Van Winkle. The name is one which has become iconic in bourbon circles over the last decade. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’s product line-up consists of five bourbons and a 13 year old rye. As you move up the age range of their bourbons they become more elusive, more expensive and above all, more highly coveted. Even though the Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bottles (15 year, 20 year and 23 year) command most of the attention, the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 107 proof and the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year are both still quite hard to come by these days (there was also a 10 year 90 proof, but it was dropped from the line last year).
My introduction to Van Winkle bourbon came in the form of a bottle of 10 year 107 proof that was given to me as a gift (I think sometime in 2003 or 2004, all I know for sure is that I had polished it off by April of 2005). At that time everything I knew of good bourbon was limited to Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Booker’s, and possibly Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s. The Old Rip Van Winkle had opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole universe of bourbon out there that I had previously been unaware of.
A few years later I suggested to my sister that a bottle of 15 year Pappy would be an appropriate gift for me – back then these bottles could actually linger on store shelves for several months or more after one of their semi-annual (spring and fall) releases. I try to give my sister the benefit of the doubt, but I really wasn’t sure if it was through generosity or stupidity that she picked up the 20 year Pappy for me (at that time they were priced at $50 and $90, respectively). Of course I had no choice but to go out and buy myself a bottle the 15 year. I don’t recall the exact timing of these acquisitions but one of my early posts, where I reviewed the 20 year Pappy , was originally written in May of 2007. I don’t think I waited too long to get the 15 year, however the earliest I specifically remember it being in my possession was June of 2008, when I let a friend taste both Pappy’s.
The popularity of the brand has exploded over the last two or three years, and nowadays all things Van Winkle practically vaporize off of store shelves, if any bottles even make it that far after waiting list requests have been fulfilled. For many people these bottlings have become the Holy Grail of American whiskey purchases. But for some aficionados the cost of and effort needed to obtain a Van Winkle bottle outweighs the value of the liquid inside. To this group the Van Winkles have become somewhat of a sacrificial lamb amongst great bourbons; while still commanding a much respect, they serve to distract the hoarding masses away from other highly desirable, limited release whiskeys which garner far less media attention.
In order to explain this divergence of opinions and dispel a few misconceptions I’m going to explore a bit of history and delve into a topic that few people, aside from bourbon’s most ardent enthusiasts, are even aware of.
But those details will have to wait for the next post. This had started off as a comparison piece with the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old, and then it began to snowball. It was growing into an unwieldy literary blob until I finally made the executive decision to split it in two. I’ll tie everything together soon enough, and even explain the relevance of my rambling recollection of when I procured my Van Winkle bottles.
As a quick footnote I should mention that this bottle somehow got shuffled to the back of the whiskey shelf where it sat 3/4 consumed for several years. In past posts I’ve detailed my observances of some whiskeys improving after time spent in a partially full bottle and others deteriorating under the same circumstance. I recently polished off my Murray McDavid 15 year Highland Park bottle which had spent maybe a year with just 10%-20% of its original contents: it was a mere shadow of what it had been when I first opened the bottle. My fear was that the same fate had befallen my Pappy and I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair review. But then I remembered that a few years back I used to regularly spay a preservative gas mix into my open whisk(e)y bottles. Perhaps the remaining bourbon in this bottle had been protected by an invisible blanket of Argon.
There’s only one way to tell, time to open her up. It actually did taste a little peculiar at first, but I think that was just down to the fact that I’ve been drinking way more scotch than bourbon lately. A few more sips confirmed that we were good to go.
The color is a deep medium amber.
The aromas are dense but not overly intense, with sweet corn and deep oak notes riding up on a gentle cloud of alcohol vapor.
The whiskey is fairly viscous on the tongue and quickly brings the palate to attention. Gentle spice notes mingle with the heat of the alcohol as a backbone of oak inspired flavors rise up. The wood is prominent but not out of balance and as it moves along hints of sweetness emerge.
Many different flavors individually come to the fore as the whiskey progresses through its lengthy finish, which gently fades ever so slowly. Even though the whiskey is driven by strength and intensity, its character retains a certain quality of softness.
Overall, it embraces you like a firm handshake and shows great depth throughout. I can see what all the fuss is about.