July 5, 2013

Review: Van Winkle Family Reserve 12-Year 'Lot B' - The Holy Grail of Beasts

In Search of Van Winkle

This post is entitled ‘The Holy Grail’ because over the last few years, that’s what the product of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery has become: this elusive, impossible-to-get-but-everyone’s-talking-about-it, holy grail kind of thing.  Ok, the real Holy Grail is the Pappy van Winkle (the 15, 20, or 23 year).  Stay tuned for reviews of Pappy.  For now, the closest we're getting is the Van Winkle "Lot B", the 12-year Family Reserve.   Still, even with this semi-holy, slightly more attainable grail, we felt like we could finally get to the bottom of the mystery... is it really worth the price, but more so, is it worth the search? 

The Holy Grail

We always want what we can’t have: in love, in life, and yes, in whiskey.  It doesn’t make it better, it just makes us want it more.  So we were curious as to whether the hype was true, or whether it was, well, just hype.

The history of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery is not up to our typical scandalous marketing-hype phenomenon.  It doesn’t involve hookers, fighting or contraband.  Instead it’s a noble tradition involving four generations beginning in the late 1800’s with Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr.   A travelling salesman for a wholesale outfit, Pappy eventually bought the company as well as another distillery, which was combined to make the Stitzel-Weller Distillery that churned out such brands as Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still.  Pappy pretty much ran the place until he was in his 90s when he passed away and left the operations to his son Julian, Jr.  Eventually, he was forced to sell the distillery, but held on to one of the labels called Old Rip Van Winkle.  In the early 80s, Julian Jr.’s son, Julian III, took over and continued the family business. Recently, the Van Winkles joined forces with Buffalo Trace Distillery, which is now where all of the Van Winkle’s whiskey production now takes place

I guess the one note of scandal here is that Pappy was able to continue to produce his product during prohibition by operating under a “medicinal license”.  If that’s the case, then call us Dr. Smokybeast.

Sku’s Recent Eats [Link: http://recenteats.blogspot.com/2011/11/pappy-van-winkle-know-your-bottle-codes.html] has a cool tidbit about the bottling of the Pappy line of beverages.  On the bottle (usually below the back label) there is a code that will tell you when and where your booze was bottled, down to the minute and the bottling line in which is was filled.  While this probably isn’t of interest on most bottles, it’s of particular note here because you can determine whether your bottle is from the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery, or was bottled more recently in the Buffalo Trace location.  Of course the older bottling is more valuable and sought after, only contributing to the mystique of this hard to come by brand.

We made a night of it...

Tasting Notes

Nose: Honey, honeysuckle, orange zest, citrus and a hint of cherry. 

Body: Very rich and smooth, almost creamy, buttery.  A hint of smoke but not a lot – surprised that we like it as much as we do given that our blog is dedicated to the smoky varieties. 

Finish: Complex body turns into a complex finish: white chocolate, smoke and tree bark; warmth but with very little burn.

“All right, we’ll call it a draw”

The verdict is that it’s good.  Really, really good.  We like it even despite it’s hefty price tag and it’s virtual unavailability.   If you can get your hands on a bottle of Special Reserve, then do so immediately, but don't do it as an investment.  Sure, in 20 years, we’ll probably be cursing our 20-year younger selves for drinking the profts that could have paid for 4 years of our daughter’s college.  But life is short – enjoy it now!  Besides, when the bottle is worth 100 times what you paid for it, you’re not going to want to drink it anyway.   So call in a favor to your local liquor store and see if they can get you a bottle of the Van Winkle Special Reserve.  It is actually worthy of the hype.

Rating: A-


  1. I actually have a bottle of this 12 year old stashed away, bought it back in 2006. Was going to give it to my son on his 18th birthday but now you've got me thinking.....pretty keen for a taste to be honest :)

  2. I purchased a bottle of Van Winkle by lottery today, (Mar 2, 2020) and the upc code is 089319123730.. I tried everything to find out the date & time of bottling but can't figure it out. Can you help me determine this please? Thank you!