Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Aberlour 12 Year

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $38

In the months leading up to my trip to Florida, where I was invited to host a Scotch dinner, dozens of emails and texts were exchanged during the process of ironing out the logistical details of the event. Somewhere in the mix, there was a request for me to cover the single malts from the dinner here, on my blog. “Of course, not a problem” was my immediate response.

As my date of departure drew near, the time required for my preparations seemed to grow exponentially. Sleep was low on my list of priorities and the early morning flight I had been scheduled for saw me rising at an hour that was close to my normal bed time. I may very well be the first person to experience jetlag while flying north to south. Once I was in the spotlight and focused on the task at hand, the promised reviews completely slipped my mind and proper tasting notes were never taken.

Of course a few months later my forgotten commitment came flooding back into my consciousness with feelings of compunction. Promptness has never been one of my strengths, but damn-it, I’m a man of my word; one way or another, the reviews will be written.

I’m starting with the easiest one (as in most readily available in my local area): Aberlour 12 year. I wrote about Aberlour 10 year almost two years ago, but neglected to mention the proper pronunciation, which is ab-er-low-er; it rhymes with power.

I picked this bottle up during a brief trip through New Hampshire where it normally retails for $38, but I caught it on sale for $36. With Scotch whisky prices rising at an alarming pace in recent years, it’s refreshing to see Aberlour holding the line with what they are charging. Some brands have instituted modest price increases for their least expensive offerings while letting prices jump ever more dramatically as you move up through their more costly bottlings. Aberlour seems to be bucking this trend as well, with their 16 year and cask strength A’bunadh continuing to retail at a very reasonable price points.

I realize that escalating input costs (grain, fuel, transportation, etc) are partly to blame for whisky becoming more expensive, but the main driver is supply and demand. Although we’ve seen the Scotch industry manage its supply issues to an extent with “no age statement” whiskies, they see to have a particular affinity for using price increases as a solution. The current boom period, which slowly ramped up through the 1990’s, probably would have come to and end, or at least stalled out, after the 2008 financial crisis. But demand from emerging markets (primarily China and India) have continued to drive the upward trend for the last five years. We have now reached the point of large increases in production capacity with the building of new distilleries and the expansion of existing facilities.

But every boom period in the past has had its bust, and this one will be no different. The only unknowns are when it will come and how far demand will drop. I really do fear that some of the companies that are going overboard taking advantage (financially) of the current situation are setting themselves up for failure when the present trend reverses.

Okay, time to step off of my soapbox and drink some whisky.

The bottle states that this is a marriage of Sherry casks and traditional (Bourbon) casks. The proportions are not revealed, but the medium-to-dark amber color suggests a significant Sherry cask contribution.
The nose is fairly soft but shows itself to be primarily fruit-forward, with spice, malt and very subtle peat notes rounding things out.
On the palate the spice character is a little more assertive, bringing balance to the complex fruit flavors and malty base. A barely perceptible hint of peat adds depth.

The body is on the heavy side of medium, but flavor-wise it starts off a little thin up front. Coming to life in the mid palate, it remains balanced and engaging through the lengthy, spice driven finish.

This is certainly a respectable single malt Scotch. But having tasted (and been more than impressed by) the cask strength A’bunadh, and knowing that it is the only Aberlour which is not chill-filtered, I can only wonder what potential could be unlocked from the 12 year old by the elimination of that flavor stripping process.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wathen's Single Barrel Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, no age statement, 47%, $35

In the recent Van Winkle 12 year post, I alluded to the fact that there are many American whiskey brands whose backgrounds quickly become cloudy as one starts to research them. The ambiguity can revolve around either the lineage of the brand or the source of the liquid in the bottle, but often both are suspect.

The Van Winkle brand is relatively transparent. The family has been quite open about their partnership with Buffalo Trace, and the changing sources of their whiskey over the last ten years. Their ancestral distilling lineage is also undeniable and well documented. It can be tough to tell which distillery an older bottle came from if it lacks the date stamp, but I’d put that down to a lack of modern technology on the bottling line rather than any attempted deception.

The story of Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon starts off much the same as that of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. But as their histories progress they follow divergent paths, and in spite of Wathen’s having a clear lineage, the current source of the whiskey has become shrouded in mystery.

The brand traces its roots back through two families which were both heavily involved in the bourbon industry well back into the 1800’s. The Wathens and Medleys came together by marriage around 1900, although they may have been connected prior to that. At various points through the last 200 years the two families owned no less than half a dozen different distilleries, but only one is of concern here. The Green River Distillery, built in Owensboro, KY in 1899, was purchased by brothers John Medley and R. Wathen Medley in 1940. They changed its name to the Medley Distillery, and although the whiskey was bottled under several different brand names, the brothers began to pick the best barrels from the warehouse and bottle them as Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon.

The distillery was sold in 1959, but the Medley brothers stayed on to run the plant. Charles Medley, R.Wathen Medley’s son, took over the role of master distiller in 1969. The distillery changed hands several times before closing in 1987, but it was reopened in 1988 after being purchased by Glenmore Distillers, with Charles Medley continuing as the master distiller.

In 1991 Glemore was acquired by United Distillers, and in 1992 they closed the Medley distillery (as well as Stitzel-Weller and several others) upon opening the new Bernheim distillery. In 1995, United Distillers sold off the former Glenmore assets. Many of the brands and some of the properties were sold to Barton Brands. Charles Medley was able to purchase the distillery, changing the name to Charles Medley Distillery, and much of the existing stock of whiskey he had distilled. There’s a bit of confusion on this point, Charles made whiskey at the Medley Distillery while working for Glenmore Distillers. They also owned a distillery named Glenmore, which was in Owensboro, but production there had stopped before Glenmore (the company) purchased Medley (the distillery). Since Charles was listed as the master distiller for Glenmore, many people assume he made whiskey at the distillery of that name, but this is not the case.

With a supply good quality whiskey, warehouses to store it in, and a bottling line, Charles was able to resurrect Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon. Through the latter half of the 1990’s Wathen’s enjoyed a stellar reputation; Charles Medley had made some top notch whiskey after all. But at the start of the new millennium things started to slowly go adrift. We know that the Charles Medley Distillery stopped producing whiskey in 1992, and although each bottle has a “bottled on” date printed on the label it is still impossible to know when it was distilled since the whiskey carries no age statement. I’ve seen some speculation that it is a 7 year old, or at least it was when the whiskey Charles had made was still being bottled. So in all likelihood those original supplies ran out sometime in 1999.

It was about the same time that they (Samuel, Charles’s son, had also joined the business) outgrew the capacity of their bottling line and contracted the bottling out to a company in St. Louis. In 2004 they had a brief supply interruption while switching the bottling and distribution over to a company in San Jose, CA. I believe the Medleys had hoped to eventually restart whiskey production at their distillery, but those plans never came to fruition. The facility was finally sold to Angostura (the company that makes bitters) in 2007. They announced plans to restart distillation there, but after investing quite a bit of money in renovations over the course of two years everything came to a halt when Angostura's parent company, CL Financial, had a liquidity crisis. They still own the dormant distillery, which has been for sale for several years now.

So, what we do know is that more than 20 years after the Medley distillery fell silent it is likely that all of the whiskey produced there was put into bottles long ago. It is probable that Wathen’s Single Barrel Bourbon transitioned to a different source sometime around 1999. The problem with a sourced whiskey that carries no age statement is that the source and the age can change at anytime and the consumer has no way to know, unless the company decides to reveal that information. I’ve seen some speculation from 2011 that the whiskey was being sourced from Heaven Hill, but that was just speculation based on the flavor profile. It’s anyone’s guess if the age is still around the presumed 7 year mark, or if it has drifted downward. 

Unfortunately the information I have laid out above was quite difficult to put together (hence the two and a half week gap since my last post), not to mention all of the incorrect and conflicting stories that had to be sorted through. The worst part though is that the Medleys have chosen to obfuscate much of the true information rather than being forthright with the details of their whiskey. It starts off subtly with the way the wording is laid out on the label: “Eight generations, 250 years” is presented in a way that misleads many people into thinking that the bottle carries an 8 year age statement. The tag that hangs from the bottle’s neck has text laden with terms such as “exacting standards”, “family yeast” and “hands-on expertise”, all of which do a very good job of making it sound like the Medleys are still actively distilling this bourbon. And then there is the website: with a page titled “our distillery” featuring a picture of the distillery that they sold six years ago, and a picture titled “bourbon in the works” showing frothy liquid in the fermentation tanks (presumably taken in 1992); deceptive is the only word that comes to mind.

Going back and reading old threads on bourbon discussion forums can be quite informative. It seems that Wathen’s was well liked in the late 90’s and still had its fans in the early 2000’s in spite of a slight drop in quality. It was speculated that Charles had the ability to select good barrels, regardless of their source. In a 2011 discussion the reputation of Wathen’s was still intact for the most part, but in more current reviews it seems to be drifting closer to mediocrity. Maybe Charles’s palate is not as discerning as it was in his earlier years, or perhaps he is letting his less experienced son choose the barrels now.

I tasted a bottle from Barrel number 745, bottled on Jan 18, 2013. Here are my impressions:

The color is light golden amber.
On the nose I get dusty grain and mild earthy spice notes. The aromas are densely packed, but with mild to moderate intensity.
The palate is mild up front but quickly becomes fairly robust. Sweet vanilla, fruit and grain are the main components with just a slight off flavor in the mix, though it’s not terribly complex.
Toward the end it smoothly transitions into a warming spice laden finish which lingers for some time as it gently fades. As all the other flavors fall away, the slight off flavor from the mid-palate re-emerges at the tail-end.
Overall it’s a decent bourbon. I’m a little indifferent to the early/mid flavors, but it comes to life on the finish, with just a hint of disappointment at the very end.

Looking online I saw a huge range of prices for this bourbon, from $25 to $60, but it generally seems to run around the $35 mark. It’s not a bad whiskey, but I think many better options are available at that price point, and I’m really bothered by the deceitful tactics used to market it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Springbank Whisky School bottling, 2012

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Campbeltown, no age statement, 48.4%, $1560*

I’ve been spending a good bit of time on the discussion forum of lately, sometimes participating and other times just doing research for blog posts. As one would imagine, most of the topics there revolve around American whiskey. But there’s a decent amount of general whiskey talk happening there as well.

One recent thread that caught my attention was titled “Threshold for cracking open a special bottle”. While there were a few people who noted special occasions such as the birth of a child or a 50th birthday as the motivation to open one of their most prized bottles, the general consensus was that merely being in possession of an extraordinary bottle was reason enough to break the seal.

The group of people represented in that discussion had a few serious collectors and a few people who never keep more than a few bottles on hand, but I think most of the participants shared my situation; we buy bottles faster than we drink them and end up with a collection even though we would not consider ourselves collectors per se.

In this case it is normal to delay opening a newly acquired bottle simply because one already has too many open bottles. I find myself sitting on more and more unopened bottles these days as I try to push through some of the ones I opened years ago.

I made the point that I’m happy to open a special bottle anytime without reason, other than the fact that I feel like drinking it, and if I feel like drinking something exceptional on my birthday I usually have at least a few special bottles already open.

The whole conversation got me looking over my collection (the unopened ones anyway) and the standout was the bottle I was given upon graduating from the Springbank Whisky School. It’s been a year since my epic journey to Scotland and I’ve definitely been feeling nostalgic about the trip lately. In spite of my disinclination to commemorate significant events by opening special bottles, I decided that it would perfectly appropriate to crack open my graduation bottle on the one year anniversary of having received it.

Being the diligent blogger that I am, I committed myself to getting some background information on the whisky itself. I remember Frank McHardy (Springbank’s Director of Production) being a little cagey when pressed for details about the whisky at the graduation ceremony, only noting that it was a vatting of whiskies ranging from 10 years to 18 years.

I sent an email off to Janet Blair (Springbank’s PR person, among other duties), and she said she’d look into it. I didn’t hear back for a few weeks so I sent a follow-up email. She emailed me back with the unfortunate news that Gavin McLachlan (the Distillery Manager) only said that it was “special” and wouldn’t give up any details. At her suggestion I emailed Gavin directly. It’s been about four days now and no response so far.

I have to say that Whisky School was a wonderful experience, but after receiving a special bottle to commemorate such a momentous event it is massively disappointing to be unable to elicit even the most basic of details about the whisky.

Now I’m left to speculate and theorize as to the origins of the graduation whisky. First I poked around online to see if I could learn anything. I wasn’t too hopeful as there aren’t many of these bottles out there, but I did find three Whisky School bottle images: one from 2008 at 57.0% abv, one from 2010 where the abv is hard to read but it looks like it starts with 47 and another from 2012 at 48.4%, the same as the one I have. So it does appear that they make a unique bottling each year.

48.4% abv, that’s kind of an unusual number. Most of the official distillery bottlings from Springbank’s standard lineup are at 46%. They do plenty of single cask bottlings as well, but those are always (as far as I know) at cask strength, which generally falls in the range of the low 50’s to the high 50’s. The only recent exception that I noticed was Springbank Rundlets and Kilderkins (those are small casks, in the 60 liter to 80 liter range) which was at 49.4%, but that carried an age statement of 10 years, so I don’t think there is any connection.

One thing I remembered from Whisky School was that for a normal bottling run a group of casks, maybe up to a dozen, wound be dumped into a large tank and enough water adding to bring it down to roughly 48% abv. After a good mixing it is put back into casks to rest, but not the same ones. The whisky now resides in very old casks that have been used for many years and will simply act as neutral vessels. This step lasts somewhere in the range of a few weeks to a few months and allows all of the flavors to meld together ensuring a consistent product. Bigger operations have a large number of tanks so the whisky can stay in one until it is ready for bottling, there are no such luxuries at Springbank.

The group mingled of casks will be brought back out to the bottling hall when they are ready and dumped into another tank. Now precise measurements will be taken and water added to bring the whisky down to 46% abv before it makes its way into the bottles. It is done this way because most of the water needs to be added before the resting stage, but the abv may change once it is back in casks, so they leave a little water to be added at the end. This is when the abv number has to be accurate; there are government mandated regulations that give little tolerance between the actual percentage of alcohol and that which is listed on the label.

But these bottling runs are usually for a set number of cases and the amount of whisky coming out of the group of casks that were pulled is unlikely to match up. We were told that the excess whisky from a run would go back in a cask and be held for the next run of the same type of whisky. I actually don’t remember if that surplus whisky was set aside when it was at exactly 46% or at 48-ish percent, but the 48.4% abv of my bottle got me to thinking; maybe this is the extra whisky from a group of casks that had gone through the resting phase.

The most likely candidate would be Springbank CV, as it is already a vatting of several cask types and ages. Luckily I have a bottle of Springbank CV to compare. But there was no need to even open it, the colors are so dramatically different (the CV is light the graduation whisky is very dark) that there is no way they are of the same ilk.

As I pored over online databases of Springbank single malt bottlings looking for clues I noticed a few things. The distillery puts out a lot more single cask bottlings than I realized. A quartet of 14 year old Springbanks, each from a different type of sherry cask, came to the U.S. this year. There are several single cask Springbank Society bottlings each year. I’ve seen a 2009 Amontillado Sherry butt bottle on a store shelf. I also found reference to a 13 year old single bourbon barrel bottling that was exclusive to the Belgian market. Oh, and K&L wines in California recently had a Springbank Madeira cask bottled just for them. Those are just a few examples.

As I was looking through all of the information, I realized that the single cask bottlings that had production quantities listed were all in multiple of 6. This makes sense; most whisky is packaged in cases of six bottles. These cases are neatly packed on palates for shipping. They are not going to send out 50 cases and two loose bottles.

So, that brought me to my final theory. There must be some leftover whisky from each single cask bottling, could the Whisky School bottling be a bunch of “leftovers” all vatted together? Well, I’ll have to work through some math to see if this is even reasonable. There were 10 sessions of school in 2012, each with six students. That means there were 60 bottles, each at 48.4% abv. All of the single cask Springbanks seem to be at cask strength, typically between 50% and 60%, so I’m going to say they are at 55% on average.

60 bottles at 70cl each equals 42 liters total. Multiply that by .484 and we get 20.328 liters of alcohol. If there are 20.328 liters of alcohol in a volume of whisky at 55% abv, that works out to 36.96 liters of whisky (20.328 x 100 ÷ 55). This shows that if they had 36.96 liters of “leftover” cask strength whisky at 55% abv and they added enough water to bring the abv down to 48.4%, it would yield 60 bottles.

Since everything seems to go out in six bottle cases, it stands to reason that the remaining whisky from a single cask bottling would be somewhere between zero and six bottles, so 3 bottles on average, which is 2.1 liters. 39.96 liters divided by 2.1 liters per bottling run gives us 17.6 runs. Rounding up, you would need the excess whisky from 18 single cask bottling runs to for this to work out. Given my research, that seems like a reasonable number of single cask bottlings for Springbank to put out in a year.

The majority of their single cask offerings come from casks that previously held sherry, port, Madeira, red wine, etc. That would explain the exceptionally dark color of this whisky. Of course this is all just a hypothesis based on my observations and I could be completely wrong. Either way, it’s time to stop thinking and start drinking.

* You may have noticed the star next to the price of this bottle up top. The only way to get one is to attend the Whisky School, so that price includes tuition, lodging and three meals a day for five days.

The color is a dark golden amber. The nose is fairly unique. It has a typical Springbank characteristic, but there is something more to it. I find the aromas to be approachable yet intriguing; they carry a certain breadth and density. The liquid is fairly viscous on the tongue. It almost seems meek right up front, but the flavors and intensity build quickly.
A lot of dark flavors are in the mix: raisins, dried figs and molasses to name a few. This range integrates nicely with the underlying fruit notes and dry spiciness that builds as it moves into the lengthy finish. The peat smoke that is a normal (although not major) contributor to the Springbank flavor profile is very restrained in this example. The whisky is well behaved, with smooth transitions and no off-notes; a complex single malt that begs contemplation (I think I have more than obliged).

Gavin is right, it is special; I just wish someone would tell me what it is that makes it so special. I imagine that anyone who is willing to travel great distances and make the effort to see the innermost workings of their favorite distillery would feel the same way.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 90.4 proof, $52

This post is the continuation of what I started last week, if you haven’t read the Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year post yet, please go back and start with it.

The lineage and history of many American whiskey brands can be convoluted at best. The up and down cycles of the industry have prompted many mergers, acquisitions and consolidations over the decades. The fact that the history of some brands is further clouded by deceptive marketing stories only adds to the confusion, not to mention that brands, distilleries and existing stocks of aging whiskey can be split up and sold as separate entities. Many brands have had the source of their whiskey change through their lifespan, often more than once, and unfortunately this industry isn’t usually very transparent about it.

And that brings us to dusty hunting, hobby of the most fanatical core of bourbon consumers. I’m sure many of you have wandered into a small convenience store or gas station somewhere well off the beaten path and seen canned/packaged food items on the shelf with a thick coating of dust, looking as if they have literally been in that same spot for years. You’re left to think the place must make all of its money on lottery tickets and ammo, or perhaps the store is a front for a drug ring, because certainly no one is buying the food.

Believe it or not, in some parts of the country, the whiskey equivalents of such stores actually exist. In these places there are bottles that have been on the shelf for 20, 30, even 40 years or more. They were ignored in the 70’s and 80’s when bourbon went out of favor, and in the 90’s the brands were likely unfamiliar to the average consumer and passed up for the Jim’s and the Jack’s. In antiquated outlets, where no one pays attention to inventory or thinks to put long-idle product on sale, bottles could sit on the shelf for eons. And sometimes these liquid time capsules are valuable gems hiding in plain sight; bottles with whisky from highly regarded distilleries that were lost to history long ago.

Dusty hunting is not an easy sport though; it requires a combination of knowing where to look and what to look for, along with a good bit of luck. You have to know the desirable distilleries and the brands came from them during which time periods. The easy ones will carry a dsp number (distilled spirits producer) on the label, clearly identifying where it was distilled. Of course you still need to know which numbers represent the distilleries you are after. In the absence of dsp numbers, you can hope to find labels that carry a vintage, but often you have to date them in other ways. Knowing that bottle sizes switched to metric in 1980 can be an important clue, and some bottles will have the year of manufacture embossed in the glass on the bottom. The label might also list the city of distillation; if the brand switched distilleries at some point and you know the location of the more desirable one, that will be the information you need to look for.

Such bottlings do occasionally emerge from a forgotten corner of someone’s basement and end up in an auction. If you prefer your hunting to involve less leg work, less dust, and considerably more money, there is always that route.

Of the closed distilleries that dusty hunters consider worth their time and effort, Stitzel-Weller is the top prize; the bourbon fanatic’s ultimate conquest. The distillery put out several brands, but the most prominent (and now the most hunted) were Old Fitzgerald, W. L. Weller, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still. The Stitzel-Weller distillery stopped producing whiskey in 1992, 57 years after it was opened by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle in the early days of the post-Prohibition era.

In 1908 Pappy took a controlling interest in W.L. Weller and Sons, a liquor wholesaler he had been employed by since 1893.Much of the bourbon sold by Weller under various brands had been sourced from the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. With a license to produce “medicinal whiskey” the distillery was able to survive Prohibition. After a long and mutually beneficial relationship, the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and W. L. Weller and Sons joined forces in 1933, forming Stitzel-Weller. The original Stitzel Distillery was closed in 1937, two years after the opening of the new Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the building of which was overseen by company president Pappy Van Winkle.

With an eye on quality, the company flourished in the post WWII decades. Pappy remained at the helm until he handed the leadership role off to his son, Julian Jr., just one year before passing away in 1965 at the age of 90. Unfortunately, bourbon sales went flat in the 60’s and took a major downturn in the 70’s as the national palate turned to vodka and rum. A group of family members who were shareholders in the company but not involved in its day-to-day operations forced Julian Jr. to sell the distillery and associated brands in 1972.

Julian Jr. was however able to retain the rights to one brand, Old Rip Van Winkle, which the company had only used briefly in the years leading up to Prohibition. He was also able to purchase existing stocks of Stitzel-Weller whiskey and set up and agreement for a continued supply of whiskey going forward.

The Old Rip Van Winkle brand was taken over by Julian Van Winkle III in 1981, after the death of Julian Jr. In 2001 Julian III was joined in the business by his son Preston.

The Stitzel-Weller Distillery and its associated brands changed hands again in 1984, this time going to a large conglomerate (DCL, which later became United Distillers) who closed Stitzel-Weller in 1992 along with several other bourbon distilleries after opening the new Bernheim Distillery.

By 1997 United Distillers had become part of Diageo, and in 1999 they sold off many of their American whiskey assets. Heaven Hill, whose distillery was destroyed by fire in 1996 ended up with the Bernheim Distillery and the Old Fitzgerald label (Heaven Hill had already bought the Cabin Still label back in 1993). The Weller brand was bought by Buffalo Trace, and the dormant Stitzel-Weller Distillery, along with its offices and warehouses (and some remaining whiskey) were retained by Diageo.

It was Julian Van Winkle III who transformed the Old Rip Van Winkle brand in the 80’s and 90’s by putting out progressively older bottlings. After the Stitzel-Weller Distillery closed in 1992 the new Bernheim Distillery started producing some bourbon with a similar recipe (using wheat instead of rye) to supply the Weller and Old Fitzgerald labels. The Van Winkles had access to some of this whiskey, but also sourced some bourbon from Buffalo Trace, who had produced wheated bourbon sporadically from 1991 to 1999. From 1999 on, Buffalo Trace made bourbon with that recipe on a regular basis and became the Van Winkle’s sole supplier. Finally in 2002 the Van Winkles entered into a joint venture with Sazerac, the owners of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, in order to ensure a future supply of quality bourbon.

As we move further away from 1992 it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain bourbon that was produced at the much vaunted Stitzel-Weller distillery. The typical age range of the Weller and Old Fitzgerald brands would have the Stitzel-Weller liquid fade out of them between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. But with the Van Winkle bourbons being aged much longer, they became the last man standing in terms of regularly bottled Stitzel-Weller product.

For much of the first decade of the new millennium, devotees of the that legendary distillery had two choices; engage in the painstaking art of dusty hunting or simply buy a Van Winkle bottle when the came across one. As the brand’s popularity has recently reached its zenith, many who have arrived late to the game know nothing of the history and heritage; they just know that Van Winkle whiskeys are the most desirable “must have” bottlings.

For those in the know, during the past 5 years or so everyone has been trying to figure out which Van Winkle bottles still contain the magical Stitzel-Weller liquid. The subject has been hotly debated and it is not always a clear cut matter of “when was it bought?” and “how long was it aged?”. Some releases have contained a mix of whiskey from two or three distilleries, and in that case the Stitzel-Weller component could be older than the age statement on the bottle. Also, there have been a few instances where the Van Winkles have bottled a large quantity of a particular whisky and released it over several years.

For at least the last five years the Van Winkle bottles have had a code printed on them that reveals the exact bottling date. It’s usually on the glass, below the back label, but I’ve seen them in other places; some on label and others under it (you have to look through the bottle and read it backwards). There is a post on Sku’s Recent Eats blog that describes how to decipher the code. Also, Chuck Cowdery recently wrote an informative piece detailing the makeup of the fall 2012 release (be sure to read through the comments, there are some important clarifications).

And that brings us to that last group of people, the ones who have decided that with only the two oldest Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bottlings still containing Stitzel-Weller juice, prices spiking and unprecedented scarcity, the stuff just isn’t worth hunting down anymore. They view the brand as a nice diversion, distracting many people away from the other objects of their thirsty desire.

So, what of the Van Winkles that I have had over the years? My 20 year Family Reserve was most likely from the fall 2006 or the spring 2007 release, definitely 100% Stitzel-Weller. My 15 year Family Reserve was possibly from the spring 2008 release but more likely spring or fall of 2007, I’d say there is a very high likelihood that is was 100% Stitzel-Weller. The first 10 year 107 proof I had was either from 2003 or 2004, I think it is very likely it had at least some Stitzel-Weller bourbon (that would have been 11 or 12 years old) in the mix as they transitioned over to other sources. I bought another 10 year 107 proof bottle that had a code dating it to mid 2008, that one should be either Bernheim, Buffalo Trace, or a combination of the two. The 12 year Special Reserve that I am about to taste has a bottle code dating it to January of 2012 and should be made up of both Bernheim and Buffalo Trace whiskey (my assumption is based on the fact that this is the makeup of the fall 2012 release of the 12 year).

The color is similar in tone to the dark medium amber of the 15 year, though slightly lighter.
The nose is also similar to the 15, but toned down, with much less density.
Candy corns, soft vanilla, gentle oak char flavors and just a whisper of spice all play nicely together on the palate. It is incredibly balanced, smooth and well behaved from start to finish. I find it to be very easy drinking. A little sweetness comes to the fore in the mid-palate adding depth, followed by a touch of heat as it moves into the reasonably lengthy finish.
It’s a fine bourbon in its own right, but it does seem somewhat docile while standing in the shadow of the 15 year.