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Review: 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon (Comparison w/ 2009)

As mentioned in earlier posts this week, the 2011 Pappy 15 Bourbon is 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey rather than Stitzel-Weller.  This was stated by Preston Van Winkle in a podcast with David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits. For more information on the Stitzel-Weller portion of this story and what all of this means, please check my post from Tuesday December 13, 2011.  It gives more background about a great old American Distillery. For this post I will spare you the redundancies because lord knows I talked enough in the video. It’s all in the interest of getting to the bottom of the hoopla. Is Pappy 15 better? Is it worse?

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 Proof) $75.00

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose:  Deeper oak and a flintier opening than the 2009 Pappy 15, but still so familiar. Maple syrup, toffee, sweet vanilla, root beer, dried figs, caramelized pecans, and toasted wood. Less rummy and a notch spicier than previous releases, and gorgeous all the way around – masterclass stuff. Time and air serve to open this up even more – it gets better.

Palate: Syrupy textured and luscious. The front entry is sharper and spicier than the 2009. Otherwise we’re again in familiar Pappy 15 territory. Sticky dried dark fruits, chewy toffee, butterscotch, vanilla, roasted nuts, big wood spices (nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon), sassafras, and a healthy dose of barrel char.

Finish: The finish is long with caramel, barrel, coffee, and warming spices (nutmeg).

Overall: Amazing bourbon! For me, few whiskeys achieve the depth, power, and richness that Pappy 15 does at that proof point. Sweet and soft in ways, but also well spiced. You can spend an evening discovering new aromas and flavors. The differences between this and the 2009 release are very slight. It’s a bit bolder and drier on the nose and sip, the oak is a shade more pronounced, but again it’s Pappy 15 through and through. I believe they’ve been working towards this release for a long time. It’s just my opinion only but I have to believe previous years have had increasing percentages of Buffalo Trace whiskey integrated with them. And that’s fine with me, because what we have here is still one of the finest whiskeys in the world, and certainly a candidate for America’s best bourbon this year.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.7 (Epic/Classic)

88 Comments

  1. Matthew says:

    Cheers to another great post! How does the 2011 PVW 15 relate to the 10 year ORVW and 12 year VW BT produced bourbons?

    Would a flight of 10, 12, 15 BT produced ORVW/VW/PVW bourbons tell an interesting story?

  2. Matthew I think it would definitely tell a story. I believe they get markedly better as you make your way up to the 15. The 12 takes on some of the great body you get from the 15, but it doesn’t have the complexity and depth. Some of that is also proof – would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see a 107 proof VW 12.

    And honestly it’s not about being a proof hound – Proof is the most underrated weapon in a distiller’s arsenal when it comes to flavor delivery.

  3. Matthew says:

    The 10 and 12 expressions have never done much for me except make me glance over to my bottles of 15. I would like to taste three years of process (of a shared recipe) just to gain the reference points. And drink some good bourbon.

    Do you know which label(s) are composed of the 15 year bourbon that does not make final selection for PVW 15? I ask that assuming not all barrels of 15 year bourbon in a given year are good enough to be bottled as Pappy…but is still fine bourbon.

  4. SteveBM says:

    Loving “Van Winkle Week” on Sour Mash Manifesto!

    So if we are confident that the PVW 15yr ’09 release is S-W juice and Preston Van Winkle confirmed the ’11 release is all BT juice, what can be said of the 2010? Is it possible that it’s a blend of both?

  5. Matthew says:

    Steve –

    Dave Driscoll’s interview with Harlen Wheatley (K&L Spirits Journal podcast, 2011) describes the transition from S-W to BT produced bourbons as a blend/marriage/merge of the two stocks.

    DD: “What is the composition of the 15, is that still all S-W, or do you think that is a mix, or..”

    HW: “That could be a mix, but it may be all ours; that could be a mix, it would make sense that it is a mix . Again, I do not have these numbers…”

  6. Agreed all. I dont think there is any doubt they have mingled BT and AS juice in ever increasing increments.

  7. BMc says:

    I’ve had some Old Fitzgerald from the 1980s and early 1990s, and to my taste it’s very simple stuff. I get a lot of sweetness and a strong pecan pie flavor, but certainly nothing close to the profiles of the PVWs, even the ones that definitely are SW. I’m sure one could make an argument that that particular young spirit leads to a very particular old spirit that’s completely distinct from other distilleries’ product, but I doubt it, considering the vast differences in taste between the Jefferson’s Presidential Select, the PVWs, and a couple of old single barrel SWs I’ve had. They’re all SW but they have little in common. I think the age and barrel have more to do with the final taste than where it came from originally. I mean, Jim Beam White and Booker’s come from the same recipe, right? Isn’t George T Stagg just old Ancient Age?

  8. JWC says:

    BMc, the SW OF’s were/are significantly younger than the PVW’s. You would do better to compare the OF’s to bourbons of a similar age and for the price, those SW OF’s are pretty darn good.

    Sorry to hear about the transition to BT juice but we assumed as much all along. The good news is that they are comparable but it does sound like the SW front entry that I am so fond of is gone as far as the PVW 15 is concerned.

    Speaking of the PVW’s, if the 15yo’s are now 100% BT juice, increase the number of bottles released so we don’t have to go through this Pappy Circus 2x a year. The scarcity appears to be a deliberate strategy and I don’t get it because the lack of PVW’s isn’t making me purchase other BT bourbons.

  9. JWC says:

    Forgot to add, I definitely need to date tag this year’s purchases (or is it acquisition now?). Sad.

  10. BMc says:

    I guess my main point was that after 15+ years of aging, whiskey that went into barrels at the same time and were placed right next to each other can taste completely different, while all of them have very different profiles than the younger spirit. The scarcity of the PVWs might simply be that most whiskey, no matter who made it, doesn’t fit the PVW profile after 15 – 23 years.

    That said, I’ve read from a couple online posters that the WLW tastes pretty similar to the PVW15 when cut to the same proof. I get a lot of cinnamon from the PVW that I don’t get at all from the WLW, but I haven’t tried them side-by-side yet.

  11. Anorak1977 says:

    Next year, I’ll be buying WLW. Much more value for the money considering the higher proof, and no chill filtration to strip out the extra flavors! I just don’t see the point in buying any more Pappy 15 since it’s just hand-picked Buffalo Trace bourbon. I wonder if Preston let that factoid slip by accident in his podcast interview :)

  12. Tom Thomas says:

    Finally figured out how to determine when your bottle of Pappy Van Winkle was released:

    The code is a very small digital stamp that appears on the bottle, usually below the back label. Here’s how to read it using two examples:

    Example 1: K0780907:21

    Example 2: N3001114:13

    The first letter is the bottling line at Buffalo Trace; example 1 was the K line, and example 2 was the N line. I don’t know enough about the bottling there to know if there is any real significance that can be gleaned from the bottling line.

    The second three digits indicate the day of the year that it was bottled. So example 1 was bottled on the 78th day of the year and example 2 was bottled on the 300th day of the year.

    The third two digits indicate the year – this is really the most significant piece of information. The “09″ on example 1 indicates it was bottled in 2009, so if it’s Pappy 15, it would likely be from the old Stitzel-Weller stocks. Example 2 has an “11″ which indicates 2011 when they started using Buffalo Trace bourbon.

    The final four digits are the bottling time on a 24 hour clock, so example 1 was bottled at 7:21 am and example 2 was bottled at 2:13 pm (14:13).

    NOTE: Sourced from http://recenteats.blogspot.com via Sku.

    Tom Thomas
    President
    Birmingham Whiskey and Cigar Club

  13. Nate Cleveland says:

    Tom, awesome bit of info there! I’ve got two bottles of ’11 and one of ’09. Don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to open the ’09 for a while!

    Jason, it’s like an early Christmas present with all these recent reviews! I couldn’t agree more with the comment (on the review) that people are acting as though production at BT somehow equates with lesser bourbon. They don’t make a single bourbon that I would not classify as above average for a given price. And they seem to really ‘respect’ bourbon – which means we should have a steady diet of PVW 15 for years to come without a real drop-off in quality.

  14. Todd Clingman says:

    Steve – I second your “loving Van Winkle week” sentinment.
    Jason, as far as wanting to see a 107 proof Van Winkle 12, I would love to see a 100 proof VW12. I’ve heard that while Pappy was alive, all Old Fitzgerald was 100 proof, bonded. A special release of 12 year old Van Winkle at 100 proof would be a nice tribute to Pappy as well as a sort of unmentioned tribute to the ’50s-’60s era VVOF. If the Van Winkles get their pick of the wheated barrels, they could pick the best of the best so to speak for a special bottling. They could even kick it up a little and blend in a small amount(maybe 5-10%) of SW to enhance the tribute aspect of the release even more. Although Old Fitz is now HH, it is still, and probably always will be, associated with Stitzel-Weller, Pappy, and the Van Winkle name. Far-fetched maybe, but we can dream can’t we?

  15. BMc says:

    I just tried the WLW and new Pappy 15 side by side. They taste remarkably similar to me, with lots of barrel char and the same woody taste. I hope the Pappy opens up more over time, or else I wasted my money since I can get the Weller around here for about $30 less.

  16. Josh says:

    Tom, Thanks for cracking that code to determine bottling dates! I had accidentally mixed up a few unopened bottles awhile back and it became a guessing game as to what year was which bottle, plus I forgot which year I was unable to score a bottle of pappy 15. After using your method, I discovered that I still have unopened bottles of “08 and “09 pappy 15 along with the “11 pappy 15.

    I believe it works for other buffalo trace products as well. My 2 bottles of George t Stagg have the same markings as well…

  17. BMc says:

    I believe credit should go to Sku, since the “code breaking” post was copied word-for-word from one of his blog entries:

    http://recenteats.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2011-11-22T18:00:00-08:00&max-results=7

  18. SteveBM says:

    BMc – you beat me to that authenticity post haha. What Weller are you comparing to the PVW15?

  19. Matthew says:

    Now that BT has two wheated products of similar vintage, I am wondering what will happen to the rejected barrels (of still delicious BT whiskey). I assume – though maybe incorrectly – that rejected barrels are not left to age for (eventual) 20 and 23 releases.

    For speculation, hopes, fantasy, and dreams:
    Where are the rejected 15 year barrels going? Will a new BT label emerge from the “rejects” or another addition to the BTAC be introduced.

    Anybody…

  20. Andrew says:

    Guess they no longer teach proper citation in school these days. Give credit where credit is due. A simple copy and paste of the URL would have sufficed, TT.

  21. David D says:

    Matt

    The rejected barrels go back into the warehouse to be evalutated again for a possible 20 year release down the line. Preston told me they get better sometimes.

  22. BMc says:

    Hey SteveBM, I was comparing the new Pappy to the WLW 2010. The ’11 is sitting behind some Glenlivet (!!!) at my local liquor store, but since it’s not as scarce, I keep passing it up. I feel dumb even typing that…

    I’m going to ask my wife to set up a blind tasting of the ORVW 10/107, the Old Weller Antique, the WLW 2010 cut to ~54%, and the new Pappy, so I can see what I think when Pappy isn’t winking at me from that bottle!

    Jason, care to chime in on your opinion of how the new Weller stacks up against the Pappy? Your grades for each are very similar, but I wonder how they’d fare when both are consumed in the same tasting session. I know that’s a lot to ask :)

  23. cigarnv says:

    We have a small bourbon group that has done a 2009 to 2011 Pappy 15 comparison several times and find these two expressions entirely different. We have also looked at input from several other “seasoned” bourbon drinkers who also see a significant difference in these two expressions. In every case the 2009 was deemed a classic Pappy 15 (post 2004) while the 2011 came across as a closer fit to the Weller line. Thinner, dryer and less caramel notes than the 2009. The 2011 shows more brown sugar than caramel, less complexity and a significantly shorter and dryer finish when compared to the 2009.

    The 2011 is not a bad whiskey but it is a far cry from the Pappy 15 profile of 2009. Take a 2011 WLW to 107 and I think you will find it has far more in common with the 2011 than the 2009….

  24. SteveBM says:

    BMc – Thanks for clarification. My next question for you… What are you paying for WLW and PVW15?? Everywhere I’ve seen any of the BTAC bottles they’ve been at $70-80 and the PVW15 also at $69.99. You really got the WLW for $30 less than the PVW15? If that’s correct you’ve either got one helluva deal on WLW or are paying a premium for PVW15.

    I like your idea of the 4-way lineup for comparison. Might have to try that myself.

  25. BMc says:

    Oh yeah, I paid a markup for the PVW15! The Weller is $70 here but the PVW flew off the shelves within hours, so I had to settle for paying $100 each for 2 bottles from Shopper’s Vineyard, plus shipping costs.

    If it were easy to kick myself in the head, I’d do it… Still, if I hadn’t bought them, I’d be awake all night wondering.

  26. Anorak1977 says:

    Ouch. I paid $55 for my 2011 Pappy 15, and $95 for the 20 year old. The BTAC bottles were all $72.

    I am somewhat unhappy with the Pappy 15, but the 20 year old was worth every penny to me.

  27. BMc says:

    Ouch is right. The kicker is, a place nearby that delivers to my work for free had Pappy 20 for $99 for about 3 weeks, but I kept hemming and hawing until it was too late.

    I mean, seriously, delivering Pappy to my doorstep for free, and I’m sitting and weighing my options…

  28. Andrew says:

    Wow… you guys are lucky. I would kill to see prices like that. Prices were through the roof here in FL if you could find any at all. PVW12 was $60. PVW15 was reasonable at $70, IMO, though I saw it as high as $99. PVW20 was usually $140 or more and PVW23 was as much as $375. Never saw a bottle of either of the latter two. Stagg and WLW were listed at a usual $79 on up to $99. And those were the prices if you could find any at all. Handy was the most readily available of the BT AC. In the stores in this area, and one I have shopped at for many years, one or more of several scenarios would play out:

    1. Inventory received was already allocated.
    2. Prices were through the roof.
    3. Prices were reasonable, however, one person would come in and purchase everything of note (all the PVW and all the BT AC) in the store. Cases at a time.
    4. The store would have inventory and prices were somewhat reasonable, however, you were limited to one bottle — total from the lot.
    5. The store received no allocation.

    The one shop I frequent saved me a bottle of PVW12, one PVW15 and a bottle of Sazerac 18 turned up later. Luckily, never a problem finding my Redbreast 12. Evan Williams Single Barrel 2000 has also served me well.

  29. Andrew says:

    To get a quick look at where inventory problems and pricing is heading, one only needs to look at eBay. Here are some of the current Buy It Now deals:

    PVW20 (2 bottles) @ $420, $515
    PVW23 (2 bottles) @ $625, $718
    PVW15, 20, 23 (3 bottles) @ $750, $799, $825

    Year of distribution is hard to determine, so these may all be prior to 2011.

    Bourbon is starting to become an item to be collected and not enjoyed — and it is driving up the prices for products such as these beyond the reach of the casual drinker.

  30. Buck says:

    Personally, I find this latest PVW15 to be just an amazing and enjoyable bourbon. It’s a top favorite for sure. If I could collect some, I probably would, and not because I’d rather collect than enjoy, I’d just be planning well for future enjoyment. The fear that something that tastes this good may not be there someday in the future really makes some of us pretty crazy trying to get our hands on it. My real wish is that they would just figure out how to achieve this degree of excellence on a much larger scale so the scarcity wasn’t such a problem. Is it really that hard to make bourbon come out like this?

  31. sam k says:

    You’re in the ballpark, Andrew, but a more accurate way to judge the true value of items on eBay is to check the completed listings. On a per bottle price, Pappy 15 is selling for between $150 and $200. Pappy 20 is going for anywhere from $190 to $270, and the 23 is running between $300-350.

  32. Anorak1977 says:

    These ebay prices are crazy. Part of me hits myself for not selling my Pappy 20 and making 100% profit or more… but I bought it to enjoy, and not to collect for the sake of collecting or making money. Besides, I’d feel lousy if someone actually paid me $250 for a $100 bottle! It’s a great, but certainly not $200+ great. The law of diminishing returns applies.

  33. BMc says:

    Those Ebay prices are what made me think I was “getting away with something” by paying $100 each. It could be much worse, I told myself.

    Even at that (heavily) inflated price, they sold out within minutes. I got an e-mail saying the 10 year old was in, with no mention of the others. However, when I searched, the PVW15 came up. 20 or so minutes later, it disappeared. I’m not sure why they never told anyone it was up, but whatever.

    It is a very good bourbon, no doubt. At the MSRP, it’s a steal.

  34. David Markle says:

    Ah, the review we’ve all been waiting for. What a great piece of news you deliver to us, Jason! Our beloved Pappy 15 will be with us as a quality whiskey for a long time to come. Hopefully this Pappy craze will die down and all of the “collectors” will have their precious precious bottles to stare at, and we can sit and drink ours in peace.

  35. Tom Thomas says:

    Sorry guys. I didn’t mean to imply that I came up with how to date bottles. I did copy the verbiage from a blog. I found sometimes these sites go away so wanted to make sure we retained the info. Next time I will give link and credit as well.

  36. Anorak1977 says:

    Methinks old Pappy’s cigar is in danger of flaming out unless they stop making people take out loans to get his bottles :)

  37. BMc says:

    I did the tasting of the OWA, the ORVW 10/107, WLW 2010 cut to ~54%, and the new PVW15.

    The most important thing I discovered is that sometimes you need a good wheater to help set your palate for other wheaters. Usually I find the OWA and ORVW pretty boring, but they really came alive in this tasting, full of thick cinnamon and caramel. Likewise, I never liked the WLW with water, but it was fantastic tonight with heavy notes of fruit along with the aforementioned cinnamon. They all had a good dose of barrel char and oak – surprising. given the huge difference in ages. The OWA had no finish to speak of, which gave it away, but the others were so very close…

    The PVW15? A bit musty but similar to the others. I actually liked the musty notes, as it complemented the wood, but I didn’t find it to be anything but a very, very direct relative to all of the others. I love the Parker’s Heritage 2010 because I get all kinds of great notes I don’t get from Buffalo Trace, like chocolate-covered cherries. Next time I’ll just buy that or some other wheater, because I just don’t see the need to buy Pappy when the WLW is around. I don’t even like SW stuff that much, at least what I’ve had, so it’s not the mystique I’m after. I just want something different, and the new Pappy doesn’t do it for me.

  38. John Paul says:

    One thing I don’t understand is:

    If the 2011 PVW15 is 100% BT, does this mean BT had the PVW recipe before 2002? 2002 was the year the Van Winkles entered into their agreement with BT. But 2011 minus 2002 equals 9 years. For the 2011 PVW15 to be 100% BT, this means BT would have had to first barrel the bourbon of the PVW recipe around 1996.

    To me, unless I’m missing something here, this again puts into question what is in these 2011 PVW15 bottles.

    (But let me say I still think the 2012 15 is absolutely amazing. I have no complaints!!)

  39. John Paul says:

    One more quick thing: With the PVW20 and 23: Why do some come with a velvet bag while others don’t?

  40. Todd Clingman says:

    JP, my understanding is that: VW and BT began their arrangement in ’02, but BT had been distilling wheated bourbon prior to that. BT acquired Weller sometime in the ’90s. When VW came on board in ’02, not only did they bring their aging stock of bourbon (SW and maybe some Bernheim), but they got access to their pick of the BT distilled Weller as well. This explains the tough position that VW has been in making the old stocks last into the window of the new stuff being ready, along with the transition from 100% SW, through blending, to 100% BT.

  41. BMc says:

    I wonder where BT got the whiskey for their older releases of WLW and Weller 12, which were distilled long before they bought the rights to make Weller in 1998. If they were making whiskey with wheat before then, was it under contract for something else and they just got to keep some of it?

  42. Todd Clingman says:

    There is a picture in one of the threads on straight bourbon showing a barrel top for a wheater, maybe old fitz, but with the dsp-ky code for BT, or Ancient Age at the time. Who really knows exactly when they began actually distilling wheated bourbon. The first few releases of WLW could have been acquired stock from somewhere else as well, but that is just speculation.

  43. All, as mentioned in my post from last Tuesday, BT acquired the W.L. Weller brand from Stitzel Weller. In so doing that, they also purchased stock to get the brand started.

    Since that time they have been producing the same recipe for the Weller brand. It and old SW juice are the same recipe.

    As for Pappy vs. The Antique Collection Weller, I do not think it is any easier to find the later. So all the discussions about Pappy not being worth it from a sheer availability standpoint I am not understanding. The prices on eBay are silly and those that have the means can enjoy, otherwise there is no substitute for making friends with reputable spirit merchants.

    As for the differences, I feel that wheated bourbons begin to do something special at 10-12 years and I think that peaks around the 15 mark. I just think the complexity and layers of flavor are ramped up a small notch in the Pappy 15 over the Weller. But that’s just one guys opinion and your taste buds will tell you which one you like.

    Cheers all.

  44. Todd Clingman says:

    On a Mike Veach Bernheim timeline post on Bourbon Enthusiast, Chuck Cowdery mentions that Diageo Sold off Weller to Sazerac(BT) in 1999, the same time they sold the Berheim distillery and Old Fitzgerald to HH. Both Old Fitz and Weller came from SW, through Bernheim, to HH and BT respectively. I would think that the recipes would have remained the same, just showing how important the other variables are – water source, yeast, barrels, warehouses, etc.

    Didn’t Preston say something to the effect of the mashbill recipe not making a huge difference in the finished product when you are only talking about a few percentage points difference between mashbills?

  45. Todd, Preston would know more than me, but I agree – a few percentage points aren’t going to alter it much.

  46. BMc says:

    Oh yeah, I second that, Jason. A great example is BT itself: it has only 2 non-wheat mash bills, yet it has really distinctive offerings. Like Todd said, the warehouse, wood, aging, etc. change the taste so much. BT knows generally where in the warehouses to pick their different products, as the very specific conditions lead to dramatic differences in taste. Beam is the same way. I don’t think their small batch offerings have much in common, taste-wise, but their mash bills are identical, or nearly so (except for Basil Hayden’s).

  47. I just bought 2 bottles of PPW 15 and on inspection of the bottle codes realized I have one 2009 and one 2011. I am very excited to have an older one, but I am not yet convinced that the 2009 is truly Stitzel-Weller product. The math just doesn’t work out for me.
    Here’s my blog post anyway:
    http://bkarmstrong.blogspot.com/2011/11/pappy-van-winkle-bourbon.html

  48. Matthew says:

    David D –

    Thank you.

  49. SteveBM says:

    @Andrew – what part of FL are you in? I’m in Miami and Total Wine had the 20yr at $120 but, as you said, some lady went in and bought all 12 bottles the day they got em in… I’m still looking for a bottle of the 20yr but it’ll have to be local, store-bought because I’m not paying internet prices. In other words, I’m probably S.O.L.

    Speaking of the eBay bidding wars for Pappy… There was a funny interview with Julian Van Winkle in the new edition of Lucky Peach magazine. Sean Brock is one of my favorite chefs in the country (McCready’s & HUSK in Charleston, SC) and he’s also a bourbon lover. Apparently Brock was in an intense bidding war with someone for bottles of Pappy…and that someone turned out to be Julian Van Winkle himself! They realized it later on after they’d become friends. Pretty funny stuff right there.

    Has anyone here ever tried the PVW 23yr uncut/unfiltered bourbon that comes in the crystal decanter?

  50. Andrew says:

    @SteveBM — east of Sarasota. They had some bottles of Stagg when I checked online at Total Wine in Ft. Myers, however, was too far to drive for such a purchase. The Total Wines on this coast would not allow you to purchase more than one or two bottles if they had not already allocated their shipment. ABC Liquors allowed you to take as much as you wanted and thus had none and very quickly at that. Need to be more observant and not let work get in the way.

    @bkarmstrong — the PVW15 in 2009 is supposedly a blend of SW and BT. The 2011 should be 100% BT.