If you know Pappy Van Winkle, chances are you know of him as a rare and elusive beacon of bourbon, spoken of in hushed tones, reverence, an almost mythical epitome of what bourbon can and should be. If you don’t know Pappy Van Winkle, well… you’ll be better off once you make his acquaintance.
When thinking about great Southern distilleries, it’s hard to argue that there is one more distinguished or revered than Old Rip Van Winkle. The history of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery is deep – four generations of Van Winkles working in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, turning out some of the most prized spirits the world over. Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle was born in Danville, Kentucky, and after college (in the late 1800’s) moved to Louisville to work for W.L. Weller. Pappy soon joined a friend in taking over W.L. Weller as well as the Stitzel Distillery, forming the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. They produced bourbon for brands including W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell. When Pappy passed away in 1965 at 91 years of age, Julian, Jr., took over. After being forced to sell off the distillery’s brands, Julian, Jr., resurrected the pre-prohibition “Old Rip Van Winkle” label that you see today. Julian, III, took over in 1981 and still leads the charge for this venerable brand of bourbon. And Pappy? The Pappy Van Winkle moniker is reserved for the most precious bottlings in their line – the 15 year old, 20 year old, and 23 year old aged bourbons.
So, what is it that distinguishes Old Rip Van Winkle, and, more specifically, their Pappy Van Winkle bourbons? There is, of course, the family heritage. Julian, III, recognizes the importance of the place and the heritage of Kentucky bourbon, praising “the water, weather & expertise of the people who make bourbon here in Kentucky.” True, Pappy Van Winkle wouldn’t be the same if it were produced anywhere else. He understands that the heritage and the end product are inherently intertwined, saying, “We are very proud to be Southerners, and from Kentucky, which I think comes through in the whiskey we make.”
What else sets them apart? There is the dedication and patience of focusing on bourbons aged from 15 to 23 years. There is the rarity – limited releases just twice a year that seem to disappear from shelves as quickly as they arrive. And, then, there is the recipe, specifically the use of wheat, rather than rye, in addition to the corn and barley. The family holds that the wheat is the key to their bourbon’s slow but magnificent evolution as it ages through the years in deep charred heavy oak, and it’s hard to argue with the results. Julian, III, commented on the aging process: “As the bourbon gets older, it picks up more color and flavor from the charred new oak barrels. Each year in the barrel produces different flavor in the whiskey, picking up more oak as it ages. As it gets older, our wheated bourbon recipe becomes more smooth, with less of a bite. The 20 year Pappy is actually the smoothest of all. After 20 years, it has become almost like a cognac.” Indeed, just a whiff of the 23 year old Pappy is all it takes to recognize that something magical happens in those final years in the barrel, an evolution, a transformation that must be experienced firsthand to truly be appreciated. Did you notice the legend on the label next to the image of Rip Van Winkle, “asleep many years in the wood”? Just like the fabled Rip Van Winkle’s 20 years of sleep, the Pappy Van Winkle emerges from its time “in the wood” in a cloud of magic and mystery.
In addition to the lineup shown above – which includes the 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, the 20 year old Pappy, the 15 year old Pappy, and the two 10 year Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbons (90 proof and 107 proof) – there are two very-hard-to-find special reserves, the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve and a 13 year old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. The awards and honors for Pappy Van Winkle are too numerous to count, but suffice it to say that each and every bottle is worth trying. If you ask us, the 15 year old Pappy is the bargain of the bunch (if you can find it), but if you have a chance to try the 20 year old and 23 year old, you will be privy to a rare and utterly unique experience in bourbon tasting. Hours can be spent over them, taking in the aroma, the history, the deep layers of concentrated Kentucky goodness.