Like many of you, I’ve been conditioned to genuflect before bottles of bourbon bearing the name “Pappy Van Winkle.” It’s hard to resist the allure of the brand, as articles in major newspapers and men’s magazines trumpet Van Winkle as the pinnacle of American spirits, and online whiskey forums grow increasingly larded with gauzy, near-pornographic images of massive Van Winkle bottle collections.
I’ve certainly played a part in the Van Winkle mania, and I’ve had some magnificent bottles of Van Winkle-branded whiskey. I was an enthusiastic buyer of their 15 year-old bourbon and the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, both of which remain among my favorites. I’ve also had at least a couple of Van Winkle products that made me feel a little foolish, including two different versions of their 23 year-old bourbon. After spending hundreds of dollars on each, I tried mightily to convince myself that I enjoyed their woody, excessively dry profiles, but I never succeeded.
I probably learned about Van Winkle in much the same manner as many other people. I’d been drinking Maker’s Mark for years, and when I started searching the internet using phrases like “I’m bored with Maker’s Mark and want a bourbon that tastes like it, only much better,” I soon found myself at the gates of a remarkable online bourbon community called straightbourbon.com. Within minutes, I was wading through a torrent of posts about “the best bourbon,” “Van Winkle,” and “Pappy.” Within hours I had mapped out every liquor store in town and commenced pawing though their shelves, brandishing my credit card and croaking, “Heyabuddywherzavanwinkle” at anyone behind the register.
At the time, liquor store employees were only too happy to direct me to the Van Winkle, if they’d even heard of it. I was lucky enough to enter the world of American whiskey collecting at a time when Pappy Van Winkle 15 and its predecessor, Old Rip Van Winkle 15 were, if not exactly straightforward to find, at least regularly available to those willing to invest a bit of time and a reasonable amount of money. Even the elusive Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye sat on shelves, undisturbed, its generic brown label sometimes peeling away from the bottle.
I brought these bottles home, opened them, drank, and waited for enlightenment. And waited, and waited. Sure, they were good, but where were the angel’s trumpets? Time passed, and I realized the problems inherent to my approach. I’d made two assumptions: first, that my tastes mirrored those of the men and women posting opinions online, and second, that I had the ability to understand why, exactly, more experienced bourbon consumers considered Van Winkle whiskies so special.
If you are a whiskey collector, then presumably taste is a relative matter. You like bourbon X more than bourbon Y for reasons 1, 2, and 3. And you are familiar with bourbon Y and reasons 1, 2, and 3 because you’ve tasted a wide variety of whiskies and understand what aromas, flavors, and textures appeal to you. The issue with leaping right in and spending $500 on a bottle of Pappy 20 is that you’re denying yourself a frame of reference within which to evaluate it. If you skip right from everyday pours to a 20 year-old bottle of bourbon that’s held up as the epitome of American whiskey, you leave yourself only three possible reactions:
“Yes, that IS better than the $15 bourbon I’ve been buying at CVS.”
“Hmm. It’s good, but it’s not INCREDIBLE.”
Wow. This $500 bourbon sure tastes, uh, different from what I’m used to drinking.”
So be patient; don’t repeat my mistakes. Learn what sorts of bourbons you like and –equally important – what sorts of bourbons you dislike. When you develop a vocabulary, you’ll be better equipped to decide whether or not you really enjoy whatever Van Winkle whiskey you get to taste, whenever you get to taste it. And then you can decide, confidently, if it’s worth the time, effort, and money to hunt down more.
And if you’ve never tasted Pappy and that’s frustrating you, or if you’ve tried it and feel let down, here’s a thought: In a sense, it’s to your advantage as a consumer and a collector if you don’t fall in love with Pappy. It leaves you free to focus on other, more easily obtained whiskies. And if you have tried a Van Winkle whiskey and can’t get your mind off it, I promise you there is hope. I’ve found at least five or six other whiskies that I enjoy more than any Van Winkle-branded bourbon or rye. Are they easier to find? Well, no, not really. But they’re certainly cheaper when they do turn up. And I’ll discuss them in a separate posting.