Pappy Van Winkle is one of those names that seemingly requires no introduction. Namedrop it in a crowd or online community and discussions about pricing, availability, and more are bound to erupt. Pappy’s reputation has effectively made it the pinnacle of recurring releases in bourbon. There might be other bottles that some drinkers would rather have, but few names in the industry (if any) can achieve such a widespread pull. It’s the annual release that just about any bourbon fan would be ecstatic to purchase, even at a potential markup. Basically, if you know whiskey, then you at least know of Pappy.
But what exactly is the big deal? Why does Pappy command such high praise and demand? The entire situation has left me scratching my head for some time, so I did a bit of digging.
Julian Van Winkle Sr., otherwise known as “Pappy,” gained valuable whiskey-making experience at a young age around the turn of the 20th century. Between his time working at W.L. Weller & Sons, as well as through A. Ph. Stitzel, he ultimately vowed to make great (wheated) bourbon when the distilleries merged and became Stitzel-Weller. However, as many of us know, whiskey began falling out of favor around the 1960s, leading to many distillery closures. This included Julian Van Winkle Jr. selling Stitzel-Weller in 1972, which then closed down in 1991. Fast-forward to 1997 and the Beverage Testing Institute gave a 20 Year Old bottling of Pappy (estimated cost of $70 at the time) a 99 out of 100. Throw in some praise from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, as well as the infamous “Pappygate” heist, and the pieces quickly fall into place. Additionally, while older stocks of Pappy came from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery, the brand is now owned by Sazerac with stocks supplied by Buffalo Trace, who have clearly benefitted from the Pappy halo effect.
Even if you just want to try a pour of Pappy, you’ll almost certainly have to pay up more than other people could justify for a bottle of whiskey. This is why I was ecstatic to get a sample of Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year to try from a fellow whiskey fan. I poured it earlier this month for my birthday, so now it’s time to see how it stacks up:
Nose: Slight perfume/varnish essence with a blast of juicy cherries and caramel that borders on being sharp. Almost like you deep-fried a cherry pie inside of a rickhouse. Lots of vanilla with an occasional waft of grape. Post-sip brings even more vanilla to the forefront, treading vanilla extract territory with a bit more of that dried red grape note still lingering in the background. Fresh toffee also kicks up.
Palate: Rich and loads of depth. Mouthfeel has barely any sharpness or rough edges. Sweet, leathery oak and crazily layered cherry. Tobacco note emerges from the leathery oak, building some dark fruit notes before transitioning to vanilla bean. Get a slightly strong hit of tannins on the mid-palate for a few seconds.
Finish: A touch soft with medium length that grows with time and sipping. Continues that wonderful, flavorful depth. Tobacco develops with some oak and a less sweet vanilla than before, perhaps a little molasses and toffee, but they play second fiddle.
There’s no way around it: this is fantastic stuff. I try to avoid swooning in my reviews since I’d prefer to be composed and constructive…but this has to be one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever had the fortune of trying. What impresses me the most about Pappy is how rich and full both the flavors and mouthfeel are while being so effortless on the palate. I struggle to think of any other whiskey I’ve had that delivers such an easygoing experience while also firing on all cylinders. If I had to nitpick this at all, I’d reiterate that the nose initially comes across as perfume-like (but that vanishes after sipping), and the oak presence, while exceptional, is maybe a tiny touch too tannic for my preferences. And when I say that, I mean it’s still within the margin of error for delivering precisely what I want out of an amazing dram. So yes, this is truly top-notch stuff, and I can definitely see why it’s so revered and sought-after.
I’m still not going to hunt it.
I adored what I got to try of this whiskey; I’d be beyond thrilled to have a bottle. If I was suddenly given the opportunity to purchase Pappy Van Winkle for MSRP, I’d buy as many bottles as I could get. That’s obviously not going to happen. About the only way one can chance themselves upon a bottle is by paying an exorbitant price, or by going through enough hoops to bind the barrels in a sizeable rickhouse. Neither of these appeal to me, especially when we consider bourbon’s seemingly humble beginnings crossed with today’s market. Julian Van Winkle vowed to make fine bourbon, be it at a loss or a profit, and as far as honoring that vow, this particular bottling is an absolute triumph. Does that justify its position in today’s market? Depends on how you look at it. If you want a whiskey that demonstrates the best qualities a pour of bourbon can provide, few things will spring to mind quicker than this. The moment we factor in realistic obtainability, however, it honestly becomes an afterthought.