Whiskey Review: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year OldEditor’s Note: This week we are reviewing a range of bottlings that are part of the Old Rip Van Winkle/Pappy Van Winkle line up. We kicked things off yesterday with the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old.

When you spend a lot of time interacting with whiskey brands, you start to develop a kind of knee-jerk skepticism about brand origin stories. And while Pappy Van Winkle sure sounds like a character made up in an advertising agency conference room, he isn’t.

Julian Van Winkle was a former bourbon salesman who purchased W. L. Weller and Sons, a liquor wholesaler, in the early 1900s. Immediately afterwards, he acquired the A. Ph. Stizel distillery in Louisville, which had been supplying product to W. L. Weller and Sons for many years.

During Prohibition, the A. Ph. Stitzel distillery obtained one of the coveted medicinal licenses and continued producing whiskey, including W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Cabin Still, and their newly introduced brand called Old Rip Van Winkle.

After Prohibition, in 1935, Julian Van Winkle merged the two businesses and opened the Stitzel-Weller plant in Shivley, Kentucky, where he worked as the head distiller until his death in 1965.

During Van Winkle Sr.’s tenure, the Stitzel-Weller distillery developed a reputation for producing some amazing distillate, favoring wheat rather than rye as its flavor grain. Yet the Stitzel-Weller plant was eventually sold in 1972, and later totally decommissioned. Today, it’s home to the Bulleit Experience, a visitor’s center for Bulleit Bourbon.

The Van Winkle brand was reintroduced, however, in the 1970’s by Julian Sr.’s son, Julian Van Winkle Junior. Julian Jr. used aged stock left over from the Stitzel-Weller days to pay tribute to his father by creating a new release featuring Pappy himself on the label, indulging in one of his other delights: cigars.

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Until recently, the older Pappy Van Winkle expressions contained at least some portion of Stitzel-Weller distillate, granting them the mystique that only comes from a product with a very finite supply. In 2013, Julian Van Winkle III warned bourbon lovers that supplies of Stitzel-Weller distillate were nearing their end, indicating a fundamental change in the older Van Winkle bourbons.

These days, the entire Van Winkle line is contract produced at the Buffalo Trace distillery, which is owned by Sazerac. The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery no longer owns a distillery, nor do they have a distiller on staff.

Whether or not today’s older Pappy Van Winkle bottlings contain any Stitzel-Weller distillate at all is open for contemplation. Van Winkle’s younger expressions, on the other hand, are certainly made from distillate produced at Buffalo Trace (an excellent facility in its own right) from a special high-wheat mashbill designed to mimic Julian Sr.’s original recipe.

Tasting Notes: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old

Vital Stats: 90.4 Proof, 12 years old

Nose: Rather lean and oaky, like the inside of a sauna. There are notes of incense, clove, wood, and mint underlaid by a kind of steely minerality. With water, things get a little more floral: notes of pear cider, honey, beeswax, and red currant.

Palate: After nosing this whiskey, I worried the palate would be too astringent, but fortunately my worries were unfounded. While quite oak-inflected in the entry, the finish takes a surprising turn. After the swallow, there’s a brief, shallow burst of ethereal lemon followed by a clean and slightly tart finish with notes of cola, coffee, and bitter herbs that reminds me of a modern light-roast coffee.

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This was…odd, especially after tasting the lushly fruity 10 Year just a few minutes before. Two more years seems to have added a lot more oak to the spirit, and also amplified its acidity, but the fundamental earthiness in the finish adds just the right balance. Not my favorite, but interesting to taste anyway.