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Van Winkle 12 Year Old Special Reserve

Average score from 2 reviews and 18 ratings 88

Van Winkle 12 Year Old Special Reserve

Product details

  • Brand: Van Winkle
  • Bottler: Unknown
  • ABV: 45.2%
  • Age: 12 year old

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Van Winkle 12 Year Old Special Reserve

In a perfect world, the Van Winkles would be as ubiquitous as the Kardashians, and the Kardashians would be as obscure as the Van Winkles. Liquor stores large and small maintain waiting lists for any member of the Van Winkle family, whether it be Pappy, Old Rip, or this 12-year-old kid. Some store owners apparently feel this affords them license to charge preposterous premium prices for Winkles as of late. I was lucky enough to purchase a bottle of the 12 yo for the semi-reasonable price of $90 last fall. As of last week, the same store is now asking $200 for the lone bottle of 12 in its locked glass case. They may know better than I what their market will bear, but this verges on absurdity qua absurdity, even in the mercenary whisky world of 2013. This is good bourbon, to be sure, but it’s not $200 worth of good. Don’t equate scarcity with quality. There are many bourbons at ¼ the price or less that are far superior.

Enough editorializing. Down to the whiskey.

I consider myself a Scotch enthusiast (as opposed to expert) who enjoys bourbon as an occasional change of pace. Scotch outnumbers bourbon in my cabinet by about a four-to-one ratio, so these notes are the opinion of a Scotch guy who prefers rye-flavored to wheated bourbons. The wheated ones are usually too syrupy sweet for my palate. Give me the fruity, minty, rye type of sweetness any day.

That said, this is an exception to my rule. I actually enjoy the sweetness of the Van Winkle 12; it’s certain other components that elicit some minor gripes.

Nose: A surprising amount of alcohol for a medium-strength whiskey. I find the sweetness a bit one-dimensional: mostly caramel popcorn and little else. There are some chemical, nail-polish-y notes lurking in the shadows, although they’re not overly intrusive or unpleasant. The bold elements are decent, but the nose lacks finesse overall.

Palate: The arrival and development are exceptional. Smooth and soft, yet fairly complex. Rain-soaked wood (or what I imagine rain-soaked wood would taste like) is as prominent as the array of sweet flavors: honey, vanilla, coffee with sugar and cream, hints of chocolate and cinnamon, and more caramel popcorn. It’s at this stage that the VW 12 earns its points. The nose and finish may not wow me, but I could hold this stuff on my tongue forever.

The finish is of decent length and retains most of the good sweet components, but there’s also some bitter tea and a return of the chemical acidity at the very end. The start of the finish is much better than the finish of the finish.

I hope someday to be able to sample the elder Van Winkles, but the scarcity and/or price of the dads and granddads precludes my acquaintance with them for now. If the 12 year-old wasn’t the phenomenal experience for which I’d hoped, he seems precocious enough to have come from good stock.

@WhiskyBee, thanks for a very nice review. One thing that has impressed me with Van Winkle 12 yo Special Reserve has been rather significant batch variation, especially with regard to degree of spiciness. I have liked the batches I have tried, but they have ranged from very mild in spice to quite spicy. I attribute the spice in Van Winkle 12 to the oak, and not to the wheat. I prefer them on the spicier side.

I couldn't agree with you more about the absurdity of the degree of scarcity and pricing coming onto the whole Van Winkle line, especially having started with this most recent Fall 2012 release. I too bought a bottle of the Fall 2012 release, and also paid $ 90 plus tax for it. I hadn't asked in advance what it would cost, because I had never previously paid more than $ 60 for a VW12, and would not have dreamt that it could have been at $98 including the tax. I never would have closed out the transaction had I known in advance the price. In Fall 2010 I had picked up 6 bottles of it for $ 35 each. Those have almost all been given away as presents now. Fortunately I still have enough Van Winkle stored away to last for awhile. At current prices the only good buys remaining with the Van Winkles are the 10 year old Old Rip Van Winkles.

It is a little puzzling why the whiskey is so scarce. Either production 10 to 15 years ago at Buffalo Trace Distillery did not pick up sufficiently to meet current 2013 demands for aged product or there is some deliberate scarcity being induced.

@paddockjudge, I have historically been quite the rye fanatic myself. When I first discovered rye whiskey, the standard rye-containing bourbons just did not seem rye-y enough to satisfy me anymore. My mind was absolutely blown by (Stitzel-Weller) Pappy Van Winkle 15...and I could not believe that my favourite bourbon was now a wheated bourbon. But I and a lot of other people really love the wheat flavours. I have seen it again and again and again in my broad-spectrum whisk(e)y tastings with relative whisk(e)y newbies: there are a lot of people who love the wheat flavours from a well-made wheated product. And wheat has a blending/bundling-of-flavours effect with oak which no other grain currently being used for whisk(e)y-making has.

Great review, especially from a self-proclaimed Scotch enthusiast. The editorial was informative and entertaining and very much enjoyable.

I am a self-proclaimed rye hound, yet oddly enough I prefer wheated bourbon over rye-heavy bourbon. Your use of caramel popcorn as a descriptor is bang on. I've often found myself munching on a bowl of Poppycock® after a pour of wheated bourbon.


"Lot B" 12 year old Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbon is, like all of the other Van Winkle bourbons, a wheated bourbon,i.e. a bourbon containing wheat as the "flavouring grain" instead of the rye which is used as the "flavouring grain" in 95% of bourbon whiskeys.

Nose: refined sweet honey, slightly spicy wheat, and the oak flavours of vanilla and caramel. This is aromatic and pleasant to the nose.

Taste: refined sweet wheat flavours with very noticeable oak-- both oak as oak and oak as its cousin flavour sweet maple. If you are in a mood for subtle and refined, with a clean palate, you can enjoy this mightily. If you are expecting an aggressive display of fireworks or your palate has anything on it you will not taste much.

Finish: there is a fairly lengthy finish of a blending of the oak and wheat flavours, rather melded together and not easily distinguishable. The finish is as sweet as the delivery on the palate.

Balance: this is gentle, refined, and a little subtle. I would attribute the subtlety largely to this being bottled at 45.2%. This is dilute to my taste, expecially when compared to the 3 years older Pappy Van Winkle 15 yo, which is also sold at the much less diluted 53.5% ABV. This is a lovely refined wheated bourbon, but I would like it much better at a higher ABV with more concentration of flavours.

@stevesmyth30, frame of mind has a lot to do with choosing a whisky for a particular time and place, as do general taste preferences. As relates to Van Winkle bourbons, they occupy a rather unusual niche with regards to both taste profile and vary a good deal with respect to concentration/abv among themselves. Something like the Van Winkle 12 yo often (especially the Fall 2010 release) has a delicate flavour profile which I find I cannot even taste if I have been drinking anything else first. That one I can enjoy fully only on a very clean palate. Parker's Heritage Wheated 10 yo, a wonderful wheated bourbon, is also barrel proof, with typical %abv in the 60s, compared to the 45% of Van Winkle 12. Looking at VW12 and Parker's 10 side by side is to me almost analagous to comparing Aberlour 10 and Aberlour A'bunadh. And Vintage 17, do you have a wheated one there, or is that the usual rye-mash Vintage 17 bourbon? Wheated and rye bourbons are such totally different flavour profiles. I tend to only compare them according to type.

Not everyone is going to like Stitzel-Weller Pappy Van Winkle 15, either. But you can dispose of the rest of your bottle in a millisecond. I'll be the first in line.

Victor: I didnt even think to compare wheated to rye-mash. I agree they are very different. As I am still so new to this, the Vintage 17 does not indicate which, however based on the slight spicy notes, should I assume Rye? its the green label 17 year old. Please, be patient with me, as I am learning. We enjoyed all the bourbons we tasted, thats sort of why I brought those 4 out, as they were my 4 favorites in my collection. I also often perform the cardinal sin of having a good cigar with my bourbon, which friends say hides the taste of the "juice"....but I know I like what I like. As far as the 15 year old...there is still half a bottle left, and I have been reading about not letting bottles with less than 1/2 sit for too long...opinions vary, but why take the chance? If you come up to Boston area, stop by and we can finish the rest of it, Victor. It does taste best when we are at the beach house we rent for 3 weeks every summer on Cape Cod.....somehow "frame of mind" in those instances do make it taste better. :) happy sipping

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