In the bourbon world, as in the wine world, there are some brands and bottles that achieve a near legendary status. Most of us will never lay our hands on a pre-Seagrams bottle of Four Roses or a 1970s vintage bottle of Old Bardstown or a pre-prohibition bottle of anything. But sometimes, if the stars line up just right, you can get a bottle of 23 year-old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.
I decided in the spring of 2009 that I wanted a bottle of 23 year Pappy. Two weeks before the first Saturday in May, I flew from Dallas to Louisville for my friend Adam’s annual Thunder Over Louisville party. Adam, being the good sport that he is, drove me to several of Louisville’s finer liquor stores in search of my great white whale. One store had an empty spot in their display cabinet with the appropriate label and price tag. The rest didn’t even have that much. I left Louisville disappointed.
When I got back to Dallas, I started calling around; hoping that I might get lucky. And, amazingly enough, I did. The Goody Goody in Addison had a single bottle of 23 year-old Pappy, and it was cheaper than the nonexistent bottle in Louisville. I rushed over and gladly dropped $200 on bottle C964 of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 year-old Family Reserve.
And I didn’t open it until June.
And I didn’t much like it the first time around.
It seemed rough, harsh, and not at all what I expected from a good bourbon.
Since then I’ve tasted a lot of different bourbons and I’ve returned to the Pappy many times. Every time I come back to the Pappy I find it more enjoyable and sadly there’s less and less of it to enjoy. I now find myself saving the Pappy for “special occasions”.
I don’t think there’s a more special occasion than the birth of my first child. Baby A came home from the hospital on Monday morning and a wee bit of Pappy came out of the bottle on Monday night.
This is the point where I would usually tell you all about Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and how he started out at the W. L. Weller Distillery before buying both it and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. I’d tell you about his son and grandson and how they revived the Old Rip Van Winkle and Van Winkle Family Reserve brands in the 1970s. I’d also talk about how the whiskey is currently produced and bottled at Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace Distillery. But you can read all about it on Wikipedia if you want.
Tonight, I’d rather talk about the bourbon.
The Pappy has a nice cinnamon/honey color that reminds me of Kentucky in autumn. The nose leads off with strong oak and vanilla, but it will open up to reveal notes of toffee and leather if you give it time. The first sip is a bit sharp around the edges. Oak, leather, and tobacco roll across the palate along with warm, dark spices. The finish is moderately long, warm and spicy, with lingering notes of vanilla and oak.
This is a complex bourbon that requires time and patience. If you try to rush in and gulp it down, you’re not likely to get much out of it beyond a bit of oak and a 90 proof burn. But if you take your time, the Pappy will open up and present a very unique drinking experience. If you have the time, and you can find a bottle, I highly recommend spending an evening sipping your way through a bit of Pappy and thinking about how far you’ve come since the bourbon went into the barrel 23 years ago.
I look at my newborn daughter and I know I’ve come a long way. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 23 years bring.