Once again, fall has arrived and fall is that time of year when all sorts of limited, rare, special whisky releases hit the market. Around the world, whisky fans wait, semi-patiently, drooling ever-so-slightly into their empty Glencairns, to see what this year will offer.
As always there is excitement over which malts will be included in this year’s selection of Diageo’s “Special Releases” to go along with the expected bottlings of the rare, and becoming rarer, Broras and Port Ellens. Fans want to know which of the other “Classic Malts” from some of the not-quite-so-in-demand distilleries, like Dalwhinnie, will show up alongside the revered and exclusive Brora and Port Ellen bottlings.
Here in the US, this time of year sees the annual allocation of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, a series of releases that include the George T. Stagg, Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old, William Larue Weller, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, and the Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old.
And then there is “The Big One” for all bourbon fans, and that is the annual release the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. Ah, yes, Pappy Van Winkle, the seductively mysterious, elusively rare, and perhaps most drool-inducing Bourbon whisky around. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is considered, arguably, the finest bourbon in the world. A word of warning, though, you cannot simply walk into a store and find a bottle of Pappy sitting quietly on the shelf. These annual releases, eagerly awaited by legions of aficionados, are highly regulated, allocated to certain retailers, and sold via allotment, lottery, or other selected methods, generally to reward that retailer’s “high value customers.”
Just How Popular is Pappy?
Pappy Van Winkle whiskey has a worldwide, cult-like following. Bourbon aficionados show up in droves, waiting for hours, just to get a small chance in a lottery to purchase a bottle. Most are disappointed. Pappy has been called:
“the bourbon everyone wants but no one can get.”
Food Republic reported that Chef John Currence said:
“There’s Pappy Van Winkle, then there’s everything else.”
A writer for The Wall Street Journal said,
“You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium.”
Supplies of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve whiskey are VERY limited, especially for bottles from the era when the bourbon was actually made at the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery. Reportedly, the final release of whiskey fully produced at Stitzel-Weller is the 2013 bottling of the 23 year-old Family Reserve, any and all newer bottlings will come from Buffalo Trace. Even Julian Preston Van Winkle III believes that the 2013 vintage of the 23 year-old Family Reserve “may be the last of its kind”, in part because the whiskey is no longer distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, rather, since 2002 the Van Winkle brands have been distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at the Buffalo Trace Distillery as a joint venture with the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company.
So here we have a bourbon with a near-mythical reputation, an extremely rapidly diminishing supply, and an expanding fanbase….all of which is a recipe for mass craziness that arises every fall, as the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bottlings are released. And the market responds with frenzied bottle searches, lottery-style allotments, and then the (sadly) nearly immediate secondary market posting with offers to sell newly acquired bottles as the bottom-feeding pond scum seek to quickly flip their acquired bottles in the hopes of huge profits.
Take a look at this table from Wine Searcher.com. The table tracks the price history of the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 year-old over the last twelve months. The suggested retail price for the 2015 release of the 23 year-old bottle is $249 USD. I paid $315 for a bottle of the 2014 release and the resale market showed prices of $1,700 on the very same day that I brought mine home! The craziness is just ….well, crazy!
About Pappy Van Winkle
Before we get to the review, let’s take a look at the rather humble beginnings. Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr.’s involvement with bourbon began in 1893 when,at age 18, he began his career as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons. In 1910, he and a friend, Alex Farnsley, purchased the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Founded in 1872, the Stitzel Distillery was a sour mash whiskey distillery and which supplied, under contract, much of the whiskey sold by Weller. In 1933, the two companies merged to form the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
Pappy was the first in four generations of Van Winkle bourbon-making. His son, Julian Jr. ran operations at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery up until its sale in 1972. Julian Jr., resurrected a pre-Prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle, using whiskey stocks from the old Distillery. His son, Julian III, took over in 1981 and continues to run operations with the Van Winkle brand at Buffalo Trace Distillery along with his son Preston. Pappy remained highly involved with the Distillery up until his death in 1965, at the age of 89.
For Van Winkle, Farnsley, and Stitzel, the practice of distillation was more of an art than a science. Apparently there was a sign in the distillery that read “No Chemists Allowed” in support of this philosophy. The column still used at Stitzel-Weller did not contain rectifying plates surprisingly, but rather just a long, straight column through which the steam would rise and eventually make its way into the doubler. It was entirely made of copper and stood sixty-five feet tall, but without the plates the whiskey came off at much lower proof than a standard column still would normally produce. It’s believed this type of distillation was essential to create fine “wheated” Bourbon and today is replicated by Maker’s Mark. (spiritsjournal.klwines.com)
Both the Old Rip Van Winkle and the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve labels are now produced at Buffalo Trace and remain in high demand. Both labels continue to receive the highest acclaim throughout the industry, with numerous awards and accolades. (buffalotracedistillery.com)
On to the review!
The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve is the flagship brand of bourbon whiskey owned by the “Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery” company. The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve releases are aged for 15, 20 or 23 years, considerably longer than for other most bourbons, and the 15 year-old is bottled at 53.5% abv, the 20 year-old is bottled at 45.2% abv, and the 23 year is bottled at 47.8% abv.
At one of our North Texas Spirits Society meetings I had the opportunity to taste the 2008 bottling of the Family Reserve 15 year-old, along with the 2013 releases of the 20 year-old and the 23 year-old! As you can see by the photo, we poured all three simultaneously so we could move back and forth, comparing the various releases.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 yo, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2008 Release. 53.5%
The color is the common golden bronze/copper you see with most bourbons, and fairly consistent across all three whiskies. After sniffing all three, this 15 yo is much more robust on the nose than its compatriots. Black cherry and creamy vanilla, butterscotch, and oak spice notes just burst out of the glass. You don’t even need to pick up the glass to smell this one! This is a big, bold, crisp, and “demanding” whiskey, and for me, the most vibrant of the three noses. After a few minutes, not much change; the fruity sweetness continues to dominate, yet there remain these beautiful, subtle oak spice notes that keep it from being too one-dimensional or overly sweet. Despite its “aggressiveness” it is a beautiful, dense nose. At full strength it is a bit hot, but adding some water and giving it a few minutes, brings out more subtlety, more complexity, and makes it more approachable, leading to a more rewarding experience. On the palate, it adheres very closely to what the nose promises: bold and richly fruity, with butter cream, brown sugar and molasses adding the sweetness, and some soft cinnamon and oak spice notes just peaking through to provide balance and remind you of the age, but the spice notes remain very much the secondary component. The finish is beautifully long, creamy fruits mixed with the soft spice notes. (88)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 yo, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2013 Release, 45.2%
Again, the color is consistent, the same golden bronze/copper. The nose on this one is very similar to the others with prominent notes, although here, instead of the black cherry, I get more of a wild cherry (think cough syrup), more of that beautiful rich butter cream, some brown sugar, along with hints of maple, and the subtle oak spice notes that complement and balance the fruit and sweet notes. At the lower abv, I added just a couple drops of water, but given the relatively low abv, it wasn’t really required to enjoy. Sipping this whiskey, I got a slightly different take. As opposed to the 15, which started with the dominant fruit notes, here the arrival is much softer, more of a rich, sweet, buttery arrival before the fruitiness picks up steam. There are loads of overripe orchard fruits, particularly the cherry notes, some blackberry, hints of maple syrup, butterscotch, and similar notes of cinnamon, a touch of pepper. This one is more softly spiced than the 15. There is such a beautiful balance between the fruits and creamy sweetness that is perfectly complemented by the oak spices, creating a slightly more austere, yet more complex, mature, and mellower profile. This was unquestionably my favorite of the three we tasted. (91)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 yo, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2013 Release Bottle E-7256, 47.8% abv
Once more, the color in the glass is the same golden bronze/copper. On the nose, surprisingly, we are back to the HUGE notes of black cherry, along with rich buttercream, brown sugar, hints of maple, and with the very similar oak soft spice notes. But with this one, the spices are much more pronounced than in either the 15 or and 20 year-old. Tasting this one is closer to the 20 than the 15, although there is a definite family resemblance across all three. The 23 yo starts out with a richly creamy and sweet buttery arrival. There are consistent notes of the overripe orchard fruits, the wild cherry, buttercream, brown sugar and the oak spice notes, but here the oak spices play a more prominent role and leading to a more tannic, drying impact that slightly detracts from the palate and the finish relative to the other two PVWs. This is still a very good bourbon – perhaps not at the secondary market pricing – but eminently enjoyable, both for the rarity and the reality of the tasting experience. Honestly, though, this one probably ranked third of the three Pappy’s we tasted. (87)