Yesterday, Pappy Van Winkle Day came to Cenla, which is a rather unpredictable day in late November or early December when Republic, an alcoholic beverage distributor, delivers the fall releases of Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection to local liquor stores. These bottles do not arrive on the regular delivery trucks, but are specially delivered by Republic employees to the various liquor stores, bars, and restaurants.
Being known for having some whiskey expertise locally, I have to say people ask me about Pappy more than any other whiskey. “Brad, you know that bourbon you drink, Pappy Van Winkle? How can I get some?” Which is then followed up with a story about a wedding, a graduation, or some other big moment which apparently requires a bottle to celebrate.
A LITTLE HISTORY OF PAPPY VAN WINKLE
The origin of Pappy Van Winkle begins with when Pappy Van Winkle himself acquired the Steitzel Weller distillery in Kentucky. Weller and Old Fitzgerald, two wheat recipe bourbons, were main stays of this distillery. When we entered the bourbon depression in the seventies and eighties, this venerable distillery closed, although there were stocks of bourbon still aging. The Van Winkle family bottled these as Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, first in a 20 year old expression, then a 15, and then a 23 year old.
The brands of Steitzel Weller were sold off to different distilleries, except for the Van Winkle name. Weller went to Buffalo Trace, Old Fitzgerald went to Heaven Hill. Diageo now owns the distillery and is distilling Bulleit there, which was originally a sourced whiskey from the distillery that is now Buffalo Trace. But as the Steitzel Weller stocks emptied, Pappy Van Winkle needed a new home. The Van Winkle family teamed up with Buffalo Trace, who had acquired the Weller name and mashbill, to manufacture Pappy Van Winkle in the future. Same juice, different location.
Pappy Van Winkle bourbon became pretty sought after in the bourbon community because of the long age of this wheat recipe bourbon. Wheated bourbon takes well to extra long aging, and perhaps better than rye recipe bourbon. Anyway, it was something serious bourbon nerds drank. It was not what it is today.
Anthony Bourdain and other gourmets discovered Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and talked about it in various media. Pappy then captured the imagination of the American public and became a luxury item, like a Rolex watch or a European sports car.
One small point; the three bottles on the left are Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. The two on the left are not. One of the bottles is the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year old bourbon, and the other is the original Van Winkle brand, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old bourbon. Old Rip used to be sold in squat bottles and essentially was a ten year old oaky version of Weller Antique bourbon. Both share the same 107 proof. The first time I tried that was in college when folks I knew from Kentucky would bring some Old Rip Van Winkle from there. But, because of the Pappy Van Winkle craze, the other two Van Winkle bourbons are now super limited release just like Pappy, and it has gotten to the point where I can’t even walk into a store and find Weller any more.
SO WHAT IS PAPPY VAN WINKLE EXACTLY?
Pappy Van Winkle is a bourbon made from a mostly corn mashbill, as are all bourbons. Buffalo Trace uses Red Star yeast, which is a yeast that is very easy to work with and does not add very much in the way of flavor to bourbon. Most bourbons in the market use rye as a secondary grain in the mashbill, which is known as a small grain or flavoring grain. Pappy, and some other bourbons such as Maker’s Mark, Larceny and Weller, use wheat instead of rye.
Because of the Pappy Van Winkle craze, wheated bourbon is now in high demand. As noted above, I can’t even find Weller anymore, which was a cheap go to bourbon that I have been drinking since college.
So, basically, Pappy Van Winkle is ultra-aged, wheated bourbon from Buffalo Trace that, in my opinion, is excellent but has take on a life of its own thanks to Anthony Bourdain and others. I have reviewed some of the other Van Winkle bourbons but have never reviewed the 15 year old.
THE 2018 15 YEAR OLD REVIEWED
When Pappy Van Winkle day rolls around, I have decisions to make. Which bottle, or, if I am lucky, bottles of the Van Winkle and Antique Collection whiskies am I going to pick. My original intent this year was to not buy any Van Winkle at all, but to buy an Eagle Rare 17 from the Antique Collection, as they upped the proof to 101. I was going to review it and maybe even title the review, Pappy, I Am Just So Over You. Well, Louisiana got only 17 bottles of Eagle Rare for the whole state. So Hokus Pokus didn’t even get one.
So I emailed a friend who tries everything Buffalo Trace releases, and asked for his recommendation as to which bottle out of the Van Winkle releases I should pick. He told me the 15 year old this year was really good. So, I bought it, and I am glad I did. This year’s release really lives up to the hype, and I compared it to my 2012 15 year old. The 2018 is head and shoulders better. I had my friend Tom Spencer come over last night and do the same comparison. The tasting notes below are a collaboration between the two of us.
The first thing to notice is a slight reboot to the labeling. The 2018 has slightly different type face in places, and the paper used for the label is still off white but now has a pinkish hue.
Here is the 2012 label, which I confirmed matches my other bottles, past and present.
This year’s 15 year old is also noticeably darker in color. Beautifully thick long legs. It has a reddish hue that you typically only see in the 20 or 23 year old expressions. On the nose is all vanilla and oak, with some slight floral notes. On the palate, it is thick and rich. Buttery. Carmel and butterscotch, slight vanilla, followed by a hint of baking spice and bitter dark chocolate. Then comes the oak on the finish that lingers and lingers. A truly amazing bourbon that really hits so many good notes.
I paid $200 for mine; about $500 to $750 less than the secondary market (although some folks pay much more than that on secondary.). Is this a good $200 bottle of bourbon? As someone who has bought many other bottles in that price range, yes. Would I pay more than that for it? No. There are plenty of other great bourbons I can drink. I do have to say though that the 2018 release of the 15 year old is just amazing and if you have the opportunity to buy one at retail, you should.
WHAT PAPPY VAN WINKLE IS NOT
So, I am going to get a little preachy here. Pappy Van Winkle is not the bourbon to buy for groomsmen to take shots of before a wedding. Pappy Van Winkle is not the bourbon to drink at a college graduation party. Pappy is, to me at least, too expensive and too hard to get to be used as a bourbon version of Dom Perignon to celebrate a special occasion.
So, how do I drink Pappy? I will have a little on my birthday, a little on national bourbon day, a little on Repeal Day, a little with my wife, my Dad, my brother, or a friend who really appreciates whiskey in my living room, relaxed, talking about life and spending quality time together. I did have a dram when a case I filed made the Wall Street Journal, at home in my study. I had a dram when I got elected to my firm’s board of directors, again, in my study. It is best enjoyed at quieter, intimate moments.
If you want a Buffalo Trace product that is truly special but relatively easier to get and much less expensive, and that would really work for a celebration with others, I heartily recommend Col. E.H. Taylor Small Batch.
YES, THERE ARE BETTER THINGS THAN PAPPY TO PICK ON VAN WINKLE DAY
Now, I am extremely fortunate to have a great relationship with Hokus Pokus, and have been able to maintain over the years having all of the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons and the entire Buffalo Trace Antique Collection on my bar. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye yet, and Hokus didn’t get a bottle this year so that wasn’t an option. I also have a bottle of Sazerac Rye 18 year old I have yet to open, but the reviews on this whiskey have been not so good lately. But, suppose you have a relationship with a store and get to pick a bottle from what they got, or you enter one of those liquor store lotteries, or you want to put your name on a list for a particular bottle. Well, here is my list, in order of preference, of the Pappy Van Winkle/Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases that happen every fall, as to what I would pick.
1. William LaRue Weller – cask strength Pappy that is usually thirteen to sixteen years old. It has won Jim Murray’s world whiskey of the year more than any other whiskey. It is just amazing, and I have had bottles over different years, three to be exact. I also order this in certain New Orleans restaurants that carry it.
2. George T. Stagg – cask strength Buffalo Trace low rye recipe bourbon. It is just knock your socks off good. It too has won the Jim Murray award more than once. Typically fifteen or sixteen years old. Yields have been up lately and that is a very good thing for the bourbon world. The Stagg Jr. version at about ten years old is one of my favorite evening sippers, but it is like comparing methadone to heroin from the Harz Mountains of Germany. I have had four bottles of the fine bourbon over the years.
3. Pappy 15 – which is what this review is about. Heretofore my favorite was Pappy 23, but this year’s release just blew me away. I have had two bottles of this bourbon and had a dram in a restaurant in Lexington, KY.
4. Pappy 23. I have had two bottles of this over the years.
5. Pappy 20. I have had two bottles of this over the years.
6. Eagle Rare 17 year old bourbon. I have had two bottles of this over the years, and had a dram in a restaurant in New Orleans.
7. Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – I really do need to write a review on this one. It is really good. I tend to prefer bourbon over rye, but this one is pretty amazing. Cask strength but only aged four to five years, but amazingly complex. I have had two bottles of this over the years.
8. Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old – I need to review this one as well. 107 proof just like the 15 year old, a very nice oaked wheated bourbon. I have had two bottles of this over the years.
9. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old Bourbon “Lot B” – My first bottle of this was put into my family’s Stealing Santa deal at Christmas 7 or 8 years ago by my cousin the sommelier. When I tried it I thought it was just amazing. A client gave me a bottle sometime after that. I bought a third bottle that is still on my bar. Frankly, it is the least impressive of the Van Winkle line, but when I first tried it I was blown away. Little did I know what would come after that.
There will be plenty of folks out there that will disagree with my rankings. My own wife would. Palates are different. But, I would say that I have learned a whole lot more about bourbon from when I was first faced with a choice of picking a bottle at a Hokus lottery years ago. I would have made different choices now than I would have then. Although I would still want this to be the top shelf of my bar.