent story in the Chicago Tribune, Goose Island has ramped up production of its Bourbon County Stout five-fold this year.

What is it? Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale

Who makes it? Rogue Ales of Newport, Ore.

What's the big deal? From time to time, there are limited-edition novelty beers that just get casual hopsheads buzzing, and that appears to be the case with Rogue's Bacon Maple Ale, the company's brew-homage to one of the favorites at Portland's Voodoo Doughnut chain. It is — you guessed it — a brown ale infused with the flavors of applewood-smoked bacon and maple syrup, a pairing that sounds about as appetizing to the author as drinking a glass of Bud Light through a hollowed-out Slim Jim while simultaneously sucking on a watermelon Jolly Rancher. Nonetheless, local beer-hipsters have been scrambling after every last bottle of the stuff in recent weeks.

Where can I try it? Local liquor stores were allocated only a very small quantity of Bacon Maple Ale, which sold out quickly at the more popular stores. You can still find a bottle or two kicking around at some of the smaller stores, however. Just look for the bright pink bottle. John Crow at 107 Liquor said he had one bottle left, for instance, for $13 bucks and change. Don't bother calling, though. If one of our proofreaders hasn't already driven to Sherwood with sweaty palms to snap it up, somebody who read this before you surely has. You snooze, you lose.

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