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.