By Richard Thomas
I was back in Louisville recently, and decided to try some of the new Urban Bourbon Trail (“Urbin Burbin”) there. The result was my first ever visit to the Baxter Station Tavern, with its excellent bourbon menu, and a chance to revisit Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Years Old. Rare bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle are very reasonably priced at Baxter Station, and the pub grub menu is outstanding (it included the porkiest southern-style green beans I have had since the early 1990s). If you find yourself in Louisville, the tavern isn’t far from the lower end of the city’s uber-trendy Highlands District, so make a point of stopping in.
The aging period of Pappy Van Winkle’s 20 year bourbon is a unusual for two simple reasons. First, few bourbon-makers have invested in the substantial amount of time needed to establish a bourbon recipe that needs 20 years of aging to bring the best out of it. Second, the “angel’s share” for bourbon is huge after 20 years in the warehouse, especially vis-a-vis scotch, due to the steamy summers of Kentucky . The latter is a big part of why 20 year old scotch is almost normal, while 20 year old bourbon like Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year is a rarity. Even so, Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old is still only the middle-aged member of the Pappy line, bookended as it is by 15 Year Old and (incredibly old) 23 Year Old bourbons.
Like all Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, the 20 Year comes in an ordinary bottle with a plastic and cork stopper, and a plain, old-timey label of Pappy smoking a cigar. This simple packaging utterly belies the quality of the whiskey within, although the gold-amber color should provide a modest hint. Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year is bottled at 90.4 proof (45.2% alcohol).
On the nose, the 20 Year is smooth and velvety, with a musty woodiness meeting vanilla and a sweet, spicy fruitiness. The flavor of the bourbon is soft and delicious, retaining the sweetness and woodiness from the scent. Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year goes down just as smooth as it tastes, with a long, leathery finish.
Characteristics like these make Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year the best after dinner bourbon around. Take it neat, as this bourbon is too smooth (and too magnificent) for branch water. Drinking it any way other than straight is an outright sin.
When Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year goes on the market, it usually retails for under $100 a bottle. However, you must already be on a waiting list for the next release to get a bottle at that price, and if you wait to buy it otherwise you must pay a price reflecting the whiskey’s scarcity. If you haven’t planned ahead, expect a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old Family Reserve to cost at least $190 per bottle.
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year earned a 99 out of 100 from the World’s Spirits Championship, and a 99 Rating from the Beverage Tasting Institute.