The Van Winkle legend has clearly surpassed the liquid contained in the bottles and taken on a life of its own (see Scotland's Port Ellen and Japan's Karuizawa for similar examples) but when good friends win a Van Winkle tasting at a charity auction it's good form to show up when invited and sample some hard to find whiskey (and find out if it's actually worth drinking).
Nothing poured was worth the current pricing but that's an indictment on current pricing rather than the spirit. What follows are a series of honest reviews of the 2014 releases in the Van Winkle line-up. I haven't dressed up my notes to reflect the rarity or cost of these bottles.
And I had the pleasure of tasting them with a group of whiskey drinkers who were focused on the qualities of each whiskey regardless of bottle price. Really fun night!
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old, 43.5% alc./107 Proof, $400-$500
C: Dark Amber
N: Rich grain, cherry wood, sweet corn
P: Woody with corn to the front and a lingering sweetness that transitions into the finish
F: Short but sweet
In conclusion: A perfectly pleasant wheated bourbon that would drink well on a little ice.
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old, Lot B, 45.2% alc./90.4 Proof, $400-$600
C: Dark Amber
N: Warm pork fat and brown sugar, buttered popcorn and subtle wood, somehow mint floss
P: Sweet with balanced corn and wood, pleasant oiliness
F: Very subtle wood spice with soft ground grey pepper
In conclusion: A very interesting wheated bourbon that presented
some surprising notes (see "warm pork fat" and "mint floss"!)
Pappy Can Winkle 15 Year Old, 53.5% alc./107 Proof, $900-$1500
C: Bright Amber
N: Very herbal and vegetal with pronounced char, peanut shells, and some spice
P: Spice to the front, more wood, sweetness behind
F: Pleasant pepper, lingering wood, hints of spice
In conclusion: Given the pronounced char and spice thread this was my favorite of the night
Pappy Can Winkle 20 Year Old, 45.2% alc./90.4 Proof, $1300-$2000
C: Dark Amber
N: Dried apricots, sliced almonds, dried cranberries, and flat cherry Coke
P: Ongoing cherry Coke notes with sweet corn and warm wood
F: Lingering sweetness with dark chocolate and dried cherries
In conclusion: I thoroughly enjoyed the dried fruit notes and
lingering sweetness. For some of the group this was the night's
winner. I'd need a bit more spice and char for it to take the
night for me. Very decent, though!
Pappy Can Winkle 23 Year Old, 47.8% alc./95.6 Proof, $2000-$3500
C: Dark Amber
N: Soft caramel, warming oak, and an intriguing fennel/anise note around the edges
P: Again with cherry Coke notes, sweet to the front, peppery to the back
F: Silky with a dill explosion that's followed by milk chocolate and pepper warmth
In conclusion: Good in its own right but the 20 Year Old has more interesting dried fruit notes and the 15 Year Old has better spice notes. I did enjoy the appearance of fennel/anise notes, however.
Bonus Pappy (because when you're having a good night there's nothing wrong with getting really spoiled!):
Pappy Can Winkle 15 Year Old, 53.5% alc./107 Proof, $900-$1500 (2012 Release)
C: Really Dark Amber
N: Some char, some pepper, some dust, fresh jalapeño skin
P: Quite herbaceous (hints of dill), wood shavings, and wood lacquer
F: Peppery with exquisite char elements
In conclusion: A close runner up to the 2014 release 15 Year Old but just a little dusty (think dried cardboard) in comparison. The char notes and spice are a little quieter in comparison, too.
Van Winkle Rye Family Reserve 13 Year Old, C-series, 47.8% alc./95.6 Proof, $1000-$1300
C: Dark Gold
N: Dill, milk chocolate, buttery yet dusty and woody (this aspect messed with my head!)
P: Very pleasant spice with a wonderful buttery texture
F: Lingering wood and soft spice
In conclusion: I thoroughly enjoyed this rye whiskey and would love to
add it to my own collection (minus the zero on the end of the current prices). How
it pulls off buttery, dusty, and woody is beyond me. I recommend
hunting out a sample if your palate tends towards rye.
Overall: I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to taste such unicorns. As we discussed on the night, it's hard to taste such expensive whiskies without thinking a little about the cost (we sampled between $7k and $11k worth of whiskey over a few hours) and thinking the most expensive is the best but the truth of the matter is that the 15 Year Old and 20 Year Old releases showed better than the 23 Year Old.