Review: Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon

Ahhh, it’s that time of year. You know the one where a line of popular bourbon and American Whiskeys release, thus setting off a consumer frenzy that wine and spirit stores dread across the country. Pappy Van Winkle and the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskeys just hit store shelves in recent weeks, so it’s time to take a look at them.

Originally I had planned a little comparison between the 15 year and 20 year old. However, the recent news that the 2011 15 year old is now 100% Buffalo Trace bourbon, prompted me to rethink that comparison. As evidenced by the myriad of comments and emails I’ve received, it’s pretty clear that the Pappy 15 requires a thorough examination and comparison with the old. I also want to give my $.02 on the craziness over Stitzel-Weller juice.

In the meantime, how about we take a look at one of the other flagship whiskeys in the lineup, the 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle.

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Bourbon, 45.2% abv (90.4 Proof) $110.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: Demerara Sugar, Maple Syrup, and Old Cedar Box right off the top. Candied Dates, Big Vanilla, soft spices (CLOVE and Nutmeg), and Old Leather in the background. Very elegant for 20 years in new oak.

Palate: Velvety textured and again so elegant. I’d even say very well balanced for a 20 year old bourbon. The sip is redolent with oak and warm warm spices, but it’s never too much. It’s gorgeous actually. Sweet and fruity flavors evolve with spiced maple syrup, bitter orange, cinnamon stick, and honey.

Finish: The finish is also honeyed and warm with a touch of barrel. A surprising baked cinnamon apple fruitiness emerges as well. Didn’t anticipate that!

Overall: This is brilliant whiskey. The 20 year old is much less brutish and weighty in comparison to the 15. That does make it a bit less challenging, and as a result less interesting, but it’s so easy drinking. It’s also a testament to just how well wheated bourbons can handle the age and wood.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)


  1. Michael says:

    This about nails it, Jason. Pretty much exactly my thoughts on the Pappy 20. Some people interpret this one as a bit flat and unexceptional, but I feel it’s more accurate to say that it’s smooth and integrated. Too smooth and integrated? Well, everyone has to decide that for themselves. Looking forward to your review of the new 15. Just for the record, I thought I heard that Buffalo Trace had been blending their new PVW 15 distillate with the old PVW 15 from Stitzel-Weller for some time now, and that each year they would include a bit more of the former and less of the latter. In which case this year’s may not taste all that different from the 2010… here’s to hoping.

  2. Anorak1977 says:

    Great review! I love the sweetness and complexity of the 20 over the alcoholic & dry taste of the new 15. A very elegant whisky for sure, one which I will be keeping for special occasions, as I do not plan on participating in the hunt for these PVW bottles next year πŸ™‚

  3. Dave says:

    Hi Jason — great review, as always. I was able to snag a 20 and a 23 this year. I haven’t tried either of them yet but was curious about your general thoughts on the 23 compared to the 20. You may already have a review planned, in which case I will just wait for that! Thanks.

  4. Joe Serapilio says:

    Hey Jason,Like you I’m a “15” guy.The 20 so smooth,velvety,like silk.Just a great,great bourbon.

  5. Anorak1977 says:

    Is it just me, or when you put your unopened bottle of 15 next to the 20, doesn’t the fill level on the 20 seem just a bit lower? I’ve noticed this on several bottles, and even in some online photos… more S/W juice rationing by a few ml’s at a time? πŸ˜‰

  6. James Mays says:

    Thanks for the much anticipated review Jason! You nailed the bitter orange for sure. I’ll be watching for your review on the “new” 15 year and I am curious as to whether or not you’ll be reviewing the 23 year.

  7. sam k says:

    I wish I had some perspective…any perspective at all to comment on this from. Never had a Pappy, and am waiting patiently till I can comment from a position of strength!

    God Bless America!

  8. Vince says:

    Jason, great review on the 20 year old and your analysis of the 20 to the 15 is spot on! I prefer the 15 year old but I think the 20 is a very special bourbon as well. Looking forward to your review of the “old” 15 vs the new! Keep up the great work!

  9. John says:

    Just think . . . nary 5 years ago, I could walk into a few stores in NY and NJ and buy what I needed for the year. And now? I’m scouring the internet like a banshee, sometimes overpaying for my yearly supply! The cult of Pappy has indeed exploded, and I’m a little afraid of how things might be 5 years from now. The Van Winkles seem to be very discerning, strong-willed people; I just hope the demands people put on them for their products don’t wear them out.

    For what it’s worth: if we’re to assume a 2009 Pappy 15 was still all S-W (or mostly), I compared it to this year’s allocation and my palate and mouth could only detect the 2012 having a bit more fire; it explodes just a bit more. (But then again, maybe my 2009 has aged itself a bit, mellowing out.) Still, the 15 is magnificent as always, for me still the #1 Van Winkle drink. The 20 is absolutely wonderful, but it’s so special I’m loathe to open it more than once or twice a month. The 12 makes a kick-ass Old Fashioned, and is also fine on the rocks too. Basically, I just love their juice.

    I sincerely hope the demands of their business don’t ruin the future of their products. I feel like, this year more than any other, people have been clamoring (and writing!) more about how difficult it is to find, which sadly sometimes obscures the fact this is simply some of the very finest bourbon to be found on the planet. I know this is very wrong, but at the age of 45 I honestly don’t drink very many other bourbons at home anymore. Nothing else compares for me. Whenever I go out and have others, it always ends up being a situation where I’m reminded of how the Van Winkle juices are simply my personal #1 bourbons.

  10. David D says:

    I don’t think this is the first year it’s been 100% BT. I think it’s the first year they’re admitting it’s all BT. To me the 2011 tastes pretty much the same as the 2009 bottle I have at home.

  11. David I do agree. I think Harlan mentioned something on your podcast about 6 or so months ago that it was a blend of both. As the Master Distiller I’d think he would know. At the same time, I’m sure Julian and Preston have full control over that so it’s also possible he might now be privy. I do think it’s likley they’ve dovetailed this in ever increasing percentages over a period of time. This may just be the first year it stands alone as BT juice.

    To find out what I think of the 2009 and 2011 you’ll just have to stay tuned this week……………..

    Who am I fooling I’ll never be any good at building suspense. I think it’s familiar Pappy 15. Some slight differences on the nose and the way it evolves on the palate, but the flavors and the layers are still Pappy 15. More to come.

  12. David D says:

    Preston also said however that they were not keeping anything in stainless steel. That would mean that they were blending 19-20 year old SW into 15 year old BT to make Pappy 15. I don’t think that was happening, do you?

  13. Anorak1977 says:

    If this (the new Pappy 15) is what the old one tastes like… it’s my last purchase of it! I’ll stick to the BTAC instead. They release fact sheets with every detail you could possibly want. I applaud them for full disclosure on that fact.

    I will keep enjoying my bottle of 20… the 15 is just not special in any way to me, and given all of the Hullabaloo as to what’s in the bottle, I won’t be buying any more PVW products in the future.

    Every time I taste the 15… and it needs a lot of water IMHO, it reminds of a somewhat immature sherry cask scotch whisky with a tad bit of islay flavor.

    But take that with a grain of salt… this is a Bourbon site, and I admit that I much prefer my single malts to bourbons πŸ™‚ That being said, the Sazerac 18 is a phenomenal dram, leagues ahead of the entire van Winkle collection. The 20 (haven’t tried the 23) comes closest for me.

  14. David D – great question. I don’t think we’ll ever know. Many were adamant they were Stainless Steeling a lot of it, but I agree that would be very short sided. I think they do love the fact that we’re sitting her talking about it though. ; )

    Anorak1977, I think the 2011 Pappy 15 release is great great stuff. I love BT’s transparency though – I agree with you there. They are out in front on that, which is very cool. Looking forward to the Saz 18. I should have it this week from your wonderful lead. Thanks!

  15. David Markle says:

    A great review indeed — our palates must be very similar. IMO the only thing left understated is that the finish of the PVW 20, if you take your time and pay attention to it, lasts for ages, especially once you’ve had a few sips. You just get vanilla and brown sugar just rolling over you as you breathe out your nose and take it all in, seemingly minutes after having a sip.

    As far as disclosure is concerned, the BTAC stuff is really cool, as is their Single Oak concept. But I don’t really care *that much* about the sourcing, as long as it’s really, really good whiskey. The only thing I would criticize strongly about the VW line (other than availability and price) is why in the world the 12yo isn’t offered at 107 proof like the 10 and the 15. It’s completely beyond me!

  16. Anorak1977 says:

    Any time Jason!

    Still looking forward to your review/comparison of the 2011 Stagg. Wow, we’re all putting a lot on your plate aren’t we! πŸ™‚

  17. Matthew M says:

    I have been drinking bourbon for a few years for no other reason than I like the taste. Just recently started trying to “learn” some things about it and taste the “elite” stuff. Procured 3 bottles of PVW 20 yesterday and can not wait to give them a try.

    I was wondering if I was mistaken in my thinking here: If the Stitzel Distillery closed in 1991/1992, would that make next years 20 year batch the last batch to come from there?

  18. Anorak1977 says:


    According to Preston Van Winkle in his fall K&L podcast interview, they are still using S/W spirit in the 20 and 23. I hope this is correct.

    The “elite” image is kind of disheartening to me, as I believe this image is cultivated deliberately by their business practices. These Bourbons should be accessible to all, especially neophytes who will be their core customer base in the future. I myself am mostly a single malt drinker for over a decade who has ventured into American whiskey territory in the past couple of years. Some of it is fantastic, but the fact that it’s easier to buy a 1970s Ardbeg than to find some new release Ryes/Bourbons is a bit disconcerting. I hope the trend does not continue πŸ™‚

  19. JWC says:

    Matthew, keep in mind that they can store the juice in stainless steel so it is not a given that next year’s PVW 20 would be the last from a time perspective. However, because of the demand and volume issues (which we don’t have the details), we really have no idea how long the SW juice will last(ed?!).

  20. Anorak1977 says:

    I say we press the Van Winkle’s to release some fact sheets along the lines of the BTAC. For the asking price, a lot geeks like me would really appreciate knowing all the details! I’m just glad I only paid $55 for my 15 year old Pappy this year. I certainly wouldn’t spend more than $60 on it.

  21. Max says:

    I feel very lucky today. Got a bottle of Pappy 20 that was sitting on the shelf for a week and a half in the middle of Los Angeles! It makes me happy because I passed on a 20 earlier for a 15, right before I learned the 15 was no longer SW, doh!

  22. James says:

    I love the 20. In my opinion he best, but you’re basically saying which gold is shinier when comparing PVWs

  23. jax says:

    anyone who can help me find a bottle of 20 year pappy in LA pls email me at – thx!!

  24. rj rude says:

    I have 3 bottles of 20 yr pappy i see a huge difference in price.Is there a basic price on this ? some one offered me 275 a bottle is this a fair price? please let me know before i make a mistake.

  25. Pharmerphil says:

    Buffalo Trace Distillery at Frankfort reported today that 65 cases (3 bottles per case) of 20 yr. old Pappy Van Winkle is missing from their warehouse. The news report said that the 195 bottles have a wholesale value of $130 per bottle, for a total value of $25,350. The article said that the true value is at least $200 per bottle IF any can be found to be purchased. They do think it was an inside job as it was in a locked area of the warehouse. Somebody is very happy with their endeavors whether they intend to sell it or to drink it. Guess the only way to “score” a bottle of 20 yr. old Pappy is to steal it!