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A Pappy Van Winkle Kind of Night: Pappy for All!

IMG_2063Recently Savor CT put on a great wine and food event, and the following review of the opening held on Thursday night is written by guest blogger Alex Dubois.  Alex is a museum curator, scotch and bourbon fan, and an excellent writer to boot.  Enjoy!


April 7 was a day of firsts: first time attending a wine and spirits convention, first time sampling the barbequed delights of Plan B Burger Bar, first time stepping foot in the Connecticut Convention Center. The biggest first by far, however, was sipping a beverage so rare and coveted you might expect to see flecks of gold swirling around in your glass. Welcome to Savor the Legends – Pappy Van Winkle.

I’m no bourbon expert; as it happens, I don’t claim to be an expert in much at all. But in the relatively short time that I’ve been legally allowed to partake in the delights of distilled grain, I have tried numerous bourbons, whiskeys, and scotches of varied origins and rarities (although like a certain British spy, I always find myself reaching for a bottle of The Macallan).

Savor the Legends was the first time I tried Pappy Van Winkle. In all honesty, Savor the Legends was the first time I even SAW a bottle ofIMG_2060 Pappy Van Winkle. And boy was it a sight to behold. Guests on Thursday night were treated to five rare and limited batches of Pappy: the 10-, 12-, 15-, 20- and 23-year-old vintages. All the Pappy bottles opened during the event were donated by Plan B Burger Bar, representing a significant portion of the restaurant’s recent allotments of Pappy. Plan B also catered the event with a Kentucky-themed menu including mini burgers, fried green tomatoes, johnnycakes, abundant amounts of pork, and much more, as well as their award-winning bourbon cocktails.

IMG_2064Savor is still a young event, having just finished its second year. I only attended the Pappy event on Thursday evening, but it was enough to confirm the praises you can find on this blog (see a review of this year’s event here) and many others. The tastings were separated into two stations, with the two younger bourbons poured at two bars on the perimeter of the room and the remainder at a central bar. The system IMG_2059seemed to work, as we never waited more than a minute or so for a pour. As expected, the food was delicious and ample, although we did note a certain lack of mini burgers past the beginning of the event (much to our disappointment, although it is hard to complain while sipping a 23-year-old bourbon). As echoed in this blog’s coverage of the other weekend events, bus tables were conveniently at hand whenever we found ourselves with an empty plate (as one is want to do when Plan B is concerned), although the room could have done with a few more standing tables. Overall, the event functioned with the same level of efficiency and elegance that are quickly becoming trademarks of the whole weekend.

Pappy Van Winkle

Since 2002, a joint venture with the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery company has seen the Van Winkle brands distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. But while you can find a bottle of Buffalo Trace on the shelves of the nearest liquor store, finding a bottle of Pappy is far more complicated. According to Fortune, around 7,000 bottles of Van Winkle bourbon hit the market each year. Most stores lucky enough to carry the brand get only one or two bottles, which are quickly snapped up by buyers willing to line up outside the store the day it goes on sale. Your best bet is the secondary market, but be prepared to pay. A bottle of Pappy that sells for a few hundred dollars in the store can quickly run into the high hundreds or even thousands online. What’s more, according to Buffalo Trace, last year’s bourbon yield from the Van Winkle barrels was less than normal, with the oldest vintages seeing the greatest decrease. Fortunately for this blogger and his bourbon compatriots, no such shortage was in effect at Savor the Legends.

The Bourbons

Our strategy going into the tasting was to start with the youngest Pappy, saving the oldest and rarest for last. Walking off the escalator onto the mezzanine floor, we headed for the main bar in the center. As luck would have it, we incorrectly assumed the bar would have all five of the Pappy’s on hand. As we talked with one of the bartenders about where to find the 10-year-old bourbon, he recommended that we alter our plan and start with the elusive elder statesmen, Pappy’s 23-Year-Old Family Reserve. Yes, it meant contradicting the age-old adage, “save the best for last.” It also meant tasting the most complex and intricate of the Pappy’s with a clean palate and a full complement of taste buds. As you will read, this was very good advice. Each bourbon is reviewed in terms of nose and palate and assigned a numerical grade on a five-point scale (in my notes I used little rows of whiskey barrels, which someone more HTML savvy than I may have been able to reproduce here. Alas…).

Bourbon #1: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-Year-Old

Nose: Good alcohol, traces of vanilla, floral scents, just the right amount of sweetness, some earthy tones, and something resembling a IMG_2063freshly-opened can of Play-Doh (we kid you not).

Palate: Like on the nose, a pleasant amount of alcohol, as well as vanilla and woody earth tones and just enough peat and smoke. Incredibly complex and long-lasting. This one stuck with me for a long time afterwards.

Grade: 4.5 whiskey barrels. Without doubt, the best bourbon I have ever tasted. If you ever have the luck or budget to try this, do not miss out.

Bourbon #2: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year-Old

Nose: Right off the bat, this was noticeably more subtle than its older brother. Less alcohol, wood, and earthy tones, but with a pleasant IMG_2061sweetness and traces of caramel.

Palate: The wood tones come through more on a palate than on the nose. Like the 23-year-old, this has a good amount of alcohol. Not as much sweetness as you might expect, given the prevailing characteristics of the nose.

Grade: 3.5 whiskey barrels. Let me preface by saying that this is without doubt a delicious bourbon. That being said, it is BIG drop from the 23-year-old.

Bourbon #3: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-Year-Old

Nose: Fairly similar to the 20-Year-Old, with some hints of vanilla.

Palate: This is the first of the bourbons to have a noticeable burn on the tongue. Greater traces of smoke and peat than the previous two,IMG_2062 with a strong finish on the back of the palate. Still some sweetness, although more subtle than the 20-Year-Old.

Grade: 4 whiskey barrels. It may not be as well balanced as the 20-Year-Old, but I am always partial to a good amount of smoke and peat. Out of the four younger bourbons, this was my favorite, and the only one I might consider blowing by budget to acquire.

Bourbon #4: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year-Old

Nose: Perhaps the lightest nose of the five bourbons. Still has some alcohol and some sweetness. If the 20-Year-Old was toned downIMG_2067 across the board, this is what it might smell like.

Palate: This is the Pappy I would recommend for easy-drinking. The palate mirrored the nose, again having a toned-down version of the 20-Year-Old’s flavor profile. Very smooth all around, with just a hint of alcohol on the finish, but overall noticeably less complex than the older bourbons.

Grade: 3.5 whiskey barrels. Good for easy-drinking, but not my preferred style of bourbon.

Bourbon #5: Old Rip Van Winkle 10-Year-Old

Nose: More alcohol, less of everything else. Some traces of sweetness, but devoid of any wood or earth tones.

Palate: Feel the burn! The alcohol on this one is immediately apparent, but develops even further towards the end. The burn overpowers IMG_2066much of the other flavors, but there are still traces of vanilla and wood. Here is where the bartender’s advice was most appreciated. Enjoying all the complex flavors of the 23-Year-Old at the end of the tasting would have been hard after jolting my taste buds right out of the gate.

Grade: 2.5 whiskey barrels. Easily the least drinkable of the five, though not unpleasant, and certainly the most attainable. For those reasons it is worth a try, but for everyday drinking there are better alternatives available at any liquor store.

Of course, these reviews reflect my personal tastes and my still developing appreciation for fine bourbon. Regardless of the vintage, a glass of Pappy Van Winkle is never worth turning down, and if there are life changing moments to be had in the world of fine spirits, the Pappy’s 23-Year-Old must certainly be among them.

A votre santé!

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