Only around 84,000 bottles are released each year (less than 10,000 bottles for each State in the US). If you think that’s a lot, compare with 84 million bottles of Jim Beam (a million and a half bottles per State). The online superstore, Gear Control, writes in their magazine: “Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is super rare and the vast majority of people will go their entire lives without sampling any.” In most States it is sold by ballot: consumers apply for tickets, the lucky winners are drawn and offered the chance to buy a bottle.
The eponymous Julian ‘Pappy’ van Winkle was a brilliant bourbon salesman in the 1890's who eventually became the president of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Kentucky. His son and grandson, Julian van Winkle Jr. and Julian van Winkle III, ran the distillery until the family sold it in 1972, but kept the family name alive in the bourbon business by buying back old barrels from Stitzel-Weller and other distilleries and bottling the whiskey under the Old Rip Van Winkle label.
In the 1980's, Julian van Winkle III started bottling blends of exceptional and very old bourbons. Eventually those became the modern line of the Van Winkle range, including the three oldest expressions: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year Old, 20 Year Old and 23 Year Old.
In 1996, a sales rep in Chicago entered the 20 Year Old into a Beverage Tasting Institute panel: it was awarded 99 out of 100 points, the highest ever score for a bourbon. Rave reviews began to roll in, culminating in 2012 when the late Anthony Bourdain, super-celebrity chef, author and film star, ordering the 20 Year Old and saying on screen: “That is an incredibly wonderful bourbon whose name I’m not gonna mention because there are just too many sons of bitches out there who want it.” He later tweeted that he was considering getting a full-back Pappy tattoo! Demand exploded, stimulated by the fact that it far outstripped supply.
Pappy is described as a ‘wheated bourbon’, with a mash bill which has a higher quantity of wheat than normal, bestowing a velvety texture and sweeter taste. The original stocks of Stitzel-Weller whiskeys seem to have been used up in the early 2000's, and now fillings come from the massive Buffalo Trace Distillery, owned by Sazerac. Interestingly, the latter confirms that the mash bill is the same as Buffalo Trace’s other wheated bourbons, like W.L. Weller.
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Tasting Notes
- Kentucky Bourbon
- 23 Year Old
- 47.8% vol
Very deep amber in colour. A fresh nose-feel and a highly complex aroma: the top notes are sweet (maple syrup, plum jam, then vanilla toffee) and faintly herbal (allspice, black pepper, camphor), all on a mellow base of oakwood. Artichokes in the development. A creamy texture and a taste which starts lightly sweet, with vanilla ice cream in mid-palate, finishing minty and spicy. A very long warming finish. Outstanding.
Tasting note: Maple syrup, plum jam, then vanilla toffee… all on a mellow base of oakwood.