Twenty years is a long time to spend anywhere, especially anywhere as small as a 52 gallon oak cask. In fact, some think it’s too long for bourbon, an opinion that runs counter to the retail market’s seemingly insatiable demand for bourbons old enough to drive.
“I tend not to like bourbons aged longer than 12 or 13 years because they lose the caramel and vanilla flavors” says Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s master distiller.
Jim Rutledge, formerly of Four Roses, seems to agree: “Usually the [aged] bourbons are too woody and too harsh for me, but there are some exceptions.” When asked if Four Roses had any 10, 20, or 30-year-old barrels stashed away, Rutledge said “Oh no, absolutely not. I know what it does, I don’t need that. It’s not worth anything. It’s not going to be good.”
The point is, over-oaked bourbons can be difficult – woody, astringent, tannic, harsh. I reviewed Master’s Keep last year, a 17-year-old expression from Wild Turkey, and though I enjoyed the experience I found myself wishing fondly for a fresh, lively glass of 101 more than once.
Yet Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old continues to astonish even the most jaded drinker. It garnered a 99 point rating from The Beverage Institute back in 1996, the very first 99 point score they ever awarded.
I was prepared to not like this whiskey. I was ready to taste something drying and astringent, all the life leaked out of it. And, of course, I was totally wrong and loved the stuff just like everybody else. I suppose you can’t be a contrarian all the time…
Nose: This is so, so rich: butterscotch, brown butter, fresh dark cherries dipped in milk chocolate, vanilla bean, sherry, Raisinettes, plum jam, figs, dark honey. Yet among it all there’s still a fundamental freshness, lemon pulp and lime zest. There’s a lot of oak character here, but it’s neither spicy nor astringent. In fact, there’s no sting at all – this is the kind of thing you can smell forever and never tire of.
Palate: Ugh, this is so good. The entry still has a bit of that characteristic lemony tartness but this time it’s offset by these very rich umami flavors: cherries soaked in sherry, hickory smoked jerky with a brown sugar liqueur. The mid-palate is enormous, with big leathery/nutty/sherry-like oxidized flavors as well as some very delicate cinnamon and nutmeg spice.
Finish is long and nutty yet somehow refreshing, finally leaving you resting on a delicate dark chocolate note. So delightful it makes you want to delay tasting anything else as long as possible.
This was a grand slam. Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year-Old tastes like a perfectly made dessert, hitting all the major flavor categories – bitter, sweet, savory, sour. I can’t think of anything else to say about this release except that it’s about as close to perfect as anything ever gets.
Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...