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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)

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)

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.

The Legend: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Pappy Van Winkle 15 yr Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 53.5% abv (107 Proof), $65/bottle

Each year I drink the latest release of this bourbon. Each year I’m taken aback by how great it is. It’s scarce and extremely tough to locate. And it seems just when I’m frustrated enough, I get a call from my local merchant informing me, “Pappy 15 is in!” This year was no different. I intended to review this with at least one of its older brothers, the 20 or 23 year expressions, but you needed to know about this one quick enough to get your hands on a bottle.

Pappy 15’s nose is as nearly perfect as you can get; rum, dried fruits (dates, apricots, raisins), soft caramel, maple syrup, buttery toffee, vanilla, barrel, leather, and light cedar. It’s rich, sweet, well spiced, but still vibrant in spite of it’s 15 years on the barrel. Pappy 15 pours into your glass like slightly watered down syrup or honey. From that moment you sense just how rich, thick, and lush this whiskey is. Flavors of rum soaked fruits, dried red or berry fruits, salted caramel, nutmeg, clove, maple, vanilla, toasted coconut, almonds, and char plow over your taste buds. This bourbon is huge – just a monster of flavors, with a long finish of toffee, caramel, fruits, barrel, and warming spices (nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon). Simply put, it’s one of the finest whiskeys made on the planet – an EPIC expression of Bourbon. The highest of recommendations.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.8 (Epic)

Review: Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year Bourbon (107 Proof)

This past weekend, while traveling, I was able to locate a bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year 107 Proof bourbon. I reviewed the 90 proof version of this whiskey about a year ago. Let’s take a look and see how the higher proof version fares.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Bourbon, 53.5% abv (107 Proof), $45/bottle
As you might imagine, Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) 10 Year 107 brings a very similar flavor profile as the 90 proof version. It does so with a bit more punch and vigor however. The nose opens with toffee, maple syrup, rum soaked bananas, and rich, dark fruits (dates, figs). Things really shine on the palate, which is more concentrated and syrupy than its little brother. Toffee sweetness, caramelized nuts, coffee and cinnamon toast are most prevalent. The vanilla and toasted oak are prevalent throughout. With a splash of water more fruitiness emerges. ORVW 10 year 107 finishes with toasted oak, nutty toffee, and a warm hum of spices (cinnamon and clove).

Your chances of finding this one over a Pappy 15 is likely 3-4 times better. That’s only a guess, but I’d say that’s accurate based on my experience. The 107 proof point serves this whiskey well, concentrating the flavor and bringing more depth and force to the party. The price I found is certainly higher than it was last year, but in comparison to some other whiskeys in this range I still recommend it highly.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.1 (Superb/Outstanding)

Don’t fret, more Pappy is on the way.

If you haven’t seen my review of Pappy Van Winkle 15 please take a look. It’s a fantastic bourbon and I dare say about as complete as whiskey gets to my tastes. The sad part is the allocation is so sparse that it takes a lot of effort to locate bottles. Believe me, it’s worth the trouble, but a pain in the rear nonetheless.

Well, a little relief isn’t too far off if you can wait a few months. I’ve just been informed by Julian Van Winkle that the next allocation of products will go out in March/April time frame. No specifics yet on a firm date, but this will hopefully give you a shot at securing some bottles if you missed this most recent batch of product.

I’d recommend not waiting until then. If your reading this and want to ensure you get a bottle or 4, I’d suggest calling 2-3 local liquor shops in your area. Ask them if they typically get allocated Pappy Van Winkle products. If they do, make them aware of this allocation news so they can be informed. Also tell them to put your name on a bottle.

I’d recommend the 15 above all given it’s price to quality ratio is extremely high. Beyond that, I’d also recommend securing some Old Rip Van Winkle 90 or 107 proof and/or the Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 Year “Lot B”. I did a review of the 90 proof version of ORVW here. You cannot go wrong with any of them, but you know my feelings on the 15.

Yep, it’s silly when we have to plan 3+ months for a Bourbon purchase, but folks, there’s just not a lot of the stuff to put out there. And when the product is this high quality, a little planning is worth it. Good luck to you!

Drink your Bourbon!

-Jason