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Where does Pappy Van Winkle come from?

There’s no hiding that I’m a big Pappy Van Winkle fan. I realize as someone that does whiskey reviews that’s not exactly the right thing to say. However, I’m a fan of whiskey first and foremost. That’s why I do what I do – I love whiskey. And for me the Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old is a bourbon masterclass – intensely rich, complex, and walking the line between the elegance of age while still possessing the power and vigor of youth.

Julian Van Winkle is the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) distillery. He is a busy guy and a part of a two man operation. I’ve been trying to hook up an interview with him but have been unsuccessful thus far. For those that don’t know, Old Rip Van Winkle entered into a partnership with Buffalo Trace years and years ago to begin producing their whiskey. This was in preparation for all of the older Pappy Van Winkle stock from Stitzel-Weller running out. The Stitzel-Weller distillery produced the Old Rip Van Winkle line up as well as a number of other great bourbons. It closed its doors long ago, and only the reserves remained in order to fortify the Van Winkle line up.

That later part is important because it’s shrouded in mystery. Many enthusiasts, even ones that are “in the know” have trouble figuring out which ORVW products are produced by Buffalo Trace, and which are still from Stitzel-Weller stock.

Well, some of that mystery might have been solved with the latest podcast from David Driscoll at K&L Wines Spirit Journal. David’s guest this week is Buffalo Trace Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. Harlen is very young reletive to his Master Distiller peers, but he’s worked at Buffalo Trace for 15-16 years before taking over in 2005 as MD. In this podcast below, Harlen is extremely transparent, which I certainly appreciate. He quickly points out that he doesn’t have the numbers in front of him and is speaking off the cuff a little bit, but it’s still coming from a very informed position. Please check out the entire podcast because it’s a great listen. The discussion around Pappy and ORVW begins around the 20 minute mark.

Here are few of the nuggets Harlen discusses about Pappy:

-The ORVW 10 year old and Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 year old (Lot b) is Buffalo Trace product, not Stitzel-Weller I think this has been commonly known and reported by many, but I’m not aware of either Julian Van Winkle, Harlen, or anyone else that close to the situation confirming this before. So from that stand point, we can check that off the list.

-The 20 year old and 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons are still all Stitzel-Weller stock. The rumors of 20 year old being close to dry was not addressed but Harlen mentions “being close” in terms of having product around that age. So hopefully we’ll see things continue to churn without much, if any, interuption.

-The 15 year old wasn’t talked about in absolutes but Harlen says he believes it to be a mix of stock between Buffalo Trace and Stitzel-Weller. This was the interesting one to me because I was thinking it was still all S-W reserves. Very cool to hear.

And that about sums it up. It’s just nice to get some understanding of exactly what is what with the ORVW/Pappy whiskey. Please check out the podcast in its entirety here. David does an excellent job.

15 Comments

  1. David D says:

    Let me know if you ever get that interview with JVW, I’ve emailed him as well about doing the podcast to zero response.

  2. David, will do. I’ve been trying to get an interview lined up for a couple of months now. I know he’s just busy. Julian’s a super nice guy and has always been responsive, but I’d imagine he gets swamped like anyone else. Hopefully soon.

    Again, great podcast as usual. I really enjoy them all.

  3. snakeman says:

    Funny this posting comes up today.
    I just finished viewing a interview with Julian Van Winkle III from the Buffalo Trace Oral History project being done at the University of Kentucky Library. Here is a link to the longer version that is not the published one. Has some interesting remarks at the end. Maybe Jason can make the link hot.

    Now off to David’s podcast.

    http://kdl.kyvl.org/cgi/b/bib/oh2.php?cachefile=2010OH059_BIK016_VanWinkle_acc.xml&kw=Julian%20Van%20Winkle%20III,%20April%2020,%202010

  4. Snakeman, thanks for the link. It’s a good one for sure!

  5. Dave says:

    Yeah, that’s a great interview that BT posted. It pretty much answers most of my questions. As far as the PVW brand goes, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that it’s all Stitzel-Weller at the moment, especially given what Julian has posted on straightbourbon.com about the subject:

    “In the last couple of years, we bottled up a 2-3 year supply of 15, 16 year to sell as 15 year Pappy. We still have some 20 year S/W in barrels to bottle as 20 year.”

    My *personal* opinion is that this spring or maaaaybe this fall is going to be the last allocation of the PVW 15 as it stands now, and that they’re probably going to release the BT 15 year soon to replace it. Who knows, maybe they’ll brand it ORVW 15. Or Van Winkle Special Reserve 15… This is not based on any special insider info — it’s just me reading the tea leaves. To me, that’s the more interesting story. It’s going to be really, really interesting comparing the new VW 15 y/o whenever it comes out to the BT-based stuff. So I hope you didn’t drink all of your PVW 15, Jason! You’ll need it for the Most Important and Anticipated Whiskey Review Ever.

    I will say that if they don’t bottle the new 15 at 107 and instead bottle it at 90 like the Lot B, I will not be happy. You’ll probably see my face on the 11 o’clock news ;-)

  6. Ha! Dave. I’ve got a couple bottles of 15 ready for that review. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.

  7. Franco C. says:

    Jason,
    I agree that Pappy 15 is about the best example of bourbon balance there is . I really don’t care where it comes from, I want more!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Rajesh says:

    Jason,
    Outstanding post (as always) — it’s always great to see updates on this blog and this didn’t disappoint.
    Full marks to K&L Wines Spirit Journal for the interview w/ Harlan Wheatley – great podcast and you’re spot on in saying that Harlan was very open about discussing distilling @ BT.
    I guess that even given this podcast – there will be still be swirling speculation around whether a bottle of PVW 15 bought say 3 years ago is “all S-W” or a mix – and that might be something that never gets put to rest – the provenance of Pappy Van Winkle I’m sure will be the subject of debate for a long time to come.
    Back in 2010 – Julian posted this on straightbourbon.com…

    ////
    The rye we are selling now still comes from a stainless tank at BT. It was put in that tank in 2003.The whiskey is part Medley/part Bernheim.

    Ed Foote at S/W made the whiskey we are selling as 15, 20 & 23 year.
    Julian
    ////

    Forgive me – I’m not trying to stir the pot here by introducing new speculation about PVW’s provenance. I personally think the PVW line ranks among the all-time greats of Bourbon and I echo your sentiment — “As long as Pappy 15 (my hands down favorite of VW) tastes like Pappy 15, I don’t care where it comes from.”

    Keep posting Jason…

  9. Rajesh, this isn’t stirring the pot. It’s good info. Thanks for sharing these comments and for visiting and commenting.

  10. Greg says:

    …..and the bourbon pond continues to be murky. I’ve heard from a couple of sources different answers that do indeed conflict. I won’t name names but one person supposedly in the know clearly states that Julian personally told them any bottle with Pappy’s face will be SW whiskey (and not a blend of). That statement was made on one of the public boards so this isn’t something I heard third or fourth hand. I’m more interested in how the whiskey tastes over where it comes from but as an enthusiast, and Jason I’m sure you feel the same way, it’s still an important part of the overall experience. Knowing something is SW over something that is a blend is not ultimately important but interesting nonetheless.

  11. Agreed Greg, I doubt this mystery will ever be solved. Like you, I care about the quality of what’s in the bottle first and foremost. But the S-W stuff is fascinating.

  12. Joe says:

    Jason,

    According to the ORVW facebook page, the 15, 20 and 23 are still all SW. They have stated this is the last year for the 20. You can trust what Julian says or not, but that is what has been stated by ORVW. I’m pretty confident Julian will still produce great whiskey when the S/W stock is depleted, so I’m inclined to believe him.

    Joe

  13. Gerald says:

    Can someone please help me understand the difference between pvw15 and orvw15. How could either come from BT if they didn’t start making the vw recipe until 2002??

    Gerald

  14. Gerald, Old Rip Van Winkle 15 got moved into the Pappy line long ago. The PVW15 is what remains today. The VW recipe goes back to “Pappy” Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller distillery that produced it. In 1992 the distillery closed. There was a lot of reserves of Van Winkle whiskey at that time. Julian Van Winkle, Pappy’s grandson, decided to start releasing that whiskey and had the brilliant idea of offering them at higher ages as well. As you can imagine though, without a distillery making more, running out was the biggest issue. Julian got into a partnership with Buffalo Trace. The 20, 23, and even the 15, according to Julian, is still Stitzel Weller juice. That will begin to change over time in the form of combined S-W and BT bourbon until one day it’s all BT distilled and aged. I hope that makes sense.

    Great question Gerald.

  15. Rajesh says:

    I know it’s been a while since this thread was started — but I thought I’d post here…
    It appears that the fall release of PVW15 – it’s currently hitting or has hit stores (depending on where you’re talking about) — is comprised of a BT distillation.
    David Driscoll at K&L Wines Spirit Journal conducted a podcast w/ J. Preston Van Winkle on 11/17 and around the 14 min. mark – Preston mentions that the fall release of PVW15 is completely Buffalo Trace’s product while the 20 and 23 are still SW.

    http://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/klwinescom-spirits-blog/2011/11/17/kl-spirits-podcast-21-j-preston-van-winkle.html

    I had the good fortune to start on a bottle of PVW15 about a month ago and still have some left – it might be interesting to compare that w/ a newer bottling — but this might give rise to the question of whether the previous bottlings were a mix of SW-BT or all BT — if the former – how far back does one go ?

    Cheers Jason !

    –Rajesh

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