Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon Review

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

2012 was the first year of pure Buffalo Trace bourbon inside the 15 year Pappy Van Winkle. I for one loved the joining of these two bourbon heavyweights, but not everyone was certain that Buffalo Trace could provide what the higher quality Pappy Van Winkles needed to maintain the expected quality. For the first few years of their partnership, Buffalo Trace bourbon was slowly added to the remaining Stitzel-Weller stock. The 20 and 23 years could still have a few releases with the S-W juice in the batch, but for the first time we will get to see what a Pappy Van Winkle tastes like without a drop of Stitzel-Weller bourbon.

PVW15 in the glass

PVW15 in the glass

Surely, everyone involved was holding their breath as the first bottles left the warehouse for distribution. People go to great lengths and pay unimaginable sums to get a bottle of Pappy, so with all S-W stock gone, a bad release could cause the brand to crumble on fear that Buffalo Trace Pappy Van Winkle will never live up to S-W Pappy Van Winkle. The quality of all Buffalo Trace 20 and 23 year PVW are still up in the air when they too run out of S-W, so they won’t be out of the woods with a positive 2012 PVW15 release, but good reviews will certainly steady the ship until then.

Even if the mashbills are exactly the same, they are using different stills, different yeast strains, different stock of trees for their barrels, aging in different warehouses, and cut with different water. You should expect some of the classic S-W characteristics like that velvet mouthfeel, the metallic funk, and the subtle caramel sweetness to be different, but most of the PVW profile should be obtainable through barrel selection and blending. The current Van Winkle’s at the helm may have never run a still a day in their life, but they sure know what it takes to blend together some world class wheated bourbon. Now let’s see what they can do with Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbon.

Nose: This is one of those noses on a bourbon that if you were to do a Pepsi Challenge, you would be able to pick out PVW15. Tons of honey, cinnamon and vanilla combine with a sharp, charred oak that creates a wholly enjoyable nose. There is some light cherry and raisins but the iconic wheated aspects of this nose take center stage. So far, no reason to panic.

Sip: The first thing I notice about PVW15 is the texture. It is so velvety and full bodied that you would guess it was a really thick red wine. It is slightly less oily than pre 2009 PVW15s, but I believe it is thicker, more dense.

The flavor is pretty incredible. It has the taste of a boardwalk candy shoppe. I get rich caramel candy, vanilla cream, fudge and toffee upfront. The mid palate gets a lot of cinnamon and clove spice, some tobacco and a dry oak that begins to show a bit more back palate character than the classic Stitzel-Weller profile. It isn’t better, It isn’t worse, just different.

Finish: The finish is smooth, unlike any other 107 proof bourbon out there. The wheater sweetness really shines through long after the sip is finished. Honey, caramel and pralines linger long after with some sweet oak.

Swirl: After about 10 minutes, the sweetness starts to come through in the nose. It has a lot of spice right out of the bottle, but the char and sugars start to really take center stage after a few minutes.

Grade: A

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year is no doubt an all time great bourbon, and now we know that legacy is secure going forward. It has classic bourbon tastes, higher proof, and a unique wheat finish that matches the 107 proof perfectly. The entire experience, from the nose, sip, the lingering finish creates one of the best crescendos of flavors in any American whiskey. I know a lot of Scotch drinkers that have tried Pappy and cringed in disappointment as the sweetness is just too much, but if you love bourbon, I don’t think Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year would let you down, even at $300 a bottle.

It seems the Pappy line sits alone as the king of the wheated category Pappy itself created. If you want bourbon, I can steer you to dozens of great bourbons. If you want Pappy, you won’t find a substitute on the shelf, or in any special release. You might be able to find Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 Year on the shelf which is also S-W wheated bourbon, but even then you will likely be let down.

Drink this, not that: FYI Weller 12 year is not “poor mans Pappy”. Yes, it has the same mash bill and very similar lineages, but it tastes nothing Pappy Van Winkle. Weller 12 is the counterpart to the Van Winkle “Lot B,” which is not a “Pappy”. Don’t let a salesman at a liquor store tell you otherwise. You will enjoy Weller 12, you will get great value with Weller 12, but you won’t get anywhere near Pappy with Weller 12.

If you can find a Willett 21 Year, barrel number 9948, you can have some juice very close to Pappy, but this offering is just as heavily oaked as the 23 year.

Vintage 17 with the normal font on the back is a nice wheated offering, but they are long gone and it is unclear who distilled it.

The theme here is that no wheated bourbon beats PVW when you are looking for PVW.

Pappy 15 or Pappy 20?

Pappy 15 or Pappy 20?

14 responses to “Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon Review

  1. I just got an email that I won a pappy 15 in a liquor store’s lottery. I don’t know if it would be worth it of there was a crazy markup like at most stores but there’s selling it for the standard 79.99. I’m gonna save it for a special occasion. All you hear is great things


    • Hey Martin. You need to find out how your local store(s) distribute their allocation. Ask around to see if it is a wait list, a lottery or first come first serve. Everyone does it different, and a lot of stores keep their stock for people that are repeat customers. Also, like Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery on Facebook. They post when each state has their share shipped out. It will let you know when it is time to start hitting the streets to knock on doors.


      • Thanks, appreciate the info. I’ve been asking around at liquor stores I frequent, but haven’t gotten any definitive info from any of them (as a craft beer enthusiast, I tend to buy from lots of different stores). I liked their FB page, so fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get some this year. BTW, I’m with you on liking the 15yo best, 20yo second best.


  2. I finally get to sample my PVW this weekend. I started my hunt for a friend and scored PVW23, PVW15, and ORVW. I plan on letting the tasting decide on Sat, but going to be hard to decide which one to let my buddy take, and which one to keep. Any suggestions to help me decide?
    Also have to divide up the GST, WLW, and ER17. Luckily we both got a Handy.


  3. I agree with you on the PVW15. The flavors on the nose are outstanding and unlike anything I have had. I am not refined enough to pick out what the different flavors are though. I was surprised at the range of the flavors in the PVW23. To me it went through different profiles all the way through the sip ending in your chest. Both outstanding, I hate having to make the choice.


    • Thanks for the comment, and seriously, thank you for being the first person to ever comment on this topic respectfully. I based my 2012 all-BT on two separate occasions where JVW stated in 2011 that the only SW they had left was going to be bottled as 20 year.

      The first is what many would consider hearsay, so I won’t cite it, but the second is his interview with Dave D at K&L. At the 22:45 mark he begins to say that all they have left is barrels for the 20 and 23.

      So, with the straightbourbon threads, the Cowdery/Hansell post/comments, and blogs,this is the only source where I can actually hear JVW say it himself, and then I had it backed up by a separate source.

      With that said, I feel like the 2013 is a huge fall off from last year’s release. Based on taste, I would tend to agree with you.


  4. I’ve been nursing a bottle of the 2013 15-year for about four months, it’s about half gone now, and ever since I opened it, I’ve been wondering if it’s corked. It’s been a real mindfuck, actually, as all I do when I drink it is think about whether it’s corked–not that I have any experience with a real, live corked whiskey. But maybe it’s just not that good? I’ve had earlier vintages of the 15 in bars a couple of times, though not recently, and I’ve owned and greatly enjoyed one bottle apiece of the 23 and the rye. So I was looking forward to getting to know the 15 at length, and expecting to be blown away by it because it’s the consensus star of the lineup. But I get a very strange nose, broad, varnishy, and almost–dare I say–cheesy in a way, and fairly weak. The palate is better, it has a funky tangle of flavors that verge on the salty–I’m reminded of certain Four Roses private barrels, though none have the near saltiness I’m getting here. And then the finish is strident, ashy. I’d give it a B-. I’d rather drink almost anything else in my collection, which is full of unfancy things. I’d love to hear more about your own experience with this, Josh. If there’s been a major comedown, that seems like big news that’s largely gone unreported. Of course maybe my bottle’s just corked!


    • Just as a follow up, I finally went to a bar with a friend and ordered a glass of the 2013 15-year, having brought along 1.5 oz from my own bottle for comparison. The conclusion: my bottle’s fine. It was a bit softer than the bar’s bottle, but that was to be expected, as the bar had opened theirs only a few days earlier. The funny thing is, once I’d confirmed there was nothing wrong with my stuff, I was able to let go of my paranoia and enjoy it more. It’s good whiskey. I do like it less than than the rye, or my now somewhat distant memory of the 23. And a number of things under $100 — various Four Roses and Willetts, the BTAC ryes — compare favorably. But I have to admit that I was a bit harsh in my accounting above, which probably came at the low point of my experience with the bottle.


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