By Richard Thomas
Although Pappy Van Winkle has only a middling history as Kentucky bourbon’s go, the label is one of the most rarefied on the market today. As the story goes, Julian P. Van Winkle graduated from Centre College in Kentucky in 1892, went to work for a wholesaler, and gravitated into whiskey-making when he bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery with a partner in 1910. One of the labels produced by the distillery was “Old Rip Van Winkle.” Prohibition interrupted the distillery’s production, and Van Winkle did not reappear until the 1970s.
Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery is actually just a name, because Julian Van Winkle III (“Pappy’s” grandson and the current steward of the Old Rip Van Winkle brand) doesn’t own a distillery of his own. Instead, the bourbon is made at Buffalo Trace’s distillery.
Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 Year bourbon is the starter whiskey of the label’s premium ladder. Even so, it is a rare bird and the sort of thing not usually seen on store shelves, even behind glass. Waiting lists for Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve whiskeys are common, so if you want to try a bottle of even the label’s youngest whiskey, be prepared to order it well in advance.
These days, Pappy Van Winkle is made from corn with touches of malted barley and wheat (the old recipe used rye instead of wheat). As the name implies, the whiskey is aged for 15 years in deeply charred oak barrels, and the main difference between Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year bourbon and its older bourbons is simply that the older stuff stays in the warehouse longer. The whiskey is bottled at a potent 107 proof (53.5%). The bottle is fairly ordinary, with a plastic and cork stopper. I find the label with Pappy’s picture touching, but have always thought the light brown color subtracted from the middling copper-amber appearance of the bourbon, so it’s not much to behold on your liquor shelf. Once out of the bottle, though, the whiskey is a pleasant thing to look at.
The 15 Year Family Reserve is strong on the nose. The scent is complex, with a mix of sticky rum, vanilla and caramel, but the alcohol is right there beside them. I found the effect of the nose not unlike stepping into the room with the mashing vats on a distillery tour. On the palate, it’s warm to the point of being just a little fiery. The rum turns into a dried fruits like flavor, making the flavor like snacking from a trail mix of raisins, dates and black currants mixed with vanilla caramel candies. Despite the touch of fire on the palate, the bourbon goes down with a long, smooth finish.
The price for Pappy Van Winkle is not a fixed and settled thing. If you can get it from a wholesaler shortly after a new batch has been released into the market, you might get it for $50 or $60 a bottle. However, Van Winkle’s Family Reserve whiskeys are not released regularly, and demand has always outstripped supply. Wait a little while, and it is not uncommon to see the whiskey priced at $90, $120 or even $150.
Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Family Reserve won a platinum medal from the International Review of Spirits.