After tasting a good selection of Van Winkle whiskey recently, I feel I can honestly make a few observations:
1. It’s a whole lot of hype. $1,000 for a bottle of bourbon is too much. Hundreds of dollars for a bottle of bourbon is too much.
2. It’s fun hype. As long as I’m not paying $1,000, to be a part of the tastings and chat it out with people is interesting and entertaining.
3. It’s good stuff. Not going to lie. If it wasn’t so hard to find and not so expensive, I would be a happy pappy drinker regularly.
Thankfully, I live in a neighborhood that has embraced the whiskey trend and a somewhat egalitarian motto toward the Pappy, known for now as the best bourbon around. A local bar, Char No. 4, was offering it on Christmas Eve – an ounce of the 20- or 23-year with an entrée. Merry Christmas to me!
And recently, Brooklyn Wine Exchange offered a tasting class that featured three bourbons in the Van Winkle family and kind of a cousin. The class wasn’t free, but this was still extremely nice of them. They got only 10 Van Winkle bourbons this year, and rather than try to pick their favorite customers in the crazy race of everyone to score a bottle, they offered two classes and let 80 people taste the 10-year, 12-year, and 15-year with an 18-year bottle raffled off at each class. They said it not only kept the spirit of Pappy being in it for the whiskey more than the money, but was also a fun way to show people why it is so rare and special. Well, cheers to that.
To give an example of what I mean by Pappy hype, a 23-year Pappy Van Winkle sold for $350 three years ago. Still a hefty amount of money, but not completely outrageous for a good whiskey. This year, they are selling for $1,000. And a 15-year is now selling for $750. That’s if you can even find it. Kyle Divine, who led our class, called it the adult version of Tickle Me Elmo.
The other whiskey we tasted was W.L. Weller. Before last November, I used to buy W.L. Weller at Brooklyn Wine Exchange to put in my fall cider. It was $23 and damn good. So, a little for the cider, a little on the side. Best cider ever. One day, it disappeared. Thanks to the Pappy hype, my cheap, good cider whiskey was “outed” as being the one bourbon that Buffalo Trace kept the closest to the original recipe when it bought out the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which Pappy ran, but was first bought out by Bernheim. It’s complicated. Now you can’t find W.L. Weller anywhere. Even for the class, they had to get it from Texas. It is closest to the Van Winkle 12-year and if I can find any of it, I promise not to use it for cider anymore.
It’s close to the Van Winkle 12-year, but not exactly. Van Winkle had more spice and flavor. And by comparison, the 12-year Van Winkle was smoother than the 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle, but the 10-year was sweeter – like candy corn or caramel.
However, my favorite from the class – and possibly from all the Van Winkle bourbons – was the 15-year. It smelled like toasted marshmallows and toffee, and was very nice to the tongue and soul. Not as soft as the rye, which I think is still the star of the Van Winkles, but I haven’t been able to get those two together to really decide my preference. If I had a few hundred dollars to spare and a best friend who owned a liquor store, I would test that theory out with a side-by-side tasting. But for now I’ll be thankful for my little ounces when I get them.