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:
|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|
What good is the heir to Pappy if it’s just as hard to find as Pappy?
|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.
|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?
|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.
|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.
|Rock Hill Farms||Tumbleweed. Maybe safer than even Jim Beam white.||9|
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.
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.
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+.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.
And on that bombshell, goodnight!
Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!