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.

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