Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, plus an Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year bottle kill!

OLD RIP VAN WINKLE 10 YEAR
2016 Bottling 

MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace Wheated Mash Bill

PROOF – 107

AGE – 10 years

DISTILLERY – Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (Buffalo Trace Distillery)

PRICE – $76

PAPPY VAN WINKLE 15 YEAR
2018 Bottling 

MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace Wheated Mash Bill

PROOF – 107

AGE – 15 years

DISTILLERY – Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (Buffalo Trace Distillery)

PRICE – $130

At this point in whiskey history, is there a point in putting out notes on any of the Van Winkle bourbons? They have been driven so deeply into the whiskey community’s psyche as the very definition of unicorn, they are now impervious to comment or critique. They are an object of both awe and ire. It’s the rare buyer who manages to find one at all, let alone near the suggested retail price, because it’s the rare seller who values accessibility over profit. With whiskey unicorns, the ethics of whiskey that say everyone is welcome come into conflict with the ethics of capitalism that say more money matters most. The current msrp for Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year is $70. You’re more likely to find it for $300 and up.

The five Van Winkle bourbons—Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Lot B, Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, 20 Year, and 23 Year—are rare by design. But they are no mere marketing scheme. Its makers produce less than they know they could sell, because circumstances rooted the origins of the product firmly in the Van Winkle family passion for bourbon, which persisted through the 1970s and 1980s when bourbon—much less premium bourbon—was the very opposite of “in demand.”

The Van Winkle ball first got rolling in the early 20th century, when Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle built his reputation as a traveling whiskey salesman before eventually becoming President of Stitzel-Weller Distillery, creating a number of popular brands during and after Prohibition.

The Van Winkle line as we currently know it was created much later, in the early 1980s. Julian Van Winkle III didn’t need to do it. He wanted to do it. His father, Julian Jr., had run the Stitzel-Weller Distillery from 1964 until 1972, when business was such that he was forced to sell it—to Norton Simon, a conglomerate who also owned McCall Publishing and Canada Dry, among other businesses.

After selling things off, Julians Jr. and III went about buying back barrels of their own bourbon to bottle it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label, just to keep the family name alive where they wanted it most to live: on, and in, bottles of high quality bourbon. In 1981, Julian III took over the family business fully, purchasing the Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky—not to distill anything, but for barrel storage and bottling. There wasn’t much money for advertising and not much bourbon was being bottled and distributed. But customers who did come across a bottle of Van Winkle were impressed, and word slowly crept about.

By the mid-1990s, a Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year still might only cost you $40, and that was considered a very expensive bourbon. In 2002, Julian III partnered with Buffalo Trace Distillery, which took up the task of distilling and bottling the Van Winkle line. Once celebrities like Anthony Bordain started talking about it, very quickly it went from sleeper hit to all the rage, with cases being stolen and sold on the black market, old bottles being refilled and resold as “new,” and a general Van Winkle shark frenzy always swarming if not thrashing in whiskey circles around the world.

The frenzy can be off-putting. It’s only bourbon, after all. And there are so many excellent bourbons on the market now. But although many people might question the true value of the tasting experience the Van Winkle bourbons offer, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s tried it and truly believes it’s bad. The reputation exists for a reason—the bourbon is of genuinely good quality and good tasting.

I’ve been slowly nursing a 2016 bottle of the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year for some time now. Last year I lucked into a bottle of the Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, which many drinkers point to as “the best” of the Van Winkle line. Some feel the 20 and 23 Year editions are too oaky, and the 15 Year strikes a nice balance between the heaviness of the oak and the brightness of the caramel.

As my Old Rip 10 was coming to its end, it occurred to me sending it off with a toast from its older brother, Pappy 15, might be nice. I had opened the Pappy 15 at a friend’s house a few weeks ago. We sampled it alongside his bottle of Old Rip 10 and a bottle of the Special Reserve 12 Year he also had on hand. All were good. From a taste standpoint, choosing between them felt almost silly. Each had something to offer. The only reason I could see to choose one versus another, or any at all, would be price.

And so it came to pass that on a recent chilly autumn evening, I enjoyed the final ounces of this 2016 Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, alongside a second tasting of the recently uncorked 2018 Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year. I had the Old Rip 10 in a Norlan Rauk heavy tumbler, and the Pappy 15 in a brandy glass. Here are the notes in brief:

COLOR

OLD RIP 10 – a deep and rich mahogany orange

PAPPY 15 – a slightly darker, rich mahogany orange 


NOSE

OLD RIP 10 – cinnamon, juicy caramel apples, baking spices in pie crust, rustic wheat bread

PAPPY 15 – rich (and I mean rich) caramel up front, with cinnamon swirled into it, thick apple slices, fresh baked apple pie crust


TASTE

OLD RIP 10 – rich caramel, bright baked apple, a splash of tingly pepper at the end, refined oak

PAPPY 15 – so velvety up front, then a short wave of caramel before the thick oak takes over


FINISH

OLD RIP 10 – some candy apple alongside that ever-present caramel, thick cuts of refined oak, the faintest Douglas fir tree, lingering and lingering and lingering and…

PAPPY 15 – oak dominating, a touch tannic, with caramel behind it and wafts of cinnamon coming and going, all lingering and lingering and lingering and…


OVERALL

OLD RIP 10 – This is good. Period. Overhyped? Absolutely. But it is good.

PAPPY 15 – This is good. Not period, though. The oak dominates just a bit more than I’d prefer. Overhyped? Absolutely. But if you enjoy nicely refined oak, you’ll enjoy this.


BUY AGAIN?

OLD RIP 10 – At msrp? Yes! Otherwise $100 tops.

PAPPY 15 – At msrp? Yes! Otherwise $160 tops, and then only if nothing else were vying for my $$$.

To my surprise, tasting these final ounces of the Old Rip next to among the first handful of ounces of this Pappy, I’m inclined toward the Old Rip. I am an oak fan, for certain, and I get strong oak notes in both. I appreciate how the Old Rip’s caramel aspects keep up with the oak, and even take the lead. Whereas the exceptionally rich caramel on the Pappy’s nose backs off substantially after the pallet’s first wave, at which point the tasty oak pushes the caramel back with quite a bit of force.

The nose goes to Pappy. That incredibly dark and decadent caramel is just so striking. The taste then goes to Old Rip. Its nicely swaying balance between the caramel, fruit, and oak is so easy to swing along with. The Pappy’s dominating oak is not at all unpleasant, simply less complex. The finish likewise goes to Old Rip, for its complexity. Whereas the Pappy’s nicely refined oak does begin to show its tannins just a bit, adding a wee splinter to disturb its exceptionally smooth nose and taste.

And then, literally, the final sip of this Old Rip:

OLD RIP 10
the final sip:

NOSE – gooey caramel

TASTE – oak in a stream of caramel

FINISH – caramel and oak. Oak and caramel. Words force me to put one first, but they’re seamlessly blended together in one circular swirl.

That was a good bottle. I’ve been savoring it ounce by ounce for many months, during which time it has remained very consistent. I would gladly pick up another. But I would never pay three digits for it. There are other enjoyable, affordable premium bourbons out there to be had—Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, for example, which offers its own decadent mix of oak and caramel. Or certain of the independently bottled single barrel, cask strength scotches I’ve picked up—like a Craigellachie “The Sovereign” 12 year single malt or a Croftengea “Hepburn’s Choice” 12 year single malt, both bottled in 2018 by Hunter Laing—offering rich and caramel-dripping tasting experiences on par with Van Winkle, without at all being the same.

To sink $300 or $800 into either of these Van Winkles? Oh my goodness, no. Wait patiently for a bottle close to msrp. It will happen, no matter what people say. It’s happened to me three times now. It can happen again.

I did once pay $325 for a 48-year-old Strathclyde single barrel, cask strength, single grain scotch. (Another bottling courtesy of Hunter Laing.) That was a singular experience I knew would not come around often, if ever again. Whereas the Van Winkles come around—somewhere—every year.

I poured another taste of the Pappy 15, this time in the Norlan Rauk glass:

PAPPY 15
in a Norlan Rauk:

NOSE – all dark thick caramel all the time

TASTE – the oak still very forward, but now allowing more of the tangy caramel to show itself

FINISH – the oak now just one step more forward-footed than the caramel, and lingering for. Eh. Ver.

I am going to enjoy this bottle. I’ll play with it in various glasses. It’s benefitting from the Rauk. Perhaps had I Rauked it initially, and done the Old Rip in the brandy glass, all the above would be different…?

Though I will cherish this Pappy 15 over the next however-many months, if I had the choice between another Pappy 15 or another Old Rip 10 I’d likely go with the Old Rip 10. I appreciate its balance. And the money I would not have spent on the more expensive bottle could go toward something else, like rent or groceries. Or some other bottle. 😉

But again, why decide between them? Literally, only because of the price. Potentially, and at any price, one could get two Old Rips for the price of one Pappy 15. I’d do that deal in a second. Not gonna hold my breath, of course.

When this tasting was done, I spontaneously applauded. They are very good. Just so satisfying, sweet, oaky, and interesting. Smelling the now empty glasses, the Old Rip 10 remnants are all wonderful caramel, baking spices, and oak, and the Pappy 15 all oak, apple pie crust dough, and baking spices.

It’s such a shame that we consumers have gone about shoving the Van Winkles so far out of our own reach. The whole Van Winkle phenomenon helps me understand that the real problem is not Buffalo Trace Distillery that makes it, or the distributers that deal it out, or the stores who jack up the prices. It’s the consumers who go blind-bat bonkers online, driving the price up all on our own FOMO-fueled accord. We made this happen. And now our snowball (bourbon ball?) is too big and fast to stop.

So, enjoy any Van Winkle bourbon while, when, and if you can. So long as you’ve paid within your wallet and mind’s comfort zone, you won’t be disappointed.

Cheers!

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