You would expect that any bourbon with a name like “Pappy Van Winkle” would come with a story. You might not, however, expect that what was inside the bottle would be anything more than a gimmick.
In this case, you would be half-right on the first point, and totally wrong on the second. The name may invoke a chuckle, but the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon itself is worthy of a lot more respect. In fact, judging from how well it does in competitions and how highly rated it is by the major players in the industry, this may be the best bourbon you ever taste – if you can even find a bottle to sample.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, the name: It’s in honor of Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, the first family member to get into the bourbon business. He and a friend formed the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and after selling it the family kept the rights to the Old Rip Van Winkle brand. It now creates that bourbon with the help of the Buffalo Trace distillery, and thus we have the Old Rip Van Winkle Company distributing bourbon today.
The first thing to remember about Pappy Van Winkle bourbon is that it is a wheated bourbon, using that grain instead of rye to go with the corn and barley. That creates a smoother taste with less bite than many of the rye bourbons, and if all you’ve had so far are bourbons that use rye in the mashbill, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon will take some getting used to. Maker’s Mark is probably the most popular of the wheated bourbons on the market; if you’ve tried that and like it, it’s a good sign that you’ll appreciate the flavor of this as well.
The second thing is that much like some parents nowadays, the folks behind Pappy Van Winkle believe that its children shouldn’t be allowed out by themselves in public until they’re old enough to hold their own when dealing with adults. None of the Pappy Van Winkle or Old Rip Van Winkle bourbons are aged less than 10 years, and the Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, which serves as the flagship brand, comes in 15, 20, and 23 year versions. The intent is to create a bourbon with enhanced flavors, as the liquor passes through the charred wood of the barrels and mellows, year after year, season after season.
Therefore, if you want to give your college graduate a bottle of fine bourbon as a graduation present, you can give him the 23-year and it will likely be older than he is (though as any college student will tell you, they’d rather have a new car than even the finest bourbon).
Also, note that all the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons come at a high proof, so they are stronger than the 80-proof bourbons that dot the shelves. Because they are also smoother, thanks to the extended aging process, they go down the gullet very easily. But if you overindulge, you may find yourself wobbling a bit when you finally stand up at the end of the evening.
And finally, it’s important to remember that despite the funny name and the label that suggests something a cut-rate distillery would churn out to sell its surplus booze for pennies (it’s basically an old guy smoking a cigar), this is a really good, premium bourbon. It’s perennially one of the highest-rated liquors on the planet.
Take the 20-years version of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, for example. It’s exceptionally smooth and warm bourbon, slightly sweet and assertive, a pleasure to savor. If you were trying to explain the joys of bourbon to someone with no experience with it, this is the bottle you would use to seal the argument. The 15-year batch is similarly excellent. In both cases, you can really tell the effects of the extended aging process. There are no harsh bursts or uneven flavor here, just a supple bourbon born from all of those years in the barrel.
This is not the bourbon for you if you like your drinks cut with something else – it’s more suited to being sipped neat. If you really want to put it on the rocks, nobody will arrest you or anything, but it’s a waste to mix it with coke or ginger ale.
The big drawback of Pappy Van Winkle is that it’s hard to find. There’s a listing on the company web site that tells you who the distributor is in your state, and even gives the contact information of stores that may carry it. However, that doesn’t mean they will have in stock. Pappy Van Winkle is no Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark – there aren’t a ton of bottles made every year and they aren’t a fixture on most shelves. You might have to call ahead to make sure there’s one available near you before you go on a field trip to the local liquor store.
Once you find a bottle, be prepared to whip out that Platinum American Express card or a big wad of cash. Pappy Van Winkle may taste incredible, but it isn’t a bargain. That’s particularly true of the 23-year Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, which will cost you well over $200 for 750ml. A 20-year bottle is a bargain in comparison – but will still run you over $100. The 15-year costs anywhere from $50-$70, depending on where you are.
At those prices, this is hardly an everyday bourbon for most of us. But on special occasions, when nothing but the best will do, Pappy Van Winkle has as good a claim as anyone to the crown of Best Bourbon in the World.
My favorite bar carries the 12, 15, 20, and 23 year old bottlings. I've tried both the 15 and 20 year old and recommend the 20 year old. At $17.00 for the 15 y.o. and $25.00 for the 20 y.o., they aren't going to be a regular. Still, the 20 y.o. was by far the best sipping whiskey I've come across. Gonna have to safe my pennies to try the 23 y.o. ~ Tom