Tag Archives: Pappy Van Winkle

Taking The Bait – Git Offa Our Property, Parker!

This morning, K&L’s David Driscoll posted noted wine reviewer/professional Napa douchebag Robert Parker’s authoritative stance on bourbon as he sees it. I’ll give Driscoll the link mojo that he doesn’t need, because I saw it on his site first.

I don’t drink wine, generally speaking. It doesn’t take long before it disagrees with me and I’m in a generally bad state. I have to resort to ultra-bland food for weeks afterwards. Who knows what causes it — I don’t particularly care, because it’s easily avoided by rarely drinking wine. As a result, Robert Parker hasn’t been on my radar for much, other than as an emblem of the whole wine scene that I think is ridiculous. In my wine-drinking life I was a fan of Sonoma and Italy; I always thought Napa was kind of the sell-out alternative.

Last fall I went to Napa and while I did have some truly outstanding wine, I was mainly struck by the sheer douchebag factor of guys in their 60s tooling around in Porsches with chinos and checked oxfords dangerously unbuttoned at the collar, made safe by the addition of a blazer. Perhaps a cable-knit pastel sweater was draped over their shoulders with an artfully-tied knot designed to look careless and casual, while saying all the while “I sweated the hell out of this knot”. On more than one occasion I heard a deferential and reverent mention to what Parker thought – as if his taste is more relevant than your own.

Parker has decided to put his loafer-clad foot in our turf and has deigned to tell the masses what bourbon everyone should be drinking. In an expected quiet condescension, Parker tries to connect with the everyman by explaining how he got interested in bourbon via a TV show. How great! It wasn’t the usual expected avenues of Bourdain/Chang, Treme or Parks & Rec, but Justified. In his words:

… the bourbon drinking antics of the many violent episodes of this sensational series that takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky are a prominent sideshow.

I’d discuss how his writing in that sentence alone offends my sensibilities, but who cares: Parker has made his living writing, I make my living doing other shit in spite of my degree in journalism. The Beat fan in me, however, cringes at the dissociated, cerebral and lifeless sound of what he’s written.

A little research had me on the chase for Pappy Van Winkle, the most difficult alcoholic beverage to find in the United States. If you think I’m joking, try and find a bottle, especially of the 20-year-old and the very rare 23-year-old bourbon. They are much more difficult to find than esoteric and limited production French wines such as Romanée-Conti, Montrachet or Petrus.

The little research that Parker mentions seems to have been typing into Google, “what is the best bourbon”. Result #2? Another Wall Street Journal hack-job telling us that we need to absolutely shit ourselves over Pappy Van Winkle, because, like, it’s hard to find. We see in that article name-checks of Buffalo Trace and its brands, highlighting Pappy prominently; Willett and Black Maple Hill also rate a mention.

Apparently the wine world regards scarcity as a measure of quality. I hope Parker very quickly clues into the rich-asshole-targeted Dalmore Constellation Collection; those are extremely limited and they must be fantastic since they’re so hard to find. (Have you ever seen one in the stores?) Also, Brechin isn’t common. You ought to stock up on that shit post-haste. It closed 30 years ago! BUY NOW.

Parker goes on to discuss how Bourbon, despite what all the Schwab branch office guys are predisposed to think, is actually perhaps worth giving some attention to. Apparently Johnny Reb’s firewater made from mostly corn is worth consideration, as long as it’s rare and priced highly.

Parker’s first set of reviews are a tedious exercise in identifying virtually every hyped whisky of the last half-decade or so, with a few “surprising” and “everyman” picks thrown in to make the list relatable. You can’t get in the good graces making aspirational lists of booze most people will never see unless you stooge for a few readily accessible whiskies, I’m sure.

I recognize that palates are unique and we all have our unique tastes. I’m not going to point fingers in general at his scores; we all have our preferences. However, there are themes that emerge – Parker seems to fall for the common trap that “older is better” and rates Pappy 23 a 100%, tacitly blessing all of the fanboy bullshit that surrounds Pappy, age in general, and the overrated mythos of Stitzel-Weller. Parker also tells us in his notes that “top bourbons” should never be “diluted or served on ice”. Oh, really?

Hey Bob, did you know that Van Winkle 23 is about 47% ABV which is considered “towards the low end of ABV” in our scale? Any clue that people regularly will drop a little ice or water in their blisteringly-high-proof single cask scotches or bourbons and find a massive explosion in flavor? It’s extremely common, and if you’d spent any time whatsoever learning the culture and truly tasting whisky and learning about the spirit, you’d know that it’s not at all taboo in those cases. Instead, you’ve taken what amounts to a five-minute noob-comment-driven crash-course on Reddit and are now spreading it to a bunch of uninterested assholes as gospel truth. Why don’t you hop on the “bourbon can only be made in Kentucky” bandwagon while you’re at it? It’s as tone-deaf and factually ignorant as what you professed. Maybe you saw Paterson saying he’d “kill you” for putting ice or water in your whisky, but that’s because Paterson’s whiskies are already pretty fucking watery unless you’re spending $2000.00 for a cask strength bottle.

Parker’s list includes a ton of random Buffalo Trace including experimental releases that have been off the shelf for two years. For a guy who seems to want to portray himself as Joe Average Guy who just happened to get into this stuff and hunted it down, he’s managed to find some bottles that a lot of bourbon lovers would beat each other up for. There’s an abundance of KBD and Buffalo Trace on his list. Worse still, in his discussion of KBD (or Bulleit), he seems to be utterly ignorant of the concept of independent bottling. He rates various KBDs confidently, giving Noah’s Mill an assertive 96 – a whisky I myself know to have incredible batch variation. Hey, it’s possible, but you need to note which batch that was because they vary so wildly.

Another tiresome thread is a seeming ignorance of what’s on the bottle at times, compared with a slavish devotion to the bottle itself. Frequently he mentions something about the bottle, as if the EH Taylor bottle conveys special taste to the contents, while completely missing big-picture stuff about the whisky contained inside. His Four Roses 2012 Limited Small Batch (highly regarded among those in the know) squeaks by with a borderline score of 92, and he states, “I assume this has been aged in oak a lot longer than the basic Four Roses, and that shows in its softness.” Oh, I don’t know, Bob, what do you think? The recipe is on the back of the bottle calling out years, this information could be Googled in about ten seconds — but fuck Google, that’s not Robert Parker’s style. The inimitable Parkerian palate has detected that it might be older, so we’ll state it as fact. Yeah, it’s older. Notice those tannins? That black tea quality? More than a little bit of wood? Pretty clear sign of age and cask influence. But palate aside, that bit on the bottle that mentions a 17 year old whiskey on the back should have tipped off your older-is-better palate (given your rating for Evan Williams 23).

There’s so much stuff that Parker mentions that could easily be answered with the most perfunctory of google searches, but instead, we’re left to accept his pronouncements as truth handed down from the heavens. Parker’s Heritage 2012 – “Apparently this is no longer being produced”. Yes, that’s right, Bob. Five minutes of searching even by an assistant would have turned this up. Woodford tips its hand to Labrot and Graham as the producer. It’s made by Brown-Forman, Bob, the people who make Jack Daniels. That’s probably far too declasse for the silver Boxster and salmon-sweater crowd, but it’s the truth.

Sure, I’ve taken the bait. The know-it-all wine critic has decided he is the arbiter of taste and quality on the American whisky scene while seemingly managing to not do even the most basic bit of research and self-education on the subject. We all suffer as a result: every halfway decent whiskey will be name-checked by him and the joyless farts who swan about at wine tastings will now be regurgitating Parker’s notes with no insight and nothing to contribute to the discussion.

It’ll be a great day for the distilleries, especially Buffalo Trace. Tons of dumb money coming in, flooding the market with cash, and buying up things we took for granted. Most of these guys will probably store these bottles horizontally, which is perhaps some small consolation – speculators, take note: store your whiskey UPRIGHT. It’s great for guys who run shops, it’s great for distillers who want to wow with a thousand labels sourced from a handful of mashbills or sourced whiskey. For the average consumer, it’s yet another crowding out at the hands of shameless trend-hoppers who saw this on TV, will make no attempt to understand the culture or the spirit, but instead will blindly make pronouncements in the absence of knowledge.

The end result of this for me is to call into question the worth of Parker’s wine ratings, given how spotty his foray into whisky has been. However, again, I don’t care much: I’ll continue to pull against my bunkered stock of whisky and private barrel buys that Parker will never have access to. I only hope he doesn’t wreck the market for American whiskey as well. Surely this will attract the “investment-grade-whisky” speculative douchebag market.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on Parker.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle 23y, Bottle C8752. 47.8% ABV
Nose: 
Strong presence of old wood, light aroma of dark fruits. Strong alcohol initially. Soft sweetness. Alcohol eases in a few minutes and reveals toffee scent with a hint of caramel.
Palate:  Initially dry mouthfeel, warming, strong wood, dark fruits, pleasing sweetness like cotton candy or bubblegum but also vanilla. An evolving trace of caramel and toffee that never become too huge. Wood stays somewhat bitter but does not overpower.
Finish:  Vaguely bubblegummy and toffee sweetness and again wood. Balanced, some traces of grain flavor. Medium finish.
Comment: This is not the equal of the 20y or even the ORVW 23y selection. It’s out of balance and overoaked.
Rating:  B-

Finding The Heir To Pappy

Everyone’s Van Winkled out this year, and it’s not likely to get any better. What options do we have out there?

To be clear, this isn’t a search for the next best wheated bourbon. I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of the question of what we should turn our focus to in the absence of any sort of reasonable shot of finding Pappy Van Winkle. What’s the absolute best bourbon out there on the shelves that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding?

To make sure one particular tasting session doesn’t sway the results, there are a few criteria we’re going to be judging this one on.

Appropriately “Bourbon-y” Name: “Pappy Van Winkle” is practically the picture of southern bonhomie. “Pappy” as a word alone just works. Append it to anything and you’d swear it was from south of the Mason-Dixon line. For example, “Pappy’s Village Vanguard.” Holy crap, hard swinging bebop in an Atlanta speakeasy. Done deal.

Availability: If it’s as hard to find as Pappy, then just buy Pappy.

Rugged, Cool Persona: Look, you may love Evan Williams Wild Honey. Fact is, it’s just not going to pass muster. Honey undermines the entire thing. Whiskey is as much the wild west as it is the deep south, and Lee Van Cleef would have shot Blondie dead if he found out he was sucking down some artificial-cherry-flavored monstrosity. And rightfully so.

Smooth, Easy Drinking Character: While I’m not a fan of lionizing “smoothness” as the end-all, be-all desirable trait in a bourbon, the simple fact is that Van Winkle is tremendously easy drinking. If it’s not agreeably drinkable all night either neat or on the rocks, it’s just not going to be a worthy heir.

Unlikely To Be Usurped By Foodies: I love a good meal as much as the next guy. But let’s not kid ourselves, the celeb chefs helped drive the mystique of Pappy, which got zillions of foodies interested, which no doubt got the New York Post writing about it. Ideally this will either fly under the radar or just not work for that crowd.

Finally, we will of course score with an eye to taste because that can’t be ignored.

Our whiskeys of choice:

George T. Stagg – We’ll use the 2012 edition of this perennial favorite for this article. The 70-something-percent bruiser routinely tops aficionados’ lists of best whiskeys of the year. Is it time to trade wheat in for rye?

Rock Hill Farms – A 100 proof rye recipe bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Maybe you’ve tried it. Maybe not. We’ll see how it stacks up.

Baker’s – Not rare by any stretch, a 107 proof rye recipe from Beam.

Basil Hayden’s - Relatively easy to find, one of the lesser-heralded Beam small batch whiskeys at 80 proof.

Elmer T. Lee – a beloved (by those in the know) 90 proof Buffalo Trace sipper.

Old Weller Antique 107 – Another 107 proof entry, from Buffalo Trace and a wheater. If you aged this, theoretically it could become Pappy.

Jim Beam White Label - Utterly available. Maybe the love of our lives has been right in front of our eyes in this 80 proofer.

That’s more than enough entries. Let’s begin the competition!

Appropriately Bourbon-y Name

We’re looking for a certain rustic charm, something that suggests classic Americana, southern tradition, but a certain aged wisdom. By the numbers:

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Middle of the road. I don’t know Baker, but it does make you think of apple pie, which is pretty darned American. However, there’s no big Southern call to arms. 6
Basil Hayden’s Not quite there. It evokes Basil Rathbone, who is certainly old-timey but decidedly not American. If you don’t think of him, then you’re probably thinking of Italian herbs, which clearly means this is a miss.  4
Elmer T. Lee Now we’re getting somewhere. Elmer probably word-associates to “Fudd” for many of us, that works. Lee, of course – the General Lee or Robert E. Lee – if your mind goes to Hazzard County or history class, we’re in the deep south. High marks. 7
Jim Beam White Label  It’s hard to dock the name “Beam” any points, and Kid Rock’s recent association has certainly bolstered attempts to reclaim the South, but – wait a minute — Kid Rock is from Michigan! This really is like “Johnnie Walker”: A lot of people don’t even know it’s scotch. Middle of the road.  6
George T. Stagg (2012) An undeniable, huntin’ kind of name, this brings to mind camping, deers, elaborate outdoorsy designs burned into leather belts, and so on. What goes better with cowboys than whiskey? I don’t know what.  9
Old Weller Antique This isn’t bad. “Old Weller” both sounds old and has history; you might also mishear it as Old Yeller. It could be improved by dropping the “d” (“Ol’ Weller”) or getting a little more colloquial – “Ol’ Timey” – or moonshiney-misspelled (“Anteek”). “Weller’s Ol’ Timey Whiskey” would have scored higher. 8
Rock Hill Farms Sounds like a premium lunchmeat. “Rock Hill Farms Black Forest Ham” sounds more accurate than “Rock Hill Farms Kentucky Straight Bourbon”.  2

AVAILABILITY

What good is the heir to Pappy if it’s just as hard to find as Pappy?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Reasonably easy; you won’t necessarily find this at a convenience store but certainly anything decently stocked (BevMo, BevWa, K&L, Wally’s, Wine House, etc) is going to have it.  7
Basil Hayden’s A little less common than Baker’s but still roughly as available. Rumor has it that this may be dropping the age statement which could contribute to the mid-grade challenge of finding it.  6
Elmer T. Lee Slightly less common than Basil Hayden’s and occasionally off the shelves; mentioned as a shortage possibility by David Driscoll earlier this year. Perhaps the word of this one is getting out there. 5
Jim Beam White Label  I think McDonald’s and Starbucks now sells this stuff. Ubiquitous.  10
George T. Stagg (2012) I’ll trade you 180 hen’s teeth for your Stagg. 1
Old Weller Antique Again, reasonably common anywhere Buffalo Trace is sold. This would generally be in the class of a Baker’s.   7
Rock Hill Farms Roughly as common as Elmer T. Lee – one of those secondary brands that is available when there’s shelf space to spare. Frequently crowded out by an undistinguished, overpriced micro.  5

Rugged, cool persona

Them good ol’ boys drank whiskey and rye. They didn’t have themselves none of those city-slicker artisan whiskeys with labels designed by guys in San Francisco who were busy checking Twitter. We may love SoMa, but Pappy can’t be replaced by some dude giving you an elevator pitch for his startup before he hops on his bike to go back to the Mission.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Familiar. “Who brought this whiskey?” “Oh, it’s Baker’s – you should ask him where he got it.” Also, baking is a hands-on job, so I’ll give it that. However, the name doesn’t involve cowboys, meat, fistfights, wranglin’ cattle, or anything like that.  6
Basil Hayden’s Too busy playing the grand piano to be evaluated.  2
Elmer T. Lee He may be an older dude, but ol’ Elmer could have kicked your ass back in his day. This is spiritual kin to Pappy. Old Grand-Dad would have scored similarly but that particular old dude’s deeds weren’t heroic enough for us to remember his name. Now Elmer just hangs out on the porch, tells you stories about the war, and makes cultural references that predate you by a couple decades. Southern cool. 8
Jim Beam White Label Rugged for sure; Jim Beam would fistfight a riding lawnmower and win. However, Jim Beam is a kissing cousin of tequila: things might just get a little out of control when he shows up to the party. Rugged, yes. Cool in the Paul Newman sense? Maybe not so much. 7
George T. Stagg (2012) With a name like George T. Stagg you’re pretty much destined to win any “rugged, cool” competition.  9
Old Weller Antique Not bad. This is what the younger guys go for when they want to seem older, but not disrespectful to tradition. Rough and tumble but with some refinement – that’s what we’re looking for.  6
Rock Hill Farms Bristol Farms, Rock Hill Farms. Overpriced, slightly upscale grocery stores with small selections and smaller parking lots. About as ruggedly cool as an NPR pledge drive. 2

SMOOTH, EASY DRINKING CHARACTER

Again, the hunt is for something that’s as easily quaffable as Pappy. Ultra high proof may be enjoyable on its own, but it’s not something that fits the Pappy mold. Which of our bourbons scratches that itch?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Runs a bit hot. If you’ve developed your manly bourbon drinking skills, this should be no real challenge though. Impress your friends as they choke on their weak 80 proof drinks.  5
Basil Hayden’s  More “watery” than “smooth”. Has that kind of weird disagreeable character that ruins Irish whisky as well.  6
Elmer T. Lee  Sweet and rich. This is right down the line of “easy drinking”. However, as a single barrel with no real information on the label, you might get stung by an odd barrel.  8
Jim Beam White Label  The secret weapon of drinkability. Identifiably bourbon, no strange grain, massive batches for consistency, but low proof enough that you can drink all night. It may not taste like much, but it’s easy to drink.   7
George T. Stagg (2012) About as “smooth and easy drinking” as a salad of cinnamon and fire ants. Hellaciously good but even the most hardcore of bourbon lovers will admit to giving this one a splash of water.  4
Old Weller Antique  Given that this stuff eventually becomes Pappy, it should be no surprise that it’s an easy sipper. Like Baker’s, can run a touch warm.  7
Rock Hill Farms No! At least the barrel I tried was harsh and tannic – barrel variance here may kill you if you’re trying to look cool and get a mouth full of black tea and wood shavings.  4

UNLIKELY TO BE USURPED BY FOODIES

There’s no doubt that the shortage of Pappy has been in part driven by the embrace it’s received from celebrity chefs and foodies outside of the bourbon circle. More buyers on rare stuff means less to go around, which potentially puts any of these in the same crunch as Pappy. Let’s check.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Second fiddle to Booker’s, lacks glamour in its price tier – outgunned by the more popular Woodford and Maker’s options. Probably safe for some time.  6
Basil Hayden’s Mentioned in passing in a food diary by Alton Brown, though not praised or reviled. Uncomfortably close but safe. Seems to have more traction among the cocktails crowd than epicures.  5
Elmer T. Lee Quietly under-appreciated though spoken of highly when mentioned in foodie contexts.  7
Jim Beam White Label Broadly safe. Yes, a likely pick for more honest-to-god homestyle cooking when making bbq, but when elevated to higher cuisine, Jim stays home and his older brother Knob Creek or that Woodford guy gets the call.  8
George T. Stagg (2012)  Clearly the next big thing.  3
Old Weller Antique DISQUALIFIED.
Mentioned by David Chang in the Fallon video. Technically he’s holding a W.L. Weller, but he’s talking Old Weller. Having made the cut to be in the video, it’s already in dangerous territory.
 0
Rock Hill Farms Tumbleweed. Maybe safer than even Jim Beam white.  9


TASTING

This is where the rubber meets the road. While we may be tired of the Pappy hype, it’s undeniable that its reputation has been earned thanks to the consistently great taste it delivers. In this set, we will assign numeric scores to the letter grades – F is 0, D- is one, and so on, up to A+ being worth 12 points.

Baker’s 7y 53.5% ABV
Nose:
  A light sweetness, with a good hearty dose of wood, some caramel and a touch of vanilla. Familiar beam sugary notes come through after a minute. Gets a bit thin and slightly peppery. Softens with a bit of time in the glass.
Palate:  A little cinnamon up front, some heat on the lips. Lots of caramel, some wood, a very little bit of dried orange. Slightly leathery and a hint of tobacco.
Finish:  A little kick of black cherries upfront, some vanilla behind and then a little light pepper.
Comment: This drinks a little hotter than it should, but it’s one of the best Beam products I’ve had. Nice caramel body.
Rating: B-

Basil Hayden’s 8y 40% ABV
Nose:
  Slightly watery and thin upfront; caramel and a reasonable amount of wood. Lightly peppery, a touch of orange. A fair amount of vanilla.
Palate:  Thin on the palate, leads slightly sweet with a little bit of caramel and sugar; a little hint of orange. A little slight sour corn note that is more classic bourbon than new make. A little wood but it’s kind of a waterlogged oaky note. Vanilla fairly abundant.
Finish:  Thin, a little cinnamon heat but it’s kind of quick. Surprising heat given the mellowness of the rest of it. A slightly nutty note late. A touch of vanilla, the faintest hint of black cherry.
Comment:  This is just kind of bland and OK. Decent if you’re maybe trying to graduate to bolder bourbons and you’ve been drowning bottom-shelf stuff in cola.
Rating: C+

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light and sweet. Caramel upfront with a faintly floral and piney rye presence. a very faint touch of black cherries, lightly dry tobacco, a touch of black pepper. 
Palate: 
Light but not entirely thin. Caramel and vanilla lead with some gentle wood influence behind; a light dose of oranges and a faint touch of orange zest. Suggestions of cinnamon, a hint of black cherry and a faint bubblegum.
Finish: 
Black cherry surprisingly leads with an unexpected heat. Goes back towards caramel and vanilla with a faint hint of pineapple (pushing slightly towards Juicy Fruit gum). Gentle wood influence. 
Comment: 
A nice easy sipper. Very well done with some good dimension. It’s possible that if some of the edges were sanded down this could be a B+. 
Rating:  
B

Jim Beam White Label 40% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly spiced with a very faint touch of nutmeg, pepper, mainly a light bit of rye. Some caramel. Thin, a bit watery, some more straight alcohol notes on the nose.
Palate:  A light trace of wood, corn sweetness, slightly vegetal. Caramel creeping in at the edges. A bit of the Beam raw sugar taste and some building heat. Watery and light.
Finish:  A bit hot, slightly peppery, with a little show of wood. Again a slightly sour presence. Faintly doughy.
Comment:  Watery and unremarkable. Fine for mixing, mostly unobjectionable neat but an awful boring pour.
Rating: C+

George T. Stagg 2012
Nose: 
Familiar Stagg nose – tons of caramel and a good bit of wood with a very heavy dose of cinnamon on top. Black cherries,  some toffee. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel, fairly caramel heavy with a touch of corn sweetness, seasoned wood, cinnamon, and chili oil. Plenty of heat!
Finish: 
Black cherries and black tea lead, wood right behind. Quite woody and a touch tannic. Caramel and corn. Lasts and lasts. 
Comment: 
Sweeter than some previous Staggs with lots of caramel, but an unexpected tannic element this year. Good but not as gloriously complex as in the past. Water, unlike the past, does this no favors at all. 
Rating:
B+

Old Weller Antique (Private Barrel Selection) 53.5%
Nose:
Slightly dry with wood and black pepper; a light but dry hint of black cherries on the back end. Almost medicinal, like a Luden’s cough drop. Lightly vegetal – slight corn husks and turbinado; a hint of romaine heart and celery root. Light cinnamon.
Palate:  Light in the mouth, leading immediately with the black cherry note but then the cinnamon takes over with some heat which increases. Some light corn; a boozy buttercream character balanced with some raw sugar.
Finish:  Black cherry, dry wood. Corn sweetness. Lasting and resolves to wood.
Comment:  This is just a touch drier than I prefer but nice. An interesting nose – though it’s got a strongly vegetal component, it’s not necessarily new-makey or funky… it just has that character.
Rating: B

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel 50% ABV
Nose:
  Dry and slightly piney, lightly peppery, heavy rye influence. Woody and slightly funky. Dark, dark, dark black cherry note. After a bit, a slightly caramel top note but it’s watery and blown out by the tannin bomb.
Palate:  Mouth coating, a little vanilla upfront but then dominated by that almost oppressive wood and rye note with a piney kick. Fairly tannic.
Finish:  Warm upfront, fades – black tea in huge measure initially, then wood, pepper, rye, a touch of black cherry. Slightly astringent.
Comment:  I’ve seen more positive reviews elsewhere and since this is a single barrel product there will obviously be a large amount of variation. However, this one absolutely doesn’t do it for me.
Rating: C-

 

Name Available Rugged? Smooth Foodies Taste Total
Bakers 6 7 6 5 6 7 37
Basil Hayden’s 4 6 2 6 5 6 29
Elmer T. Lee 7 5 8 8 7 8 43
Jim Beam White Label 6 10 7 7 8 6 44
George T. Stagg 9 1 9 4 3 9 35
Old Weller Antique 8 7 6 7 0 8 36
Rock Hill Farms 2 5 2 4 9 4 26

As we can see, Rock Hill Farms shouldn’t have been in this race. Basil Hayden’s also didn’t really know what it was doing with itself. Old Weller and Baker’s made respectable showings, and George T. Stagg was right there with them (and likely could have won had it been an overall bourbon excellence comparison). That left us with two to battle it out for the top spot. Elmer T. Lee made a respectable showing, but we’re clearly left with one conclusion:

If you like Pappy Van Winkle but don’t want to deal with the cost or hassle, the next bourbon you should be drinking, without a doubt, is Jim Beam White Label.

0

And on that bombshell, goodnight!

 

Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!

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-

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
Nose:
 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-