First, I should start by apologizing. This blog post is entirely self-serving. It allows me to get a weekly post done even though I know few of you will ever have an opportunity to buy (or even try) any Van Winkle product due to its extreme scarcity and insane cult following. It also, coincidentally, allows me to brag that I secured myself a bottle. So take that! And… I’m sorry.
Oh, Pappy. What’s there to say about Pappy and company that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? The cult favorite of the American whiskey scene that got so popular that it’s now popular to NOT like it. Seriously, I now frequently hear people dismissing Pappy bourbon to show that they’re past the hype. They’ve risen above it.
Well, I may have given up trying to track it down when it comes out twice a year, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how damn good this stuff is. The rye (there’s only one bottling, at 13 years of age) is apparently a Kentucky straight rye composed of a 50/50 combination of Medley rye from the long-closed Owensboro distillery, and Cream of Kentucky rye whiskey from the Old Bernheim distillery in Louisville which closed in 1988. This vatting has been kept in stainless steel tanks since reaching 13 years (or possibly 18-19 years), to keep it from aging further and taking on more oak. Each biannual release is drawn from these dwindling reserves, which means when it’s gone — it’s really gone. As with the Van Winkle bourbons, Buffalo Trace is currently aging stocks of rye to replace Family Reserve 13, but it may be awhile. Note that the Medley distillery is slated for renovation and reopening, so we may see Medley rye once again. Bernheim and its brands are owned by Heaven Hill and the old distillery remains silent.
I have never seen the Van Winkle rye on shelves in California, so I had to get an East Coast friend to track a bottle down for me last year. It’s marked as number B0604. I hoard its contents like liquid diamonds.
Nose: Concentrated wood extract, fresh orange peel soaked in orange and cherry bitters. Ancient cracking shellac on cherrywood furniture. Any minty character or fresh spices contributed by the rye have been long dissolved by communication with white oak, but they are replaced by deep, complex wood extractives. Orange oil, spice cake, and something unnameable that makes you roll your eyes back in ecstasy. Honestly, if I could bottle and wear this scent, I would be happy to spend the rest of my days smelling like Van Winkle rye.
Palate: Orange oil again, with dark brown sugar and a drying astringency similar to old red wine. Maple sugar candies, melted vanilla bean ice cream, and worn leather. The tongue burn is muted, considering its proof, inviting one to savor a mouthful for minutes at a time.
Finish: Medium-long. A hint of Douglas fir, and a continuance of the orange/cherry/maple flavors from the nose. No bitterness, but a lingering tannin causes the mouth to dry and pucker as the last sweetness fades.
Overall: To me, this tastes like the Van Winkle bourbon, but with the heavier (and sweeter) syrupy notes replaced with orange peel, cherry bitters, and a more apparent conversation with oak. Thankfully, whether at 13 or 18 years of aging, it stops short of being over-oaked. It is said that this particular rye has been resting, unchanging, in stainless steel tanks for decades in order to prevent it from aging further while limited amounts were siphoned off for yearly bottling. This is indeed at its apex of age, and it will be a sad day when those tanks run dry and the last bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye sees the light of its final day.
I’m rating this a sadistic “Must Have” because if you ever see a bottle at retail ($70), don’t hesitate. Buy it. Even if you don’t like rye, you can always re-sell it at auction for a lot more. Still, I wouldn’t pay $400 at auction for it. I wouldn’t pay $400 for any bottle of whisky, even the best damn rye on the planet.