The Fall 2020 BTAC/Van Winkle releases happened at Hokus Pokus today. I look forward to this day the way most kids look forward to Christmas. Given my spend, this blog, etc., Hokus generally lets me pick three bottles from their allocation. I always pick William LaRue Weller and George T. Stagg – those are a no brainer for me. But, that third bottle is where things get fun. This year, mostly because Hokus got one and hasn’t in a few years, and because I have never owned this bottle nor tried it, I picked the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, which is thirteen years old. Based on what I have been reading, Pappy 20 and 23 had very small releases due to evaporation this year, but the rye was more plentiful than in most years.
So, to celebrate me acquiring this bottle and thereby completing my Van Winkle Collection (at least until I kill a bottle), I decided to celebrate with my wife Cat, my stepson Jack, and my buddy Tom, by having a tasting of the best Ryes Buffalo Trace has to offer from their rye-corn mashbill, opening two more bottles from my collection, a Sazerac 18 year old and a Thomas Handy.
Tasting notes for each whiskey follow.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, 13 years old, 95.6 proof, 2020 release – smooth spicy front but you can tell this in Van Winkle juice; saddle leather, oak, baking spice on the finish which is uncharacteristic of rye whiskey. Incredible nose and creamy mouthfeel. Slow falling legs on the swirl. This is a truly special rye whiskey, but it is all Van Winkle on the finish, and this finish lingers on and on. I totally see why people are all about this bottle, and I am glad, at long last, to add it to my bar.
Sazerac 18 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, 90 proof, 2016 release – similar in taste to the Van Winkle, but deeper in flavor, but with a minty eucalyptus salty scotchy note on the back and with more oak on the nose. Really special. Mark Brown, an Englishman who is the CEO of Sazerac has been on the forefront of the American whiskey industry taking the same pride in their product as Scotland does. I think this whiskey really shows that off – huge complexity. But I think I like the Van Winkle better.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, 128.4 proof, 2013 release – similar in taste to the Van Winkle, but where the Van Winkle is smooth leather, this leather taste is more rawhide. Lovely spicy rye notes, big bold flavor, amazing mouthfeel. Herbal yet somehow candied rye on the finish. It pushes the envelope on flavor but remains smooth. To use a Beatles analogy, the Van Winkle Rye is like the Rubber Soul album; Handy is the White Album. It has been a while since I have had some Handy, but drinking this one, I am thinking it is a strong contender for needing a replacement next year when the Pappy/BTAC releases come around again. Because it is a lot more tempting to drink something on my bar once it is opened.
Final thoughts: I am really glad I pulled the trigger on the Van Winkle Rye. I never had tried it. I am definitely glad I did, both trying it and having it on my bar. But the funny thing is, I think it really made me appreciate the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye more than I did before. It is as if I better understand where Sazerac was going creatively with these different rye whiskies from the same mashbill. Like you should listen to Rubber Soul before listening to the White Album.
In any event, Tom and my ratings top to bottom are the same. Handy – 1; Van Winkle -2; Saz 18 -3.
But this is largely like trying to rank Vincent Van Gogh paintings. Or Nick Drake songs. Or Grateful Dead albums. Or skyscraper architecture in New York to Chicago. Comparing truly great things to other truly great things is pointless. They are all, well, great. And that’s all you need to say.