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Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon Review: Looks Great, but How Does It Taste?

2021 Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 Year Bourbon

Pappy. The ultimate "I want it, but I just can't get it" bottle. Nothing gets an Instagram or Youtube comment section more riled up than this. Is it worth drinking? Are some folks justified in shelling out several thousand dollars to get it? I hope I can help answer these questions, and a few that you didn't even know you had in today's write up. I won't rehash the entirety of the history of Pappy here. You've possible already read about it in a book - Pappyland - or more likely, you've seen the movie "Heist". I'll let those works inform your understanding of the brand and hopefully I can add a bit more color to the liquid inside the bottle as it stands today. Buffalo Trace offers the following recounting:

The History of Pappy
Download PDF • 165KB

What lengths people will go to in order to get this bourbon... It's insanity. I've seen people step two steps into a liquor store, demand or ask about Pappy, and then whip 180 degrees right back out the door with expletives when they get told there is nothing there for them. The ultimate goal of acquiring the thing that nobody else has is an unfortunate reality in today's whiskey world. I'll be damned if I didn't get superbly lucky back in the Winter of 2021 when I was chosen first in the yearly raffle that Craft Beer Cellar in Westford, MA holds. Of course I went with the whiskey that I'd never had the opportunity to even touch prior to this. Half-knowing it wasn't going to live up to the hundreds of other whiskeys available to me that year, I drove to pick it up in an excited fervor that can only be matched by the opportunity to meet your favorite celebrity. Then I waited.

This one has to be special, right?

I waited... and I waited. What the heck was the right occasion for this - the top of the whiskey food chain, I thought?

Amongst the Whiskey holding 2021 Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon

It turns out, you don't need an occasion. You just need a good friend by your side. I opened this recently with a dear friend of mine who shall remain nameless to prevent unintentional bribes for information about where I keep my Pappy. But was it any good? I won't spoil you with any further of my pre-read of this bottle, but let my standardized process of offering my honest opinion on evaluating whiskey fairly do its job. They say "never meet your heroes", but I walk out to greet them. Let's see if 15 years in oak from Buffalo Trace distillery has made this into a pinnacle whiskey or not.


Company on Label: Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (Buffalo Trace)

Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Wheated Bourbon

Mash Bill Percentages: Undisclosed combination of Corn, Wheat and Malted Barley

Proof: 107°

Age: 15 years

Further identification: This is the 2021 release of Pappy 15, which is only released once per year each Fall; it carries an MSRP of $120 (good luck)


Nose: It is immediately apparent that this has spent a long while in an oak barrel; musty yet sweet barrel funk emanates from the glass. Deep, dark oak tones continue to prevail with molasses and damp soil aromas dominating the senses. Rich leather and hints of brown sugar open the sinuses on deep inhales. Everything I am finding on the nose just tells the story of a classic, oaky bourbon. Subtle layers of decomposing flowers, cinnamon stick and mulled wine add to the overall funkiness. As I'm not finding anything else of note, I'll move into a sip from here.

Returning my nose to the glass after a few sips doesn't show off any further developments. The glass is quite enjoyable to explore with the nose, but is holistically pretty unremarkable. I can't find anything I dislike, but ultimately I think it lacks any meaningful depth and seems to have been blended for the unfortunate goal of 'smoothness' - eugh. Overall this is a great example of a whiskey that can demonstrate what a teenage bourbon will smell like, but it falls right in line with many other examples that can be found and bought on the shelf today. Late in the glass the vanilla tones flourish, almost escalating into one of my favorite territories, marshmallow, but not quite getting there. The empty glass smells of caramel, raisin and the warm Summer air that carries a hint of sunscreen.

Palate: My first sip shows off subtle cherry skins, cinnamon and a smorgasbord of oak that reminds me of being in a dining room filled with wood. Another sip is much the same with vague cherry sweetness dominating the palate. Cherry is a well-known note that a lot of Buffalo Trace distillate will show off; this example tastes much like an Eagle Rare 10 year pick. A subtle layer of vanilla makes this slightly creamy and ultimately softens any of the spice from the cinnamon or wood tones. Much like the nose, the palate experiences very little evolution. The mouthfeel is sticky and sweet with the cherry notes coming across as more of a maraschino profile than anything else. A longer sip and swish in the mouth amplifies the cinnamon tones, reminding me starkly of the profile of Weller Antique, though I am absolutely certain that I've had some Antique picks that have surpassed this in quality. Sipping late into the glass produces the same, simple flavors of cherry and oak. Some may say this is elegant in its simplicity. I say smoothness be damned, this is boring whiskey. My last sip is no bittersweet farewell to a whiskey I may never taste again, but a sad violinist waxing on over one admittedly enjoyable cherry note. The one trick pony stands alone on stage, repeating the same show that is clearly not worth watching twice. The finish is short and sweet with no remarkable character to show for it.

TL;DR: Very average, very classic Buffalo Trace bourbon with simple oak and cherry notes


Rating: 3/5

I hate to break it to ya, folks. This isn't some miracle liquid that nobody else can make, it's just classic Kentucky bourbon. Buffalo Trace cranks out millions of bottles of whiskey that is right in line with this in quality. The fact that they continue to ride on the coattails of those who silently built the brand they represent today is incredibly sad. The Stitzel-Weller examples of Pappy were what garnered all the perfect scores and hype around this brand. Today's Pappy is not that same liquid. It's Weller bourbon in a fancy wine bottle, perhaps occasionally hand selected for the higher purpose of this label. It's not the same rich history that was built from exceptional stocks by palates like the Julian Van Winkle legacy (Sr, Jr & III) and Marci Palatella. It's sad to see a legacy such as theirs squandered on sad, modern, beige bourbon, but alas, people are still going to chase it for some time. At least until enough of us get to taste it and be honest about how it stacks up against other brands in this wide whiskey world. Does it deserve to be released and enjoyed? Absolutely. 15 year bourbon is an awesome thing to have on the shelf, but I'll let you be the judge if this is worth chasing, or worth whatever the heck it goes for on secondary. If you'd like to help me recover from the $120 MSRP I had to purchase this one at, feel free to buy me a coffee. This site still operates on my own dime, with no monetary kickbacks or ads at all.

You might be wondering how some of the other releases from 2021 panned out. I've also reviewed Lot "B" and Old Rip Van Winkle from the same year. If you made me rank them, I'd order them thus:

This Old Rip Van Winkle release carries the depth and richness that I crave in whiskey. I recently did a blind tasting of the Pappy 15, Old Rip Van Winkle and George T Stagg. Whoever is in charge of the latter two is doing a much better job than those on this 15 year release, at least for the 2021 edition. George T Stagg had the best palate, followed closely by the Old Rip, with Pappy 15 clearly lagging far behind. I'll firmly stand by a viewpoint that I've expressed openly in my friend circles:

Modern Pappy is crappy.

Cheers, friends.

2021 Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 Year Bourbon




Replying to

Thank you for the request, I'll see if I can find a bottle to review!


Pappy sucks. I had a 25 year old and it tasted like LTD cheap whiskey. Not sure what the hype is?!!

Replying to

Hahaha, wow. Thanks for that laugh Doug. I'm glad to hear you're generally with me on calling out subpar, overhyped whiskey. Cheers!


Sean Doyle
Sean Doyle
Dec 16, 2023

Different strokes for different folks.

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