The Van Winkle name is the E.F. Hutton of today’s bourbon market – say it in a room of bourbon drinkers, and everyone listens. Or, put another way, say it in a blog post or message board, and everyone has an opinion. Even Justin Timberlake name dropped the Van Winkle brand’s “Pappy” line in a recent interview (while simultaneously showing that he knows as much about whiskey as I know about bringing sexy back).
What invariably gets lots in the hype over the label is what’s actually inside the bottle. How does this stuff taste, anyway? And is there any variation from year-to-year?
We decided to review the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year and the Van Winkle Family Reserve “Lot B” 12 Year releases from 2016 and 2017. The main purpose of which was to see whether these coveted bourbons have any variation between their annual releases.
As a brief caveat, because of the overeager bourbon hunters trying to get anything bearing the Van Winkle name and insisting on calling it all “Pappy,” we must pause to recognize that neither of these bottles are “Pappy.” The Van Winkle brand does have a 15, 20, and 23 year old lineup of bourbon. Those, and only those, are what are properly referred to as “Pappy.” Let’s make it more simple – if the bottle doesn’t bear the image of Julian Van Winkle extinguishing his match after lighting up a stogie – it ain’t Pappy.
All the Van Winkle bourbons are made using a wheated mashbill, the same recipe used for Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Weller brand. All Van Winkle bourbon is now distilled and aged at Buffalo Trace. Certain barrels are selected for the Van Winkle brand. The selected barrels are blended together and diluted to achieve the desired proof. For the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year, the 107 proof is said to be “nearly barrel proof.”
So, back to the point, is there any variation between the annual releases of the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year and Van Winkle Family Reserve “Lot B” 12 Year? Let’s find out.
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year (107 proof) (2016)
Nose: Cinnamon sugar; sponge cake/lemon bar; wet oak/old cardboard box; hard caramel candy; red apple skin; vanilla; light nutmeg; prune juice; warm apple cider. The nose does not suggest this is over 100 proof. While it is complex, it is also cohesive and fits together nicely. 3.5/5
Palate: Sweet cinnamon sugar and all spice; caramel; cinnamon red hots that do not quite peak in spice. 4/5
Finish: Medium-long; cinnamon sugar and demerara sugar; red apple skin; old cardboard; the all spice hangs around the longest. 3.5/5
Overall: This is a cinnamon sugar ride all the way through. It is both bright and rich. 4/5
Value: Things get complicated here. The price for this bottle can range from $59 to $500, maybe more. This bottle was acquired by the club in 2016 for $199. But, we got the 2017 for $79. Simply basing the value on what’s inside the bottle – a 10 year wheated bourbon at 107 proof – it is hard to remain satisfied paying over $100 unless you start to factor in the label. With all that said, for this bottle at $199, all things considered, this is 2.5/5.
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year (107 proof) (2017)
Nose: A bit richer than the 2016; the cinnamon sugar is not as strong; it also smells older; some tobacco cream; lemon cram; purple grapes/plums; clean, fresh-sawed oak rather than cardboard; golden raisins. 3.5/5
Palate: Creme brulee; sweet tobacco cream; purple grapes; not terribly complex, and certainly not as bright as the 2016, but the flavors are pleasant; the flavors do not dance in your mouth the way the 2016 does. 3.5/5
Finish: Not as long as 2016, but more crisp and richer; plum/apricot; flat grape soda; a subtle sweet apple baking spice lingers the longest. 4/5
Overall: A bit simpler than the 2016, but well executed and very pleasing flavors. 4/5
Value: This bottle was purchased for $79. Considering the preface from the 2016’s value above, this is 3.5/5.
Van Winkle Family Reserve “Lot B” 12 Year (90.4 proof) (2016)
Nose: Inviting; salted butterscotch; plum pie; pie crust with mellow baking spices; under ripe blackberry; black cherry; leather; cola syrup; buttered toast; old library books; it gets fruitier as it breathes longer, with prunes, green grapes, then turning towards chocolate mint and hay. 4/5
Palate: Watery vanilla caramel syrup; some mint chocolate; creamy with baking spices; it’s similar to that last drink out of the straw of a Starbucks iced caramel vanilla latte, where the ice has mostly melted and there’s no trace of coffee left. 3/5
Finish: Medium; vanilla cream; butterscotch candy; grape bubblegum; lingering cream soda; in the mid-finish there’s a strange drying sensation, like when the doctor puts the dry Popsicle stick on your tongue. 3.5/5
Overall: For a 90-proof bourbon, this does pack some good flavor. The nose was the highlight. And for 12 years, it certainly doesn’t seem over-oaked. While it’s not extravagant, its best quality might be how refined it is. 3.5/5
Value: Similar to the ORVW, these bottles can fetch multiple times their retail price of $79. We got one of these bottles for $99 and the other for $149. For $99, this is satisfying, but not by a wide margin. 3/5
Van Winkle Family Reserve “Lot B” 12 Year (90.4 proof) (2017)
Nose: Grape soda; butterscotch; vanilla; hay; red apple peel; cocoa; tobacco; prune; toasted marshmallow; eclair; lemon peel; a milk chocolate scent becomes more prominent the longer it breathes. 4/5
Palate: Initial fruit with some lemon tea – the kind of artificial bottled tea instead of steeped tea; ginger; orange zest; watery caramel and vanilla; milk chocolate. 3/5
Finish: Fades much more quickly than the 2016; the lemon ginger tea is present with some vanilla; it ends somewhat disjointedly. 2.5/5
Overall: This one was a head-scratcher with the tea notes that did not mesh well with the more traditional bourbon flavors. If the nose had simply carried over into the palate and finish, it would have been much better. But, the lemon and ginger tea notes, while perhaps nice on their own, seemed out of place. 3/5
Value: For $149, this one left us wanting a little more. Considering that we’ve been able to obtain some Antique Collection bottles for this price, this fell short of what we wanted. 2.5/5