This isn't your modern Pappy.
Woah. This whiskey came at me fast. I was recently sharing a few good pours with a new friend & suddenly I got a picture on my phone a few days later. It was a picture of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 year wheated bourbon sitting next to my sample jar... I looked long at the photo before responding with something like... "for me?!"
Yes, it was for me, and a sample jar landed on my desk a few days after that. Big thank you to Dave Vershum for making this review possible!
Now, what does one do with an ounce and a half of 2008 Stitzel-Weller distillate, the same whiskey that scored the near perfect 99/100 at every tasting competition ever, you ask? Get it in a glass and drink it of course! I've never personally had any Stitzel-Weller distillate outside the minutia sliver that remains in the solera tanks of Blade and Bow whiskey, so this will be a fun exploration for me. If you're interested in a little extra background history on the Stitzel-Weller distillery, I'd recommend this article for some light reading.
The modern bottlings of the ultra-aged Pappy Van Winkle line (those both distilled and bottled by Buffalo Trace today) have thus far been a strong disappointment for me... but this is the stuff that the hype was created from. This is the original high scorer / overachiever blend of barrels that captured the world's attention. Will it exude all the elegance of a perfectly crafted whiskey? Will it set a new bar for what I currently consider exceptional whiskey? Read on & let's explore a true rarity together.
Company on Label: Stitzel-Weller Distillery (Bottled by Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery)
Whiskey Type: Wheated Bourbon
Mash Bill Percentages: 75% Corn, 20% Wheat, 5% Malted Barley
Age: 20 years
Further identification: This is a 2008 release of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve; backdating from this bottling day tells us this was produced in 1988/1989, prior to the closing of the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1992; Buffalo Trace had begun bottling this product at this time and the bottle would feature a laser code beginning with a K
Nose: Lemon peel and butterscotch leap out of the glass first for me. Soft, delicate floral tones belie the sweetness brewing below. Light in volume overall, but certainly showing off some low barrel entry proof citrus tones I also find on pre-fire Elijah Craig 23 year. Oooh, now things are starting to build in the glass. A deep inhale shows off notes of cherry skins before bursting forth into a deeper amaretto sweetness. Dry clay and leather mix interestingly and elegantly. So far this glass has been very reserved, keeping most of its secrets to itself for now. I've rested this quite a while, but I will continue to take my time as I always do with my reviews. Perhaps a sip might help.
Returning after a sip builds on all the caramel you could ask for on a bourbon - it bumps up against the butterscotch note in a comfortable gathering of warm friends. Cherry Garcia jumps forth from dessert exemplified. Black pepper impossibly intermingled with vanilla tingles and cools the nostrils. A soft pie crust ties everything together. Lavender flashes up before making way for strawberry cereal, confectioners sugar and yogurt. Every time I think I'm done with the nose and I'm ready for a sip something new shows up to capture my attention. On the left nostril notes of light confections abound. On the right nostril I find the more earthy aromas and leather tones to be prominent. Coming back to both nostrils I find most of the volume to have faded, insisting on another sip. Late in the glass bits of chocolate mix in well alongside hints of graham cracker. A honey-like softness permeates this glass making it easy to nose on and on. The empty glass smells of roasted pecans, vanilla custard, milk chocolate and honey wheat black bread. Amazing.
Palate: Cherry skins transfer perfectly from the nose here. Holy shit. Then the wave of vanilla bean ice cream bursts into every corner of my mouth leaving a creamy marshmallow linger everywhere it touched. Lemon cake with a soft buttercream frosting sits in the linger. I hate to admit it, but this might be love at first taste. Another sip builds out the rest of the cherry experience; it's juicy, sweet and delicious. As the distinct cherry fades more obscure notes of sherry and dates swing through with an air of lavender around them. A bigger sip and swish resuscitates the citrus tones from the early nose and puts them back out on center stage. With the spotlight burning on exposed lemon peel, the pour does well to maintain a mellow demeanor. With the troves of butterscotch and vanilla from the nose, the palate does well to not enter a cloying space. My last sip is an effervescent cherry bomb. Cinnamon tingles on the surface of the tongue without producing any heat or true spice, just the shimmering brilliance of starlight captured in a glass. The linger is impossibly long with creamy tiramisu, warm biscuits, cashews and praline ice cream.
Well, that stuff was certainly worth the price of admission (which was totally free, thank you Dave!). Where the heck was I in 2008? This whiskey is absolutely irreproducible, and that is a damn shame because it is quite good. That said, I do think the rest of my 5/5 category can absolutely hang with this pour. I find the 99/100 or 9.345/10.000 style scales to be pretty disingenuous, unless they are truly informed by blind head to heads. I don't think this is worldview bending or life altering by any means. I could easily sip a 2022 Four Roses Limited Edition alongside this & not have it be outclassed.
I do think this is incredibly unique, as the only parallels I can draw are to Elijah Craig 23 year or Michter's 20 year. Ultra-aged whiskey, especially that of great origin and care, can be really exceptional and this is testament to that. There are plenty of bad examples out there too, but hopefully few of those hit your glass, my well-learned reader. I can definitely tell you this is some pinnacle of the whiskey world that I'm sure few will get to try, but if you can, do it. I'm thoroughly satisfied here. If you can't find it or afford it, don't sweat it - there are budget pinnacles out there too. I'd love to be able to try some higher proof examples next, but I certainly won't hold my breath!