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.
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.
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.