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Pappy for the Pope: Kentucky priest delivers bourbon to Vatican

Father Jim Sichko presented a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle to Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican in April. The Pope “was delighted,” Sichko tweeted.
Father Jim Sichko presented a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle to Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican in April. The Pope “was delighted,” Sichko tweeted. Provided by Father Jim Sichko

If you’re from Kentucky and get invited to the boss’s house, to make a good impression you might bring a bottle of bourbon. If your boss is the Pope, you have to go above and beyond.

And this Kentucky priest did. Last week, Father Jim Sichko personally delivered a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle to Pope Francis.

Sichko, who lives in Madison County, tweeted about the event, posting a photo of him handing over the pricey bourbon on April 10 with the caption, “Pope Francis receiving his 23 yr old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon as we shared our love of My Ole Kentucky Home!” He also posted a selfie taken with the Pope outside after mass on Sunday.

“They all laughed. It was like ‘how did you do this?’ It brought joy.”

The moment came after a private audience with the pope for the hundreds of papal Missionaries of Mercy. Sichko, who happened to be seated on the front row, stepped forward to present his gift.

“He knew I was from Kentucky so when I handed it him, he immediately said ‘bourbon’ and I said yes, and then he said ‘very good bourbon.’”

Indeed.

Sichko, who has never tasted Pappy, was surprised to learn the bottle would cost hundreds of dollars on the open market.

“I was trying to figure out what would be special,” Sichko said on Monday. He came up with bourbon.

He told a friend from Louisville that “I was going to take a bottle to the Holy Father, and he was very excited.”

The friend got him the Pappy.

“I am not a connoisseur, but I know the great history of it in Kentucky and to be honest, I really felt that that was the bourbon to use.”

The friend, who also knows Julian Van Winkle, gave him Van Winkle’s cell number. After the audience, Sichko sent Van Winkle the photos.

Van Winkle texted back: “Grazie, Father Jim, very cool. .... Well, we sure don’t need the publicity (not enough product) but this is awesome!!”

Still, Van Winkle couldn’t resist asking, “See if he’ll send you a photo of him sipping some 23!!”

Sichko also brought other bottles of Van Winkle, Knob Creek, Four Roses and Woodford Reserve (the Kentucky Derby edition, of course) bourbon for the Swiss guards and other Catholic officials, about a dozen in all.

He tweeted a photo of the haul, saying, “All the PAPPYS, 4 ROSES and WOODFORD RESERVE made it to give to Pope Francis and his security detail! Thanks Be to God!”

While the other bourbons aren’t exactly cheap, Pappy Van Winkle — particularly the extremely hard to find 23-year-old version — sells for hundreds of dollars, if not more.

How did he bootleg all that bourbon all the way to Rome?

It wasn’t easy.

“I was really worried it would be confiscated or stolen,” he said.

He wrapped the bottles in bubble wrap and labeled them by volume and proof, carefully allotting between his two suitcases.

“And then I put the rules on top of them. So whoever was opening the suitcase to inspect could see that we knew what we were talking about,” he said.

“They all got there,” he said. And in another “meant to be moment” Sichko ran into the head of Vatican security (who also got a bottle) “and he helped me get through security line to be able to present (the Pappy) to the Pope.”

The tweets drew response from Sichko’s followers in Kentucky, with Secretary of State Alison L. Grimes retweeting: “Some Pappy for the Pope! @JimSichko is one of 100 Papal Missionary’s of Mercy in the US! Always making KY Proud with his work to lift others up ... including @Pontifex! #PopeFrancis”

Mark Simendinger, general manager of Kentucky Speedway tweeted: “All that is left is to invite him to be Grand Marshal of the QS 400. Make it happen @Jim Sichko!”

Sichko said not everyone was as tickled. After he posted the photo on Twitter, “Someone wrote me somewhat negative, saying ‘why would you bring the pope alcohol’ and I write back saying that I brought him something that said ‘I’m from Kentucky ... and I tried to bring the best bourbon I could find.’”

This was Father Jim’s second meeting (and selfie) with Pope Francis; the first came in 2016 when he was appointed to be a Missionary of Mercy. That time Sichko gave him photos of his mother and a police officer killed in Richmond.

Sichko already has a plan for what to take for his third time:

“Next trip I’ll bring Coach Cal and the basketball team ... if they win (title) number 9.”

The Rev. Jim Sichko went on his third annual holiday season giving spree, giving thousands of dollars out to Richmond Road Starbucks employees as well as in-need representatives from the Muslim, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities.

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