Pass the Pappy!
Spirits columnist Jim Coley gets his hands on the rare bourbon Pappy Van Winkle.
There are certain brands everyone thinks of when they think “best of the best.” When it comes to bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle is the name of the game. This brand of rare aged bourbon (and a rye) has become a celebrity darling, with bottles prominently featured in the Instagram feeds of actors and chefs who have managed to secure a bottle.
Simply securing a bottle can be difficult. Acquiring the whole lineup, which consists of Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-year, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-, 20- and 23-year as well as the aforementioned Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, can be a logistical and financial challenge.
Fortunately, a good friend has been more than up to the challenge, and, with my help and that of another friend, we managed to assemble a full tasting of these special bourbons. I will refer to them by their initials, so they are not inundated with visitors seeking out Pappy!
Like many bourbon distilleries, Pappy Van Winkle has a winding history. Julian P. Van Winkle Sr. (aka “Pappy”) started in the business as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons, later bought the business with a partner, and then merged with the Stitzel Distillery just before prohibition.
Julian Jr. took over Stitzel-Weller in 1965, but was forced out seven years later. The family owned the Old Rip Van Winkle Label, and Julian Jr. continued bottling under that label borrowing the Stitzel-Weller facility, though the family soon had to buy its own bottling facility.
The ‘80s and early ‘90s were a very different time for American whiskey. It was thoroughly unfashionable with the vodka-obsessed public, and barrels of brilliantly aged whiskey were traded for prices that would make bourbon lovers weep today. The first Pappy 20-year was sourced from Old Boone and released in the mid-‘90s, featuring the iconic photo of Pappy Van Winkle smoking a cigar. They soon added a 23-year and, when the barrels of Old Boone ran out, the Van Winkles turned to Stitzel-Weller for a wheat-based bourbon (most bourbon is corn-based) that took the then-small whiskey world by storm.
Pappy Van Winkle is now sourced from Buffalo Trace, which makes the Van Winkle whiskeys according to family recipes. Over the years, the other younger whiskeys were added.
“What’s greatest about them is collecting them,” says D.M., who has a knack for turning up rare beverages. His 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle kicked off the evening. We used simple glasses and added only a few drops of water to open up the nose of each whiskey. Host W.C., who has gradually accumulated the full line of Van Winkles, put out a spread of meat and cheese and joked that we would be doing shots and beer soon enough.
As the others enjoyed each whiskey, I put on my critical hat and scribbled notes for each one. The 10-year is nicely balanced and showed no signs of heat. There are notes of lime, cherry and caramel, and good mid-palate sweetness that turns peppery on the finish. It seems more like a corn-based bourbon than a wheat-based one.
The 12-year is a major step forward. The 10 seems like something that could be mixed with little shame. The 12 is much more powerful and complex, with a much more “wheat” nose — I found an overt graininess as opposed to the fruit of the 10-year. The 12-year is darker, richer and drier in the mouth, with remarkable balance hiding its powerful alcohol. Excellent.
The 15-year is a quantum step forward. It pairs what is beautiful about the 10 and the 12 and amplifies them even more, with grain and fruit and a lot of caramel. It has exquisitely rich texture and superb length. A sip lingered for more than a minute after swallowing.
We poured the 20-year next. There was a clear sense of evolution from spirit to spirit. The 20 feels like the end result of what would happen if the 15-year shed its power in exchange for elegance. It starts off sharply focused and with a laser intensity, but mid-mouth it transforms into something much airier. I love its creamy texture. It mixes notes of wheat, caramel, cherry and something herbal.
The 23-year was next. This is a controversial spirit, as it is exorbitantly expensive, and few people who have tasted the entire line rank it above the 15- or 20-year. The tip sheet I read beforehand often mentioned oak notes, so I was surprised to not find much, if any, oak. I liked it almost as much as the 15- and 20- years. Of all the bottles we tried, this one had been opened the longest, and D.M. opined that the oxygen exposure may have mellowed it. I loved the marshmallow and cherry notes. This spun all the way back around to the 10-year for me.
We wrapped up with the rye, which some consider the “unicorn” of the lineup. Rye tends to have intense aromatics, and that held true for this one — very golden and bright, with an orange and honey sweetness. My only quibble is the same quibble I have with most ryes: not quite as complex as corn- or wheat-based bourbon.
As we wrapped up the night with Ubers home, W.C. looked over the empty glasses and smiled.
“This was a lot of work,” he says. “And I can’t wait until we do it again.”
Finesse a Bottle of Pappy for Yourself
Reading about Pappy Van Winkle will often make a reader wonder, “Well, how do I get some?” It’s become so rare that, when I offered to open my lone bottle of Special Reserve 12-year with a lady friend who loves bourbon, she promptly got on Instagram and posted a photo, and her friends responded in jealous kind. The lady, who knows a thing or two about whiskey and tasting it, gave me a quick tutorial on her technique, and then we enjoyed our tastes, which I found slightly sweeter than the 12-year from the tasting.
Most of the responses she received included “Where did you get that?” Here’s what little advice I have: First and foremost, don’t just randomly ask at a liquor store, particularly if you are not a regular. Like it or not, the staff will laugh at you. This never works. Never.
So what can you do? Some stores have lottery drawings. Others have wait lists. I suggest becoming a regular at a good liquor store and buying a wide variety of products. W.C. has his collection because he treats his sources well.
If cost is no object, you can often find them offered at auctions or on the secondary market. Be prepared to pay an obscene price.
Lastly, if you just want a taste, find out when they are released, and hit a good whiskey bar that same day. Some bars will even offer flights, and you might be able to come close to duplicating my tasting!
For more information about Pappy Van Winkle, visit oldripvanwinkle.com.