Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20y

It’s currently Van Winkle season in bourbon land. That means that grown men are hunting for bottles of whiskey and doing everything they can to get them. In many ways, it’s like the Cabbage Patch craze of the early 80s – except it’s a longer-lasting craze at this point. Instead of downplaying things and telling everyone to be calm, I figured I’d just pour some gasoline on the fire. After all, if I say they aren’t that great, people will cynically assume I’m just trying to downplay interest so I can find some for myself.

The Van Winkle bourbons are some of the most sought-after bourbons on the market. They’ve rightfully gotten a collective reputation as some of the most consistently excellent bourbons on the market. Add to that reputation some extremely tight allocations (stores in California don’t get more than a handful of bottles, and some charge ridiculous prices) and you have the right elements for retail insanity.

Recently, the Van Winkle bourbons have been some of the most visible remaining sources of whiskey distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Stitzel-Weller ceased production in the early ’90s and now, 20 years later, some of their last remaining bourbon is being bottled as Pappy Van Winkle.

The Van Winkle bourbons are a wheat recipe, meaning they use wheat as the flavor grain instead of rye. They can have a more soft, less spicy quality than rye-recipe bourbons. The marquee expressions of Van Winkle are aged to 15 years and 20 years; there are also 10, 12 and 23 year old expressions.

Today I’m looking at the 20 year old expression, for no other reason than it was the first Van Winkle expression I ever tasted. Perhaps for that reason – or perhaps by its character – it’s remained my favorite.

The nose on the 20 year old is initially sweet, but presents some wood that is good and not overbearing. Then the clay and earthy notes pop up and dominate – this is a note very similar to the notes I’ve found on the bottom cut barrels of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak experimental releases. Providing some brightness on the nose, a faint trace of orange and cinnamon, as well as a faint dusting of white pepper.

The palate is all cherries initially. The earthiness and clay continues, as well as a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup is in there, and even a touch of bubblegum – think soft Bazooka bubblegum. There’s a gentle grainy character to it, and a medium wood presence that isn’t overbearing. A dash of white pepper on the palate provides a reasonable heat.

The finish is great – it’s light and smooth and lasting. There’s wood initially but the earthy notes dominate. Some brightness is again provided by oranges, and it’s all tied together with a bit of black cherry and bubblegum.

Pappy 20 is a great bourbon. I prefer it to other Van Winkles (and many bourbons) because everything tucks together nicely. Everything is in balance and it just works perfectly in unison. I often think bourbons of this character (earthy, bubblegummy, with cherries and wood) need to have something turned up. In this case, it’s so perfectly balanced that I don’t think I’d change a thing. Everything is well worn but not tired.

Now, all this said: is Pappy the perfect whiskey? No, I’ve liked others more. I admit they could be stunt bourbons or one-trick ponies. Pappy 20 is a refined southern gentleman, with polite manners and reminding you of a bygone era. That said, he’ll talk your ear off with some great stories. The mania surrounding Pappy can be off-putting (even I am less interested this year), but when you put it all aside and pour a glass, it’s hard to deny the greatness of this bourbon. It’s an easy A- for me.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20y – 45.2% ABV
 Initially sweet; some good, aged wood. Faint hint of clay and other earthiness. The faintest trace of oranges and cinnamon. A bit of white pepper – the faintest dusting.
Palate: A fair amount of cherries; the clay earthiness continues with a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup as well, and a touch of bubblegum. Gentle grains. Medium wood – present but not overbearing at all. A dash of white pepper heats things up gently.
Finish: Light and smooth; a bit of wood shows up here as the earthy notes dominate. The orange notes are nicely present on the high end, providing some brightness. The black cherry lies underneath it all, tying it together.
Comment: This is a great bourbon, of course. I personally prefer it to other Van Winkles because everything tucks together nicely. I often think bourbons need to have this profile turned up. In this case, this one is at the perfect intensity – everything’s got the edges rounded off, well worn but not tired, and in great proportions.
Rating: A-

4 thoughts on “Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20y”

  1. Have you noticed any differences from year to year? In my experience, the flavor profile can change a lot, which keeps me from pulling the trigger on these when I see them. However, there are so many other factors involved, like what mood I’m in, what I had for dinner, etc. that also change my perception…

    1. Ben, 

      Honestly, this is the first year I had the means (primarily time and space but partially financially) to get into Pappy. I’ve tried a few samples of older ones, but it’s never been a situation that could remotely be described as controlled. I’ve got a bottle of the 20 from the current allocation but I’ve been slowly moving through the open bottle of 20 I have from this spring. 

      The Single Oak releases have opened my eye to the influence of wood among other things and I’d expect some drift – not to mention the variables of mood, food, and so on. You’ll never have the same tree twice, and there may be variances in char that are slight, as well as warehouse placement… etc. 

      Food and mood are definitely two tough things to work around. There are nights that I want something but I’ve had something really strong so I avoid anything new/exotic because they’ll be blown away by whatever I had. My upcoming reviews in december are a definite mood thing: I had so much bourbon from August through November that I’m just ready for anything but bourbon. I guess I try not to force it. 

      I guess my thought is if it calls to you, do it… if nothing else it’s a one-time experience. I tend to think everything is either getting better or worse at any given time so change is expected. If whatever I’m presented with in the here and now is good enough, I’ll give it a shot. 

      1. Excellent points, and to extend that, who knows how much Julian’s own whims of taste or the kind of week/month he’s having play into each year’s selection, unless he actually bottled them years ago and is just releasing them a little at a time…

        I’m with you on the bourbons! Last weekend I did a little tasting of Old Weller Antique, Old Rip van Winkle 10/107, William Larue Weller 2010, and the Parker’s Heritage Collection 2010. I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t like any of them, though I usually adore the latter two and at least appreciate the first two. After writing down “bitter, harsh, like rubbing alcohol” for the Weller, I put down the pen and just grabbed a beer. No sense in writing down nonsense! I figure my palate was wrecked from an unknown source, and I suspect a bit of bourbon burnout.

        1. I think I’ve read that there were a couple years of the PVW 15 that were bottled in advance and parceled out. I’m not sure – while it’s fun to fan the flames a little bit, I must admit that I’m a bit oversaturated on the PVW mania this year and haven’t really been parsing everything that comes out of them or BT (like I did this spring).

          There are definitely off nights for the palate. I love the bourbon profile but just got burned out on it. It’s a good run of scotch whiskies ahead of me, and I’m also interspersing some beers as well. Beer has become my less-serious hobby on tasting… I’m just gradually moving through the craft selections slowly but surely and finding a lot I like and don’t like. Definitely have needed to step back from time to time (like now). I’m enjoying the return to scotch.

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