“I got up and retrieved the bottle, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, nothing but the finest at the Durant Home of Assisted Living. I didn’t like bourbon, as a general rule, but I sure liked this. I couldn’t even describe the number of smooth buttery tastes in my mouth, but I felt like I should chew. The fire in my throat felt cleansing, like part of a scorched-earth policy.”
- The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery, Craig Johnson
In 2004, when Craig Johnson wrote the quote shown above, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year bourbon (a.k.a. Pappy 15) sold for less than $100. This is the price you would expect for a fine bourbon found in the room of a retired sheriff. Ten years later, Pappy 15 sold for $500 per bottle and the price continues to triple every five years.
A single bottle of Rip Van Winkle 23 is known to have sold for $16,000, and a single bottled of Family Reserve 25 brought in a whopping $30,000
Once again, I found myself eyeing the dust covered bottle of Pappy 15 in the dingy room of an unassuming liquor store in Syosset New York, which is my favorite liquor store. It is not my favorite for the ambiance, as there isn’t any; but because they stock brands that are hard to find. This is the only store within 600 miles that stocks Dingle Vodka and Dingle Gin. My palette, while unrefined for bourbon, is highly refined for vodka and gin. As a result, I am a purist when it comes to those spirits; and I find Dingle to be the best. Consequently, I happily make the three-hour trek from South Jersey four times a year.
Everyone who knows bourbon can tell you that finding a Pappy 15 is like finding the Holy Grail. This particular Holy Grail was closely guarded by a $1,500 price tag. Why was I so interested in the Pappy 15? To start with, I love Bourbon. In my mind there is nothing better than sitting on my terrace with a Drew Estate Blondie Maduro cigar complimented with a bourbon Old Fashioned. It was my enjoyment of bourbon, coupled with my love of Longmire novels, that put me on this quest. Even though the Pappy 15 would make a nice trophy in my liquor case, I did not wish to spend $1,500 on a single bottle of bourbon that may well find itself poured down the drain. Let me explain….
Rise of a Star
Pappy 15, while touted as an excellent bourbon, is expensive not because it is hand crafted or composed of the best ingredients. It is expensive because it is in short supply. This is why a bourbon that retails for $150 sells for $1,500. Truth be told, you are getting what should be a $50 bottle of bourbon. Those who drank Pappy 15 before 1998 claim that it was found on the bottom shelf for less than $20. This is not to say that it is not an excellent bourbon, because it is. What I am saying is that there is nothing of this bourbon, other than mash bill and short supply, that make it worth more than $50. Far more care and technique (albeit less aging) goes into Makers 46 than Pappy 15. It just so happens that Pappy 15 got the mash and the mix just right. So, what happened in 1998? In 1998, Pappy was rated 99 out of 100 at the World Spirits Championship. This is the highest rating ever given to a whiskey. Since then Pappy became scarce and the cost skyrocketed. Sadly, Buffalo Trace, the distillery that now owns Pappy, is yet unsuccessful in their efforts to control price gouging.
Anyone who knows bourbon can tell you that finding a Pappy 15 is like finding the Holy Grail
All this being said, why would I pour a $1,500 bottle of Pappy 15 down the drain? To explain this, I must first explain bourbon.
What is Bourbon?
Here in the United States, a whisky is legally classified as bourbon if it has a mash consisting of no less than 51% corn, is aged in a charred oak barrel, and is less than 160 proof. Traditionally, a bourbon mash is predominately corn with a lesser amount of rye and an even lesser amount of barley.
Similarly, a whiskey is legally classified as rye if it has a mash consisting of no less than 51% rye, is aged in a charred oak barrel, and is less than 160 proof. Traditionally, rye mash is predominantly rye with a lesser amount of corn and an even lesser amount of barley.
Bourbon and rye whiskey are nearly identical except rye attacks the palate with spice and flavor, whereas bourbon attacks the palate with sweetness and flavor. As a general rule, rye should be used in cocktails where sweetener is added (like an old fashioned) and bourbon used in cocktails that do not use sweetener. Even so, I prefer my old fashions with bourbon – I just use less sugar. This does not mean that I do not drink rye. In fact, I would not drink a Sazerac cocktail without it.
When it comes to rye, my favorite is Old Overholt. If you are a rye drinker, then you may have thrown up a little in your mouth when you read my last statement. Nonetheless, I stand by it. Having its inception around 1800 AD, Old Overholt is America's oldest brand of whiskey, and it is said to have been a favorite of President Ulysses S. Grant, Doc Holiday, and President John F. Kennedy. These days, Old Overholt is produced by Jim Beam in Clermont, Kentucky and it comes in two varieties - straight and bonded. The straight rye is 80 proof and aged for three years. Whereas the bonded is 100 proof and aged at four years. I particularly enjoy the bonded variety neat and on the rocks. That said, in the absence of Sazerac rye, I would not even consider making a Sazerac cocktail with anything other than good ole' Overholt original.
I have a fondness for Old Overholt because it is what rye is supposed to taste like. Yes, the modern ryes are far more complex and provide a huge bite of spice, but that is a modern twist. This is not to say that Old Overholt does not have its own charm with regard to complexity and just the right bite, especially when it comes to the bonded variety. Most impressive is that Old Overholt holds its own and does not get lost when mixed into a cocktail. This combined with the fact that Old Overholt is so under rated that it can be found on the bottom shelf for about $20 makes it a particular favorite of mine.
Having it's origins at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, Sazerac rye is among the most respected and well known brands of rye, and it is the namesake of the Sazerac cocktail. I do not care for Sazerac rye neat, but I have to say that it lives up to its reputation for making the best Sazerac cocktail.
Most Canadian whiskey is called rye, but since Canada has no legal definition for rye, the only true rye is American rye. Canadian whiskey is often a blend of multiple whiskies and may not contain any rye at all. So, how did Canadian whisky get the “rye” moniker? Many Canadian whiskies used a particularly flavorful type of rye in their blend, which made those whiskies taste very much like American rye. Canadian whiskey is predominantly corn with a lesser amount of barley and an even lesser amount of rye. Now you may be saying, “Wait a minute. That sounds an awful lot like bourbon,” and you would be right. However, bourbon mixes corn, rye, and barley in the mash; all of which ferment into a single distillate that is aged. Conversely, Canadian whiskey is a blend of corn, barley, and rye whiskies, which were fermented and aged separately. Furthermore, the higher content of barley provides a flavor profile that is often closer to Scotch than to rye. Lastly, some Canadian whiskies may use caramel flavoring.
On the other side of the whisky spectrum is Scotch. Technically speaking, Scotch is typically made with a single distillation of a mash consisting of only barley, and it is aged in old bourbon barrels. What really sets Scotch apart is that the barley is smoked with peat giving Scotch a unique earthy and smoky flavor. Overall, the smokiness of Scotch is determined by the amount of phenols (measured in parts per million - ppm) imparted into the Scotch by the peat. A phenol concentration of 10 ppm will have a lightly smoked flavor, while a phenol concentration of 50 ppm or above will be heavily smoked. Moderately smoked Scotch will fall somewhere in the middle. While Scotch whisky (when referring to Scotch, whiskey is spelled without the 'e') is traditionally peated and made with a single malt, most Scotch whiskies today are not. While traditional peated Scotch can still be found, most of the today's offerings are blended and not peated, or they are blended with a peated Scotch as part of the blend (as in Johnnie Walker Double Black).
Irish whiskey too is predominately barley, but it is triple distilled for its renowned smoothness. Like Scotch, Irish Whiskey can be a single malt. Unlike traditional Scotch, Irish Whiskey can be blended with other grains. Personally, I do not care for Scotch, but I love a good Irish whiskey. My favorite being Dingle Single Malt. It will put you out by $100, but it is well worth the investment. Just be sure to drink it warm and neat for your mouth to explode with notes of soft wheat, honey, and apricot.
A bottle of Dingle Single Malt will put you out by $100, but it is well worth the investment. If you want to get your money's worth, then drink it warm and neat
The last common type of whiskey is Tennessee sour mash like Jack Daniels. By the way, sour mash is not unique to Tennessee whiskey. In fact, most whiskey is made from a sour mash. Technically speaking, Tennessee sour mash is bourbon with the distillate put through the extra step of maple-charcoal filtration prior to aging. The extra step of charcoal filtration provides a smoother whiskey. The filtration process, called the Lincoln County process, was developed in Lincoln County Tennessee, which is why this type of bourbon is called Tennessee whiskey. Due to a grandfathering clause, the only Tennessee whiskey that does not use the Lincoln County process is Benjamin Prichard's. I find Jack Daniels very much like a wheated bourbon (see below) with a maple flair and notes of butter, smoke, and sour dough. The Lincoln process really does smooth out the bourbon and make it truly unique and enjoyable. When it comes to straight whiskey on the rocks, if I am not drinking Old Overholt bonded, then you will find me drinking Jack with a splash of water.
Back to bourbon
Traditional bourbon is made with a mash of corn, rye, and barley. Then you have your wheated bourbons. As the name implies, wheated bourbons replace rye with wheat. As a result, wheated bourbons are smoother than their rye-based counterparts. My experience is that even wheated bourbons are not quite as smooth as Jack Daniels, but they do have a flavor profile that pops with complexity. Pappy, and all Van Winkle bourbons (to my knowledge) are wheated bourbons. Other wheated bourbons are Wellers, and Makers.
The Four Types of Bourbon
1. Traditional Bourbon
Mostly corn with a lesser amount rye and an even lesser amount of barley. When it comes to aging, I personally find the sweet spot for bourbon at 8-10 years, which makes Knob Creek 9-year bourbon my hands down favorite. I find Knob Creek 9 pops on my palette with tones of dark vanilla, sweet spice, and burnt caramel. I find it especially good for making a Pre-prohibition Old Fashioned.
2. Wheated Bourbon
3. Rye Heavy Bourbon
As the name implies, rye heavy bourbons have more rye (almost as much as the corn). As a result, they are far spicier, and I find them coarse on the palette. Some popular high rye bourbons are: Redemption, Bullet, and Buffalo Trace.
4. Tennessee Whiskey (yes, technically it is a bourbon)
The flavor profile of a bourbon is also affected by how long a bourbon is aged and the percent alcohol by volume (proof). The only legal requirements for aging is that bourbon must be aged at least two years to be called straight bourbon. The aging process is where the bourbon develops its unique palette of flavors - typically oak, vanilla, and caramel. The longer bourbon ages (the more time it spends in a charred oak barrel) the smoother and woodier it becomes. This is where my bias comes in. Bourbon aficionados (of which I am certainly not one) typically rank the quality of a good bourbon on how long it is aged. Generally, they feel that the longer the aging the better the bourbon. I agree with some of this, as longer aging results in smoother bourbon. These aficionados pride themselves on a palette developed to pick up the subtle notes of flavor under all that wood. They also appreciate the heavier oak taste. This is where I disagree. If your steak tasted like oak, would you think it was a good steak? If your string-beans tasted like oak, would you think them palatable? If your apple pie tasted like oak, would you even eat it? Of course not. But for some reason, those with a far more developed palette than me prefer their bourbon to taste like oak. I feel the rest of us want to taste those delicious flavors of vanilla, caramel, and sweet butter without having to search for them under all that wood. Therefore, highly aged bourbons are not my thing.
Why then might I pour Pappy-15 down the drain? Because it is aged 15-years. I was sure it was super smooth, but I doubted that I would appreciate the heavy oak taste that it was likely to have.
Poor Man’s Pappy
Once Pappy 15 became scarce, a number of blogs suggested a mix of what they called poor man’s Pappy. The consensus being that if you mix 60% Weller 12 with 40% Weller Antique-107 and let them develop for about a month, then you will essentially have a Pappy-15.
Poor man’s Pappy performed better in blind taste tests than genuine Pappy 15
This is accomplished, because Weller bourbon uses the same mash and is distilled in the same distillery as Van Winkle bourbon. You see, Stitzel-Weller was the first distillery to develop wheated bourbons. Julian (Pappy) Van Winkle worked as a salesperson for the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. When Weller died, Van Winkle bought the distillery from Weller’s children. When prohibition hit, Van Winkle was one of the few to obtain a permit to sell alcohol medicinally, and the Pappy legend was born. More recently, Buffalo Trace bought the Weller/Van Winkle distillery.
Nearly everyone who was into Bourbon started making poor man’s Pappy. Back then, Weller 12 went for $99 and Weller 107 for $30; so poor man’s Pappy was made for under $150. Eventually, the Weller-12 became scarce (hey the stuff takes 12 years to age) as did the Weller-107. At the time of this writing, the going price for Weller 107 is $99 (if you can find it) and the Weller 12, which is nearly as hard to find as Pappy-15, goes for around $300. Sadly, poor man’s Pappy is now nearly as scarce as Pappy-15 itself.
Back at the Liquor Store
I stared and contemplated. Then, I stared and contemplated again. If I chose not to drink it, then I could always show it off - but I am not exactly a "show off" kind of guy. So, did I leave with the prized bottle of Pappy? Of course not. Yes, I was dying to experience what is said to be the best bourbon ever. However, with my particular taste for bourbon, why should I chance $1,500 when other wheated bourbons are nearly as good.
Potential Pappy Alternatives
If you want a general idea of what Pappy 15 tastes like, then here are your options:
1. Poor Man’s Pappy
60% Weller 12 + 40% Weller Antique 107 mixed and allowed to develop for about a month.
This is the closest thing to Pappys. The ingredients will be hard to find and will cost you somewhere in the ballpark of $500.
2. Weller 12
Weller 12 is the next closet thing to Pappy 15. In fact, it is often called Pappy Jr.
A bottle will cost at least $300, if you can find it.
3. Weller Antique 107
Antique 107 is basically Weller 12 without the extra aging.
You are looking at a cost of about $99 per bottle, if you can find it.
4. Makers 46
Rumor is that Bill Samuels (the creator of Makers Mark bourbon) was a close friend of Julian Van Winkle who gave Samuels the Van Winkle yeast and mash recipe. Apparently, Makers is made with the same recipe as Pappy along with yeasts similar to what Pappy used. The oak staving in Makers 46 adds extra woodiness to develop more complex flavors (basically simulating a longer aging process). Therefore, Makers 46 is more similar to Pappy 15 than Makers Mark. In fact, Julian Van Winkle Jr. recommends Makers 46 if you want to experience what Pappy-15 might taste like. Best of all, you can get a 375mL bottle of Makers 46 for about $25!
Makers 46 is similar to Pappy 15, and you can get a 375mL bottle of Makers 46 for about $25
While travelling just outside Kentucky, I had the opportunity to join the Pappy VanWinkle 15 club for the bargain basement price of $50 a shot. How was it? Let me put it this way, I am glad I did not buy a bottle, because I would have poured $1,500 down the drain. As predicted, it tasted like other wheated bourbons. In fact, it was almost identical to Maker's 46, but the Pappy was far smoother, oak heavy, and had more flavor popping through the oak.
I also had a chance to blind taste test 10 bourbons, with one being my beloved Knob Creek. I scored the Knob Creek second best out of ten, and I scored Evan Williams Master Blend the best out of ten. As good as the Evan Williams was neat, it was completely lost when mixed into an Old Fashioned, so Knob Creek remains my bourbon of choice.
Did you know that the term cocktail originated from horses? Mixed breed horses were called cocktails because their tails resembled the tails of roosters. Later, the term cocktail was used to describe mixed spirits
Pre-prohibition Old Fashioned
Three are many ways to make an Old Fashioned. In fact, this classic cocktail is fast becoming one of the most varied cocktails of our time. That being said, a pre-prohibition Old Fashioned is made without any fruit or fruity liquors - making it a whiskey lover's Old Fashioned. Put simply, a pre-prohibition old fashioned is made with whiskey (traditionally rye, but I prefer bourbon), sweetener, bitters, and ice - period. I like to add a splash of water to my whiskey, which I feel enhances the whiskey by opening it up, except in the case of fine Irish whiskey, which should be consumed warm and neat. When it comes to an Old Fashioned, I find them far more enjoyable by replacing the spritz of seltzer with a splash of ice-cold water.
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