Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon (20 year)

It is Christmas, and I am celebrating the season by opening a 1oz sample that I have been saving for – literally – 5 years. Shortly after I started this blog, a very (VERY) kind reader sent me a pair of Pappy samples. The first, Pappy 15 year, opened my eyes to the wonders of Stitzel-Weller bourbon, and I squirreled away the ounce of 20-year for a special occasion. As the secondary market for rare bottles blossomed and Pappy 20 became worth north of $1000, no occasion seemed “special” enough. That’s the issue with “special occasion” bottles of all kinds – sometimes you just gotta let a Tuesday be special, or you’ll end up with a giant pile of unopenable treasures.

If you don’t know what Pappy is by now, go ahead and do some quick Googling. For the lazy and uninformed, it’s old wheated bourbon from a now-closed distillery that is flat-out impossible to get due to a buying frenzy and very limited, allocated releases. Even newer bourbon made at the Buffalo Trace distillery to reproduce the old recipe is snapped up immediately upon release, and garners long waiting lists and crazy auction prices. Some bars carry bottles of Pappy and charge ridiculous prices for a glass, which is nevertheless the only way most people will ever taste it. There are 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23 year releases, and a 13-year straight rye. The whisky I’m reviewing came from a bottle released before the Buffalo Trace juice reached 20 years of age, which guarantees it was made at Stitzel-Weller.

The 20-year is bottled at 45.2% ABV (contrast with the 15-year at 53.5%). Most of the dismissive “too cool for Pappy” commentary on the ‘net would have you believe that the 20- and 23-year are overly oaky and that the 15-year is best. Let’s see…

Nose: Dripping caramel, dense vanilla, honey candy, and bright fresh orange peel. Intensely oaky, but not dry or astringent. Potent and concentrated, and a little more nose tickle than expected from 45% ABV. After a rest in the glass, the grain notes come forward and smell like moist baked goods (blondies).

Palate: Silky, syrupy body. Potent hazelnut butter note upfront, with minimal tongue burn. Soft, with flecks of charcoal and sweet dense oak, but without any bitterness. High notes of orange peel and cherry liqueur.

Finish: Medium-long. Still sweet, but drying out with mild tannins. A wave of menthol. Lingers, finishing slowly without any bitterness. Classic.

With Water: A few drops of water amp up the nose tickle without adding anything new. The palate is a little more tart, but otherwise unchanged. There is no need to add water to this. Enjoy it as is.

Overall: Pappy hysteria aside, this stuff is really tasty. Flawless, potent, concentrated flavor and without the eye-watering proof of the younger expressions. Surprisingly not overly-oaked (like the Internet claims), but also not really markedly different than the 15 year. In fact, I would probably be unable to say which was older if tasted side-by-side, if it weren’t for the difference in proof. It does strike me as somewhat sweeter than I expected, but in a good non-cloying way. Truly rewarding in the glass. Too bad about the ridiculous waiting lists and secondary market prices.

I won’t insult you by calling this a “Must Try”, because good luck, but I will say that if you are someday lucky enough to be confronted with the choice of buying a bottle of the 15 or a bottle of the 20, know that the 20 is not noticeably better in this blogger’s opinion, but it’s also not worse or overly-oaked. Both are also not worth (again, in my opinion) much more than retail. I’d probably be happy to hand over $150 for a bottle or either, but not much more.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon (20 year)
45.2% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $169 retail ($1000+ auction)
Acquired: (1 oz sample) Thanks Tim!

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  • A friend of mine opened a restaurant a year or two ago, and he’s apparently a big bourbon buff. No scotch on the shelf at the bar, as far as I can tell. There is a bottle of Pappy up there, however, and someday I may take out another mortgage on my house and have a drink.

  • I want to know where he is finding pappy 10yr for 50-65 dollars and pappy 15yr for 169 dollars? I’ll take 6 bottles. 10yr at stores 250 minimum, and 15yr 600, that’s the going rate stores are raping customers for.

    • The year this review was written (2017), that was the retail price at the (very rare) stores that charge actual retail for the bottles, instead of marking them up due to insane demand. Nobody is actually finding six bottles on the shelf for that. They’re finding a lottery or waiting list with 6000 names on it, and just 2 or 3 lucky customers “allowed” to pay retail. I have personally seen (and purchased) Pappy on retail shelves for retail price, but not since about 2013. Good luck! 😉

    • Obviously that’s just a personal choice. 🙂 I’ve purchased a grand total of 4 PVW in my life (all of it 8+ years ago). I kept one to sell someday and I drank/am drinking the rest. If I had only been able to purchase one bottle, I would probably have opened it. That’s just me, though, you do you.