Whoever Makes The Juice, I Like It: Pappy Van Winkle 15

I’ve had a bottle of Pappy 15 that I’ve been nursing for ages. As it recently passed the halfway mark, it’s on the list to go finish sooner than later. I can’t lie: I definitely love Pappy. I just don’t love the hype and hysteria around it.

I’d been on the fence writing about this one for ages. I loathe the idea of contributing to any more hype around it, especially since the fall release is drawing ever nearer. Given that we’re near the point where the Stitzel-Weller distillate is going to be depleted, there’s also an unending amount of tiresome speculation and parsing of what Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkles have to say about what’s in the bottle. I’ve heard so many different versions at this point that I really assume it’s all bullshit and am not concerned particularly.

After all, I have been known to enjoy the occasional KBD product, and they play it pretty close to the vest about what goes into a given bottle. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter too much to me.

It should be said, this is not a review of the current releases that have been flagged as being the Buffalo Trace Pappy. This bottle was from a 2010 release, but has a 2009 bottling date on it. I will leave it to those who parse the words of the Van Winkles, Harlan Wheatley, and bottling codes to say definitively what is in this one. The last I’d checked, an ’09 bottling code was generally an indicator of Stitzel-Weller juice, but for all I know, it’s Evan Williams, a dash of Kool-Aid and a splash of V8.

As we all know by now, Pappy has a reputation of being the creme de la creme of bourbons. Surprisingly, it remains reasonably priced – no $200, aged at sea, stored in warehouses damaged by extreme climate, sprinkled with moon dust backstory on this one. It’s a 15 year old wheated bourbon made by the people whose name is synonymous with long-aged wheated bourbon.

There’s tons of wheated bourbon out there. There’s tons of old bourbon out there. Why should you try and get a pour of Pappy at some point?

Regardless of what its provenance is, Pappy is a bottle that has a phenomenally well-executed bourbon in it.  While I prefer the 20, which to me may be the best wheater ever produced, the 15 is ridiculously good. If you’re not familiar with wheaters, you’ll note a lack of the more peppery spice. That doesn’t mean it’s just flabby caramel notes; the wood can impart spice of its own (as Scotch & Ice Cream’s sadly now-defunct Single Oak Project coverage discovered with the #3/#4 char experiment). Rye has a distinct spice to it, and wheat has been described as not being uniquely spiced on its own, but rather being notable for its absence of spice.

The extra age ensures that everything the wood has to offer is on display. Past this point and it becomes distinctly woody. The 20 is not to everyone’s taste; as a fan of tannic flavors and its unique spice, I prefer it. However, after 15 years you definitely move into a distinct style regardless of the mashbill.

The nose on this Pappy is delightfully sweet, revealing maple syrup and a light oakiness, with a hint of warm brown sugar (think of brown sugar on oatmeal). There’s a light hint of nutmeg and some cinnamon, as well as some pleasing black tea tannins.

The palate is great. A rich, almost syrupy mouthfeel; sweet from the start and with a nice wood influence. I tasted a little corn, but that was against the major notes of maple syrup and brown sugar, again with some cinnamon heat in the background.

The finish is initially warm with black tea tannins, but it cools to leave a more flavorful cinnamon note, gentle oak influence, more maple and brown sugar. There’s some light black cherry on the finish, but it’s fairly tucked away.

There really is nothing not to like about Pappy 15, unless you recoil in horror at woody notes in your whiskey or you’re not a fan of tannic wines or black tea. Fortunately, if that’s your preference, the pressure on stocks is towards ever younger releases currently and you might not have a problem.

For those who covet a taste of Pappy Van Winkle, my best advice is to try and get to a solid club or restaurant that isn’t necessarily known as a “whisky spot” (I wouldn’t even waste the time asking at The Daily Pint in LA). I’ve had more regular encounters with Pappy at places like Son of a Gun near the Beverly Center, the Soho House in West Hollywood, and (of all places) Crossroads BBQ/Bubba Diego’s on Sepulveda. Basically, look for newer restaurants where there’s a definite desire to get the right credibility with a spirits list, or money’s-no-object gathering places.

You can get this if you cultivate a relationship with your local spirits buyer; even then, there is likely a waiting list that’s got dozens of names ahead. You might get lucky and find it on a shelf (but that’s incredibly unlikely) – if you do, don’t debate yourself, just buy a bottle. $70 may be more than you spend, but it’s only on shelves for a short while at this point.

There’s not a lot like this particular wheater. Buffalo Trace’s offerings are a little more overtly woody and have a more prominent black cherry note to them. Maker’s is much younger; Jefferson’s 17/18 taste more woody to me, and Rebel Yell is garbage.

It’s worth a try, but as I say and continue to believe: A-level whiskies are always coming. Don’t fret if you can’t find this.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, 15y, 53.5% ABV
Nose: 
Delightfully sweet – maple syrup, light oakiness, a hint of warm brown sugar. Light hint of nutmeg and some cinnamon. Pleasing black tea tannins.
Palate:  Rich, syrupy mouthfeel. Sweet at entry with some nice wood; a little gentle corn, tons of maple syrup, brown sugar, and a little cinnamon heat in the background.
Finish:  Warm initially with some black tea tannins, cooling leaving cinnamon, nice gentle oak influence, and more maple syrup and brown sugar. A hint of black cherry on the finish but tucked away.
Comment:  There’s nothing not to like here.
Rating: A-

6 thoughts on “Whoever Makes The Juice, I Like It: Pappy Van Winkle 15”

  1. I remember (like 4 years ago) when you could still find Van Winkle products on the shelf at Bevmo! That being said over the summer I had the opportunity to taste the entire current range (10-23, and even the Rye) and its all pretty good. The real standout for me is still the 20 — it really seems to be the apex of both flavor and balance for the line.

    1. Heck, I remember seeing Pappy on the shelves at my local one even two years ago. 20 is definitely my favorite; the 23 I’ve had wasn’t really my thing (though I’ve heard there’s substantial batch variation on it). I also enjoyed the rye greatly.

  2. I’ve picked up three bottles from Bevmo in the last year. Two 15s and a 20. Drop in, start a conversation with the person in charge and have them call you when it comes in. Avoid the trendy stores with long wait lists.

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