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The late Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle is one of the great icons of American whiskey. Beloved for his bourbon, rye, and witticisms such as “We make fine bourbon/At a profit if we can/At a loss if we must/But always fine bourbon”, his name lives on through a number of eponymous whiskey brands, all coveted by American whiskey devotees. These whiskeys remain the core of the family business, first owned by Pappy, then by Julian Van Winkle, Jr., and now by Julian Van Winkle III and his son, Preston. To this day, they still hand bottle the whiskey.
It’s difficult enough for whiskey appreciators to sort out the parent owners of various brands—Sazerac, for instance, owns the Barton, Benchmark, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee, and Weller brands, to name just a few—but the Van Winkle name poses the opposite problem: work is required to establish not the owners, but the many sources of their whiskey. This is because the Van Winkle whiskeys that currently grace the shelves of some (lucky) stores are sourced from not one but four distilleries. The Old Rip Van Winkle and Van Winkle Special Reserve bourbons are produced at Buffalo Trace, using the Weller mash bill (the wheated bourbon recipe produced at Buffalo Trace). The Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye is a “co-mingling” of Medley and Bernheim (Cream of Kentucky) rye, though it will eventually be made entirely at Buffalo Trace. Finally, the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons—anything with that charming image of Pappy smoking a cigar on the label—originate from a wheated mash bill produced at the now-defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery, built by Pappy himself (one suspects with the help of a construction crew) in 1935 and closed in 1992.
Because all of the whiskey in the Pappy Van Winkle line is sourced from the Stitzel-Weller distillery, we are nearing the end of the supply. Many will be sad to see this venerable “juice” go, myself included. It is as if we are tasting history.
The nose is profoundly delicious, with heady butterscotch, cinnamon, sarsaparilla syrup, and cherries. Occasionally, there arise notes of damp sawdust, grapefruit, and maple syrup stirred into oatmeal.
The palate is rich, with butterscotch, baking spices, and a touch of furniture polish. Grapefruit appears again, carrying through the finish.
The Pappy Van Winkle bourbons have a “cult” following, and it’s not hard to see why that is. It is exceptional bourbon, and it is nearly gone. One can only hope that the other Van Winkle brands are of similarly good quality. Word has it that they very well might be.