"Praise, like gold diamonds, owes its value only to its scarcity."
Known for being a very limited part of the yearly Buffalo Trace "allocation season" for Pappy Van Winkle products, the 13 year Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye doesn't often get talked about as much as some of the other products like Pappy 15 year or the ultra-aged 23 year oak-bomb. To start, there's not enough bottles to go around for even the craziest whiskey hunters to be able to track this down on any regular basis, but what is even worse is that significantly less of these bottles are ever opened and drank than are distributed. Because of the value multiples these bottles carry, most treat these as a commodity - tradebait if you will - in order to get something that they really want (often more dollars in flipper's pockets). So what makes this rye command something like $1,250 on secondary markets - over 10x it's MSRP of $120? Is it an extraordinarily delicious rye, the likes we may never see again? I did what most others won't do and cracked my bottle open to find out. I was pleased to find an NFC tag under the foil which functioned perfectly through Buffalo Trace's new app; most of the antique collection carries this technology now. NFC (near field communication) circuits are being utilized to help prevent counterfeiting of these bottles and the back end of the app seems to be powered by Selinko. A demo of the screens that comes up when scanning an unopened and then opened bottle are shown below.
I've covered some of my qualms about the whole modern Pappy craze fizzling out before, noting that I'm not a huge fan of brands that trade on the scent of a long lost rose. I do believe Buffalo Trace is capable of making wonderful whiskey these days, but have been generally disappointed in most of the modern Pappy examples I've tasted. The exception to that rule seems to be Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year bourbon, which drinks remarkably close to some of the modern Weller Antique bottlings in my experience. I have gone as far as to blind taste Old Rip in a Weller flight and couldn't rightly discern which one I liked better: the Old Rip or Antique 107, notably bottled at the same proof.
So if the whiskey inside is generally the same... again I ask: what makes this command such a price markup? The marketing gurus at Sazerac seem to have plucked just the right string by riding on the coattails of the Stitzel Weller era. Sometimes good branding is all you need in life, though notably, I have never before tried this Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye release prior to 2023. I have had the pleasure of enjoying several vintages of Sazerac 18 year which have ultimately been hit or miss through the years. Since we haven't yet gotten into the contents of this 13 year rye just yet, I'll hold off on further comments, and let the whiskey speak for itself!
Company on Label: Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (Buffalo Trace)
Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Mash Bill Percentages: Buffalo Trace Rye Mash Bill (assumed to be 51% rye)
Age: 13 years
Further identification: The 2023 release of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye is an allocated release that has had scant availability since December 2023 and is rarely priced at its MSRP of $120
Nose: While the aromas from a distance are quite dissectible - hints of expressed lemon peel being drawn from afar - as I place my nose to the rim of my glencairn I find the spigot has been shut off. Returning for deeper inhales shows subtle hints of brown sugar, milk chocolate, and sugary rock candy. With little aroma being produced, I decide to roll my glass on its side - a trick I've used quite frequently in tastings to increase volume. Suddenly licorice, strawberry cotton candy, and bubblegum come out of the glass in a strong wave. Honey sweetness is most notable with a touch of sweet gardenia floral aroma behind it. It builds well in a warm glass, suggesting this might make for a sweeter sip for the Summer months. Under the floral array I find hints of anise, cornbread, and fennel seed that comes across savory with a touch of molasses and black pepper hiding in the undertones. There are some decent layers throughout the nosing experience, but they are incredibly delicate and I fear most will miss them if hurried in any way. Hints of dry oak wash clean any of the bits of fun I was previously experiencing quite quickly. Perhaps a sip is in order from here.
Deep inhales back in the glass after a sip show off better volume of graham cracker. Metallic tones seem to have been amplified in a microscopic way. Overall this feels like the dish that barely gets touched at Thanksgiving. It's like the unadorned carrots on the end of the table while there's stuffing, ham, and turkey abound... It's fine to have on your plate, but it's not all that exciting in the grand scheme of things. Hints of coconut shavings, honey, caramel apple, and whipped cream can be found late in the glass - the most redeeming quality of my time spent with this pour. The empty glass smells of muddled mint, milk chocolate, Angostura bitters, and just a kiss of tobacco enjoyed in a reserved Winter forest.
Palate: My first taste lands like a fresh bedsheet falling into place with a wave of linen and some dusty funk hitting on the back palate first before candied sweetness tickles up near the tip of the tongue. Honeysuckle, light maraschino cherry, and grape popsicle all land like a fluffy cotton ball, almost too light to even be perceived. Everything here is subtle. I get a slightly savory fondue feel while other charcuterie board nuances can't quite be pinpointed, but feel generally present. Obscure, I know, but so is this whiskey. Another sip brings in the florality from the nose, notably jasmine and lavender tones that saunter into the slow oozing river of honey. It's quite thin in the mouth. Sipping further into the glass is rather enjoyable, perhaps like the nose more-so as a Summer sip, but it doesn't offer many revelations. There's subtle honey sweetness, delicate ladyfinger puffiness to the mouthfeel, and the linger is vaguely fruity. Hints of cherry cordial, elderflower liqueur (feels like it could be the same ABV), and mint offer an incredibly basic introduction to rye. A little character and a lot of barrel seem to be the general influences. My final sip and swish offers delicacy first and foremost, then soft creampuff and raisin on the follow through. The mouthfeel is thin, wispy and drying with oodles of well-steeped black tea before a short linger of anise, allspice, and peppermint swings through. The finish is impossibly gauzy, but highlights some of the wood influence that is notably otherwise missing. Caramel and lightly drying, vaguely tannic oak sit in the back of the head like a distant afterthought.
TL;DR: A gossamer, barely-legal rye that sips like a light cup of black tea on a Summer's eve
All of the wonderful complexities we love to explore as whiskey enthusiasts have been blended to oblivion on this whiskey. It's anemic as can be, but they have successfully lived up to the notes they provide on their website, notably the egregious "smooth". I find this ultimately drinks much like a more junior Sazerac 18 year release, which is... pretty much exactly what it is. There are a few redeeming qualities throughout that I think justify the existence of this product, but certainly not its hype-driven value multiple it carries. If you still want to sip this after reading my review, I'd suggest pairing it with "Gossamer Thin" by Conor Oberst. That's all for today my dear reader. Cheers to the never-ending search for the finest whiskeys the world has to offer! Until next time.