Time to talk about the sensational Van Winkle bourbon vertical at Brown’s, Saint Martin’s Lane, London on 21st February 2017, hosted by Preston Van Winkle, fourth generation member of the Van Winkle family. All tickets for the event were sold out in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ 17 seconds [via the TWE website], with approximately 80-100 attendees.
Aside from the rich history regarding the family business [which has been documented at volume over the years], Preston reminded us that US regulation states that no colour or additives are permitted in the making of bourbon=whiskey, so the colour you see is all from the spirit and then cask – and what a colour these bourbon’s exude.
Van Winkle 10yo  ‘107 proof’ 53.5% WB86.89
- N: Clean, varnished, corn grain nose. Not overly sweet, sweet>medicinal with toasted pancakes and rich clean sugars. Little-to-no spice [which is deliberate].
- T: Caramel, lots of maple syrup and a little acute bitter – again which Buffalo Trace candidly aim to subdue. It’s initially more peppery with only a little water before it settles down. Then it’s like a dry honey with a delicious chew for the mouth to churn over. Despite the strength, it’s so inviting.
- F: Delicious vanilla, cream soda, a little dried lime, dried raisins/prunes and light sour cream. Light sweet tannins at the death.
- C: Lovely, let’s drink! It really is delicious, I could drink so much of this, if it weren’t £500 a bottle [Feb ’17]. The clarity of this 10yo is really something, without it ever coming close to being over-excitable nor over-active like so many young, modern, engineered [NAS] whisky’s.
Old Rip Van Winkle 12yo Special Reserve Lot ‘B’  45.2% WB88.40
- N: Similar in character to the 10yo but more toasted with more nutty cask char notes and a little dustiness – oh, and it’s so, so accessible.
- T: Fabulous like the 10yo but the extra maturation really rounds this 12yo off. Less bitter notes than the 10yo, disguised by deeper syrup notes moving to treacle, but with a thin [and desirable] oiliness on the mouthfeel also. [So maturation does drive flavour after all!]
- F: Water adds a fresher, cooler edge [thanks Dawn], before a darker caramel cream finish with hazelnut kernels.
- C: Excellent. Those extra couple of years really pay off in depth and richness, and it really is a matter of two or three years – at the most. I find both the 10 and the 12yo equally excelling.
Scores the same, 88 points.
Pappy Van Winkle 15yo Family Reserve  53.5% WB86.33 WF86
- N: More woody & nutty with suggestions of TTR and a dreamy [better than my childhood summer reminiscences], and chunky vanilla ice-cream slice in a wafer biscuit, – who needs Wall’s?
- T: Woody with more vibrant fruits therefore, more in keeping with some other Buffalo Trace brands [eg. G.T. Stagg]. Even at 53.5% there’s no problem drinking this neat though it doesn’t at all lack boldness.
- F: Incredibly elegant finish on wood, vanilla and fresh cinnamon – those three notes keep on swirling.
- C: ‘Bold yet elegant’ seems the consensus. There’s more depth here than both the 10 and the 12yo so one more mark at least, maybe two, yep. [After all five Winkles, this stood up to them all, [nearly] equal with the 23yo.
Pappy Van Winkle 20yo Family Reserve  45.2% WB89.77 WF89
- N: We’re deep into fungal oak territory now like super old cognac, alongside huge mineral notes, some loft insulation [a new one for me], and brandy fruits/cognac fruits.
- T: Same again, huge wood tannins, fungal dust, heavy dry dunnage [slightly moist], and heavy dried fruit tannins.
- F: Woody sweet dry vanilla ice-cream. This dense whiskey stains the palate meaning no less than a long finish, a dessert finish no less with more ‘crazy’ old yet vibrant fruits. The finish is quite something, one that requires much attention.
- C: Amazing age-old bourbon, though the wood is really dominant at first, way past balanced for me – much like that super fungal 1850’s Cognac from Godet LINK.
Initially scores 85 but with that kind of finish it’s more 87.
That 20yo is from 100% Buffalo Trace stock but the 23yo is [still] from Stitzel-Weller.
Pappy Van Winkle 23yo Family Reserve  47.8% WB89.67
- N: So, this is STILL the real deal, from Stitzel-Weller stock retained way back in the early 1990’s. This, like the 20yo is woody too [of course], yet it’s perfectly woody, integrated into the whole. The sweet nutty wood is presented at full power, yet is beautifully relaxed also. Bottling at high strength is [once again] to be commended, giving those mature flavour molecules the best conditions to flourish. Of course, there would be more bottles spread around if this and the Van Winkle range were presented at 40%, and not disregarding potential extra revenue, but good for them for maintaining product excellence at all costs [faith in the world, restored]. Interesting notes of Fimo and nail polish undercoat pass by.
- T: That’s the ticket, heavy dry-sweet with dry raspberry coulis, more Fimo and cereal fruit bars to die for. The notes continue to change, to swirl and rotate.
- F: More dry ice-cream raspberry coulis with a relaxed cool (thanks again Dawn), and dreamy chewing gum – magical Willy Wonka styley.
- C: Spot on, amazing, fabulous bourbon, equal to, yet so completely different [era], to some equally amazing and recent Buffalo Trace [rye] whiskey’s such as George T Stagg & T. H. Handy for example. But if you think the Stagg is pricey, this 23yo is currently around $2400 [Feb ’17].
I asked Preston about the hypothetical possibility of the Van Winkle family buying back the old distillery from Diageo, something that must have been discussed in detail around the family table prior to their business’s take-over by Buffalo Trace in the late 1990’s [Preston]. His short answer – if he won the lottery he’d want to buy it back without hesitation. He had no naive romance about ever running the distillery the way it was mind or ever being able to replicate the past – with the master distiller long gone and the stills now make-shift pigeon coups. That an the estimated $10 million that would be required just to remove the asbestos, a figure Preston seemed to recall with ease, suggesting costs had [of course] been calculated however loosely – and who can blame him. It’s all academic anyhow, but one then wonders why Diageo themselves don’t get the old distillery back on its feet?
Barring yet another surprise stock discovery, Preston believes next autumn’s  release of the SW 23yo and a special one-off batch of a 25yo decanter bottling will be the last of the Stitzel-Weller stock. From then on, Pappy is 100% Buffalo Trace bourbon, which is no bad thing given the quality of BT’s current expressions of Pappy, Rip and other brands. It certainly is now an end of an era for SW Pappy Van Winkle, but also the birth of a new one.
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