September 11, 2013

Review: Pappy van Winkle 15 Year, 20 Year, and 23 Year - Beast Masters Volume 1. Part 2

Insult to Injury

A while back we posted the first part of our private tasting with ace bourbon collector Jonathan Colton.  It was an in-depth, drool-inducing play-by-play of A.H. Hirsch 16-Year, arguably the best bourbon in the history of the world.  

Well it's time for Part 2, and so we thought we'd add insult to injury.  What could Jonathan put on the table next to the best bourbon in the world?  Well of course, the best three bourbons in the world.  The entire line of Pappy Van Winkle.  Remember that sexy close up of the AH Hirsch airing out prior to our tasting from the first post?  The one that made you want to pawn your family heirlooms for whiskey money?  Well, let's zoom out a bit...

That's what we're talking about.  

Who's Your Pappy?

There have been so many great articles on Pappy that we won't try and give you the whole history or tell you why it's so elusive, impossible to find, and generally awesome.  However there are some pertinent facts you should know.


The Stitzel-Weller distillery has reached mythical status in the world of the bourbon aficionado.  The distillery was opened the day of the Kentucky Derby, 1935 and run by Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle Senior until his death in 1968 and then by his son Julian Van Winkle Jr until 1972.  The distillery then changed hands and was eventually closed in 1992 (note that 1992 is 21 years ago, that will become very important in future posts).

Stitzel-Weller made a number of brands like W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Cabin Still.  SW became famous for their 'wheated' bourbon recipe.  By law bourbon has to be at least 51% corn.  Most producers use rye as the second ingredient.  Using a technique coined by William Larue Weller, an early bourbon pioneer, SW used wheat instead of rye in the mashbill.  The combination of the recipe, ingredients, and conditions at Stitzel-Weller created some unbelievable whiskey stock.  Today, bourbon freaks hunt far and wide for any bottles containing "SW juice".

Julian Van Winkle Junior and his son JVW III revived the family's Old Rip Van Winkle brand from before prohibition.  After Stitzel-Weller closed, Julian III bought up old stock and started releasing more matured, aged bourbon under the Pappy Van Winkle label.  In the early 2000's, realizing that the SW stock was coming to an end, Julian III contracted with Buffalo Trace to source future stock of Pappy.

So, to make a long story short, in recent years Pappy has mixed Buffalo Trace and Stitzel-Weller bourbon to make Pappy.  Not so for the bottles in Jon's collection.  These are all early 2000's Pappys, and so they are all 100% Stitzel-Weller-produced bourbon.  The Holy Grail so to speak.  Gear up, let's take it for a drive.

Tasting Notes

Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year

Lots of dry sharp woodiness.  Sawdust and hint of tobacco.  Big back-end of vanilla, cocoa, nutmeg, leather and black pepper.

Body: Goes in dry and crisp and then opens up sweet and rich.  Immediately we're in heaven with this bottle, the wheat has a mellowness that counters the big sweetness and spice for an amazing balance.  It's got a good amount of spirit warmth that is welcome amid all the different flavors.

Finish: Medium-short finish leaves you with oak, tobacco, and vanilla.

Overall: Awesome, ballsy, rich and woody bourbon.  If this is the youngest we can't wait for the older brothers.

Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year

Nose:  Much sweeter on the nose.  Less wood, more raisins, plums and chocolate.

Body:  Ok, there was something happening when we had our first taste of A.H. Hirsch 16-Year that we thought we'd never experience again.  Just an airiness, an evaporative texture that makes the whiskey feel soft against the tongue.  The Pappy 20 is right there as well.  Like the liquid whispers against the palate floating a millimeter off the tongue.  Incredible.

Finish:  The most balanced finish ever.  Sweet, oak, leather, spice and spirit just melding together into fine cologne.

Overall:  The second best bourbon we've ever tasted.

Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year

Nose:  Jonathan said that when he opened this bottle a few years back, he was very disappointed.  He found it over-oaked, extremely woody - to a fault.  This isn't the first time we've heard this from people about Pappy 23.  We picked up the big wood right on the nose, amazingly dry cracking wood, like a pile of aged firewood.

Body:  Like many very old spirits, this bottle just takes time to open up.  Jon agreed.  After a few years in the bottle it's a brilliant spirit.  There's still the tiniest bit of bitterness from the extreme woodiness, but overall it's extremely refined old leather, oak, and dark spices.

Finish:  The longest finish of the pack, the smoke comes back layering nicely with the wood.

Overall:  One of a kind, big wheat and wood, for special occasions...

Sadly We Reached The End

All of these Pappy's were off the charts.  But the 20-Year was an obvious stand-out.  The texture and the balance were absolutely unique.  We could see craving the 15-Year for a big sweet drink after a rich meal.  The 23-Year would be a victory drink if you won a nobel prize or just made your first million - men's club-style refinement and intense dry, crisp, and woody powerhouse.  But the 20-Year is pure magic.  It takes the best of the 15 and 23 and then brings the whole experience to another level.

Thanks again to Jonathan for an unforgettable evening.  We've still got one more part to this series so stay tuned.  /SmokyBeast


  1. Considering you've just covered AH Hirsch, I can't think of any rarer bourbon unless it's some really dusty bottle of S-W when the distillery was still open...

    1. Agreed, Eric. If you have any old SW dusties, let us know! Actually this week we have a different kind of rare bourbon up for review. Here's a hint: it won't be rare for long! :) Stay tuned. /SB

    2. Funny . . . I just found a old SW of Kentucky Bourbon that is numbered and made for the Jonathan Club in my dads collection. It is numbered 49 in ink, but says No. A 1014 and in "Barrel Proof" made exclusively for Jonathan Club Members. Not sure how old it is, but I know that it is at least from the 50's or 60's. My fathers friend was a member at one time. He has many vintage bottles of various bottles. He may be interested in selling them, but I know he is not desperate. If someone could assist me in finding out the value, please email me at Thank you.

  2. I just discovered your blog, thankfully! I won the lottery today in that I was able to obtain a bottle of Van Winkle 12 year old Special Reserve Lot B AND a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old. I believe the 23 will go into a safe for when my daughter gets married or makes me a grandfather and the 12 will be enjoyed with friends over the holidays.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mark, and congratulations on your acquisition! Special occasions and sharing with friends is what good booze is all about. Enjoy!

  3. Would you have any suggestions on how to store the 23? I'm thinking of putting it in my basement safe. Can't decide whether to keep it upright or lay it on its side.

    1. Hi Mark, your safe sounds like a good place, if only Buffalo Trace did the same!

      Unlike wine, whiskey will deteriorate cork over long periods of time, so whiskey bottles should always be stored upright.

  4. Ha! I had seen that. Amazing their security isn't tighter. Thanks for the advice... :)

  5. My new mission is to find a bottle of the AH Hirsch 16. What do you think the odds are of that....LOL I think it would be awesome to collect the 15 and 20 year old Pappy too. My vendor usually gets a few bottle a year but never know which age class. He is headed down Monday to pick out a barrel of Four Roses and have it bottled at barrel strength. I should be able to get one of those. I am actually trying to put together a collection of rare and very high end Bourbons. It may sound strange but if I am just sitting by the fireplace with a good book and a glass I like Makers Mark slightly chilled.

    1. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a good old Makers Mark with an ice cube or two. Big YES on the barrel proof Four Roses. Actually we are in the midst of a SmokyBeast Four Roses spectacular where we do a grand battle of all their Limited Edition bottles over the past three years. Truly outstanding stuff, stay tuned! The A.H. Hirsch can be found on the secondary market for $600-$800 bucks, but we wouldn't recommend that anyone pay that much for a bottle of bourbon. Unless you are ridiculously lucky and find a dusty bottle of a shelf somewhere, that one may be out of reach. But it's good to have a dream!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Sorry guys, but this blog is not a forum for selling / trading whiskey, and those types of comments will have to be deleted. Nothing personal! /SB

  8. The 20 year has always been my favorite Pappy. It's awfully close to my ideal bourbon. I do have to point out that these bottles are not from 2002, more like 2006 or so. I'd have thought bourbon fiends like you guys would have caught that ;)

    1. Thanks Chris, we were just going on what Jonathan said. How can you tell it's an '06?

    2. Everything bottled prior to 2003 says Lawrenceburg, instead of Frankfort. Also, Pappy 15 didn't exist prior to 2004, before that, the 15yo bottle was Old Rip Van Winkle 15 in the short, fat bottle. And I'm guessing the Pappy 23 is post 2005, because that was the last year they had wax tops instead of capsules, and I believe the bottle numbers started with an "A," which points to this bottle being the next year. Sorry for being pedantic, haha. I do love the blog, and I would recommend tracking down some of the bourbon bottled by Scottish independent bottlers in the last 10 years, some of them are pretty spectacular.

    3. Apologies for stepping in. Have a btl of PVW 23 yr old. Tried to figure out bottling date based on the "clues" and email exchanges with Preston Van Winkle. Bottle is clear glass and does not have a code on the glass. Bottom front label indicates it was bottled in Frankfort, front labeling has raised lettering, and the top is gold colored wax. According to Preston, if it’s got wax it’s from 2005 or earlier and they didn’t start using the bottling code until late 2006, so the bottle is from sometime June 2002 and the summer of 2005. Only other "clue" is the "Bottle #B830" on the front. Would like to determine the bottling date closer if possible.