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Weekend Cocktail: Drinking Van Winkle With My Father

The Van Winkle bourbon family is lauded by just about everyone as some of the best stuff in the world. I tried it with my father.


I realized the other day that I’ve started to think of my father as “the old man.” I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate that. I myself am approaching an age when I can no longer be mistaken for a youth, so perhaps age and time are on my mind. More specifically, how quickly it goes and how much of it I waste.

Happily, I was able to meet Dad for dinner on his birthday, which is the day after my wedding anniversary. Heedless of the specter of our mortality, a fine time was had in Richmond at one of those twee organic, locavore restaurants that surprise you by actually serving delicious food. Upon completion of the meal, we retired to Dad’s house in the boonies for an after-dinner libation. It was then that he decided to treat himself (and me) by breaking into his reserve of Van Winkle bourbon.

There has been a mania for good bourbon in recent years as people have rediscovered a love for finely crafted cocktails and liquors, and Pappy Van Winkle has been the focus of many an obsessive hunt. Due to the caprice of fate, a good recipe, Pappy’s foresight, or whatever you want to credit, Van Winkle has produced a limited quantity of very fine – no; exceptional bourbons. Unique character and smooth finishes are signatures of this “wheated” bourbon, but its salient feature is its rarity.

They are nearly impossible to obtain unless you are very lucky or have a connection with a distributor. They are so scarce that the deliverymen were being jumped at one point. The merest dram of Pappy will set you back $50 in Suffolk, VA (I should know; I was the fool who ordered it there). It’s a little bit absurd. As they bottle the last of the old Stitzel-Weller barrels, the bourbon that drives men mad will only become more prized.

It’s damn good bourbon, though, and over the last year and a half Dad (born in Kentucky to a Kentucky woman) managed to procure a peculiar amount of the various Van Winkles for his arsenal. Two of these came to me through means circuitous and vague – means I was instructed not to discuss in too much detail, but that involved the Louisville branch of the family. While I was not gifted a bottle of the Pappy, I did receive the 10 and 12 year old bourbons from their line. These are still a cut or three above many of the small batches out there today. As was his right, Dad kept the Pappy 20 along with his own bottle of 12.

Surrounded by Dad’s omnipresent stacks of old books, we were warm and comfortable as we listened to the wind pick up and what would prove to be a stubborn rain set in. I was in no hurry to leave. We settled ourselves down for a tasting.

What follows are our impressions of the 10, 12, and 20 year offerings from the Van Winkle line. If you have the chance to try any of them, take that chance. These were all taken straight, with no ice or water, and only the gentlest of palate cleansings in between.

Old Rip Van Winkle 10yr

This youngest of the Van Winkle bourbons is bottled as nearly as can be to cask-strength. Just a bit of water goes into it at bottling, which leaves it a bracing 107 proof. Interestingly enough, the higher proof doesn’t translate to a rougher drink. This is good sippin’ whiskey. You could add some branch water to this and not be thought a criminal.

Nose: Assertive, but sweet and enticing. A bit of caramel, vanilla, and a very perceptible oak.

Sip: Spicy on the tongue. An expansive, pleasant heat that spreads itself out around the mouth and stays with you all the way down. Warm and brash. You’ll find the flavor of oak you gleaned from the nose is there. The vanilla on the finish is undeniably smooth.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yr Lot “B”

The 12-year takes the proof back down to 90.4. Reports on this one vary from year to year – generally the older the better. I found it the least interesting of the three we sampled, but that doesn’t mean it was somehow deficient. It’s good bourbon – better than most, actually – and more readily available than the Pappy, which makes it very attractive indeed.

Nose: Much less pronounced than the 10, but still that detectable, delectable oaky vanilla, spice and caramel.

Sip: Mellow, subtle, more restrained and rounded than the 10. Hold this in your mouth and savor it a bit. You’ll be able to pick out notes of dried fruit, honey, maybe a little pepper.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20yr

Coming in at 90.4 proof, this one is in an entirely different league. The old stocks of the Stitzel-Weller barrels are still being used for these, and it shows. It’s not really fair to compare it directly to the other two, as it is so markedly superior in every respect: color, smell, taste, even that self-important feeling you get from imbibing it. This is bourbon to beat the world. It lives up to the hype.

Nose: More aromatic than the 12. Rich, full. Less sweet than spicy. You could sit there and sniff it all day trying to pick out the complexities, but don’t you do that. You go ahead and sip it.

Sip: It sips like few others. Syrupy-smooth. Dramatically refined and a joy on the palate. Full-flavored yet subtle notes of honey, cinnamon, vanilla, and myriad others. It coats your mouth and throat with a smooth, warm glow – all the way down. This bourbon seeps into your soul and airily dismisses any worries it finds.

Dad found himself five bottles of the Van Winkle, but until that evening I’d only been privy to the existence of four. I had to take a moment to admire the sly fellow when he pulled from his cabinet a black velvet bag embroidered in gold, within which was contained an unopened bottle of Pappy Van Winkle that had been aged twenty-three years. The old man gazed at the treasure in his hand for a moment, then put it away reverently.

“Some other day,” he murmured.

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