Pappy Van Winkle has achieved mythic heights in the whiskey world. The company’s wheated bourbons (plus one rye) from the Old Rip Van Winkle line are amongst the most expensive whiskeys on the world stage. Not suggested retail prices, mind you. We’re talking about the attention-grabbing markups that liquor stores charge to capitalize on Pappy’s craftsmanship, as well as scarcity, hype, and rabid consumer interest.
Much of Pappy’s fame can be traced back to 2007, when the late bon vivant, raconteur, and food and drinks tastemaker Anthony Bourdain sang the praises of the stuff on his show, No Reservations. Around the same time, international whisk(e)y critics like the recently embattled Jim Murray started calling out American expressions as the best in the world. You know what else dropped in 2007? A little show called Mad Men, which made drinking whiskey seem like the sexiest, coolest pastime on earth.
It was the perfect storm, and Pappy ended up at the center of it all.
It can’t be overstated how different a time ye’ olde 2007 was for American whiskeys. Bourbons, ryes, and Tennessee whiskeys were almost afterthoughts in the broader whiskey conversation, cowering in the shadows of single malts from Scotland. Truth be told, our American whiskeys were the butt of jokes far more than they were lauded back then. When along came this international star, swaggering across our screens, who seemed to have good taste in… everything.
Bourdain’s endorsement catapulted a relatively tiny whiskey brand from Kentucky to worldwide fame. At that point, Pappy didn’t have its own distillery anymore (to stay afloat, they’d already moved under the Buffalo Trace umbrella in 2002). There was also no craft whiskey industry to speak of in the U.S., very few revivals, and not nearly as many bottles of bourbon on store shelves. Van Winkle’s rise came at a time when choices were limited and, most importantly, our palates were different.
In short, it was another era. And the changes — among both drinkers and brands — have been vast these past 13 years.
So does Pappy still stand up as 2020 draws to a close? That’s what we wanted to investigate with this ranking. To do so, we’re looking at two factors. One, how does the juice taste? I’m lucky enough to know the right people to have tried all of these expressions over the last year, but the bottles I tested represented different vintages from across the past five years (I’m not so lucky as to get drink each expression every year). Two, we aimed to answer a simple question: Do these whiskeys hold their own with other whiskeys in the same age range and with a similar MSRP (suggested retail price)?
Both of these factors play into the broader question at hand — asked in whiskey collectives like the famed Bourbon Nation Facebook Group — on a daily basis: Is Pappy Van Winkle really worth the hype?
6. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old
This is an interesting wheated bourbon. The “Lot B” moniker on the label denotes that these barrels hit their mark at 12 years and weren’t going to hit the right taste marks for the 15, 20, and 23-year-old expressions. So instead of aging further, their cut with that soft Kentucky limestone water to bring them down to a manageable 90.4 proof and bottled.
There’s an orchard fruit sweetness on the nose not unlike a spiced apple pie filling, laden with brown sugar. The palate builds on that by adding in walnuts, dried fruits, and a hint of salted caramel by way of vanilla pudding. The end is medium-length with a hint of oak next to the spices, fruit, and sweet vanilla.
Well, something has to be last… This is a perfectly fine bourbon. Given the opportunity, would we spend $80 on it? Let’s put it his way. There are perfectly fine bourbons that you can actually buy for $40 right now.
5. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 Year
This expression spends a long 23 years resting in new American oak. That age means that there’s still some old juice from Pappy’s previous home, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, in the mix. Not every barrel makes the final cut. Only the “honey barrels” — the best of the best — are selected for marrying, proofing, and bottling.
This sip greets you with big notes of rich vanilla, dark cherry, old oak, spicy tobacco, and tart apples. When you add a little water, a dark dusting of cacao arrives to accent the base notes as the spices kick in, adding a real Christmas pudding vibe counterpointed by the musty oak, worn leather, and wisp of pipe tobacco smoke.
This was hard to place. One, it’s a little musty, which can be off-putting — a bit like too much barnyard funk in a Belgian ale. Two, even if you could get this for $300 a bottle at retail, it’d be hard to define why — besides to just have it on the shelf to look at.
4. Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year
This is basically Pappy at ten-years-old but not “technically” Pappy. Semantics aside, this is the same juice as the 15, 20, and 23-yo expressions. The main difference here is the age, of course, and the proof. This goes into the bottle with only a touch of limestone water, keeping it close to barrel proof.
This expression has those spicy and nutty apple pie filling notes with a hint of vanilla and oak that are subtly sweet. There’s a bit of honey on the tongue that counters a mild peppery spice with more caramel, vanilla, apples, and dark spices. There’s a warmth that’s welcoming and holds as the sip fades back, replaying those flavor notes.
This bottle is always a pleasant surprise. The higher-proof also makes it a nice cocktail base and we could 100 percent see using it in every Manhattan we make … if we could snag a bottle for $69.
3. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year
This an interesting whiskey — the oldest Pappy that’s 100 percent Buffalo Trace made. Older vintages will have a bit of that old Stitzel-Weller juice. But the blend of 15-year-old barrels from the same source — and the heart of the warehouse — makes for a very refined final product.
This is nuanced yet bold. There a rushes of buttery toffee next to peppery spice alongside charred oak. Those notes carry through on the palate with a sense of salted caramel accenting the toffee as the spices turn dark and sharp with a hint of crusty bread with butter and a cinnamon sugar dusting. A little water brings out an almost dried rose note next to dried cherries covered in dark chocolate. The end is long and leaves you with that signature warm Kentucky hug.
This is very tasty. Add in a rock and it’s a damn fine sipper, worth taking your time with. This does really feel like a whiskey in the $100 range.
2. Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Years Old
This is the only non-wheated whiskey in the Pappy line. While we don’t know the exact mash bill, Buffalo Trace does use a rye mash bill that’s very low-rye (some say only 51 percent to meet legal requirements). Either way, the juice is then barreled and allowed to mellow for 13 years before marrying, proofing, and bottling.
Imagine sweet tobacco leaves spiked with red peppercorns, rich caramel apples, and plenty of Christmas spices. Worn leather arrives with hints of fatty nuts and dried fruits next to the sharply spicy pepperiness. With a little water, that pepper mellows towards a powdery white pepper, with hints of vanilla and toffee lurking underneath. The end is very warm at first but fades out evenly and slowly, leaving a cedary sense of wood and a final whisper of pipe tobacco smoke.
This is very sippable rye. Yes, it’s warm but it’s more warming than hot. Add in a rock and it blooms into a whiskey worth taking your time with. If we could ever snag this for MSRP, it’d be our go-to Sazerac mixer every single time.
1. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year
This is the Pappy that made “Pappy” what it is today. The wheated bourbon rests for 20 long years without any meddling. And since everything moved to Buffalo Trace in 2002, we know that we’re on the last few releases with any Stitzel-Weller juice in the mix.
There’s a subtlety to the nose that draws you closer with wisps of soft cedar, Christmas cakes filled with dried and candied fruit, nuts, and dark sweetness and spice. Plus a sense of oiled leather saddles and rich pipe tobacco. A little water brings back an echo of that apple pie filling alongside oily espresso beans and vanilla pods. The finish is a very slow fade that relishes in the bitter, sweet, velvet, spice, oak, leather, and ends on a note of smoke from the tobacco pipe.
This is one of the bottles that kind of makes you mad it’s so good (and yes, it lives up to the hype). This is a great whiskey and deserves to be celebrated. If we could buy it for $199, we’d probably always have a bottle on the shelf.