After a busy few days meeting the great and the good from the whisk(e)y world, we were invited up to the London Cocktail Club for an astonishing bourbon tasting, led by Preston Van Winkle. All in all, it was the perfect end to the week.
Before we began the tasting, Preston talked us through the history of Van Winkle…
The company was founded by Preston’s great grandfather, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Senior. During the late 19th Century, Pappy worked as an itinerant salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons (a whiskey company based in Louisville, Kentucky), selling bourbon from a horse and cart.
In 1910, he bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery (which made the whiskey for W.L. Weller), and with it he gained control of the W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell and Cabin Still brands – the four horsemen of 19th/early 20th Century bourbon, and names you can still find in shops today.
Pappy cared deeply for quality, coining numerous inspirational quotes during his lifetime, including a mission statement: “We make fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon.”
Decades later, in 1972, the Van Winkle family was forced to sell the distillery due to financial troubles. Thankfully they held onto the brand name, as well as good stocks of whiskey, which allowed Pappy’s son, Julian Van Winkle Jr, to resurrect the old style of Pre-Prohibition bourbon that Pappy created. In 2001, Preston Van Winkle [pictured left] joined the company, fresh out of college. A year later, production was moved entirely to the Buffalo Trace distillery, allowing increased production, whilst maintaining a strict attention to detail.
We tasted 5 whiskeys from the range…
Nose: Caramel, cedar wood, soft crystalline oak and beautiful toastiness. Vanilla creaminess, hints of white chocolate and a whiff of apple peel.
Palate: Soft and balanced. The word “toasty” sums this bourbon up perfectly, but if we had to say more we’d add: buttery, caramel-rich, perfumy woods and gentle fruit.
Finish: Soft and entirely on caramel.
Overall: It’s telling that the “entry level” bourbon in the Van Winkle stable is 10 years old (already very well aged for a US whiskey).
Like all the bourbons in the range, this is “wheated”, meaning that the spicy Rye grain in the mashbill is replaced by Wheat. The result is a soft, more caramel-like whiskey (think Maker’s Mark, who follow the same practice).
Nose: Butterscotch on the nose, with soft sweetness and Demerara sugar.
Palate: Soft with gentle spices, charcoal, cinnamon bark, hints of cold coffee and honey.
Finish: Pertains to sweetness, but really the beauty of this is the aromatic savouriness that lies underneath the caramel.
This is a superb whiskey, but Preston introduces the 15 year old as the core of the range, a classic that sums up what Van Winkle is all about. Pappy described it as “nectar”, we describe it like this…
Nose: Wood, but so very balanced with nuttiness, toffee and a rum-like complexity, that it’s just perfect. Wood shavings, hints of dried berry fruits, and a faint shade of pepper provide a mouth-watering aroma…
Palate: Buttery and very rum-like in the mouth. Candy floss sweetness, caramel richness, and the softest, juiciest oak imaginable.
Finish: Hints of exotic spices combine with Demerara. Long and rich.
The angel’s share in Kentucky accounts for a surprising amount of whiskey from each barrel. In the 1st year of maturation, 10% of the liquid from the barrel evaporates, and every year after that it varies from 2 – 7% per annum. Because of this, older bourbon tends not only to be a little on the pricey side, but very rare also, and few producers release very old expressions. By the time the 20 year old has finished its maturation, a fair old amount of whiskey has seemingly vanished from the barrels.
Furthermore, it’s very much a case of: not ready… …not ready… …still not ready… …oh, too late it’s over-aged (you get the idea!). To combat this, Van Winkle barrels are kept on the 1st and 2nd floors of the warehouses, as well as being kept in the centre. This affords the whiskey a more leisurely ageing, helping to prevent an overly-oaky spirit.
We come to the flagship…
Nose: Stewed fruits on the nose, sweet spices, oiliness, white chocolate, walnut.
Palate: Rich, soft and sweet oak with custard. The mouthfeel is like silk, and Preston likens this to a classic Cognac, and we reckon he’s onto something. The maturity, smooth/oily feel of this on the tongue, coupled with musty fruitiness sum up what we love about a decent XO, this is sublime.
Finish: Good length, with hints of honeycomb, peppery spices and prune.
The final whiskey of the night is a newer addition to the range. Although a rye (we’re already envisaging puckering spiciness and dark, peppery fruits), the mashbill’s ratio of Corn to Rye favours the former quite heavily when compared to other Rye whiskeys on the market. The result is sweeter, and more in keeping with Van Winkle’s house style.
The idea of an old rye whiskey first greeted Julian Van Winkle III during the 1980s. A French customer asked Julian to create a well-aged rye whiskey for him. After trying various samples of old whiskeys from around Kentucky, it was clear pretty quickly that Rye whiskey aged, and it aged well. So, we were presented with the final whiskey of the evening…
Nose: Good and rich, tangy spices, and sublime toasty oak. This is a more charred whiskey than the others in the range, and it offers up fresh black pepper and applewood aromas.
Palate: Very spicy/sweet. Here caramel is joined by prune, dates and thick, biscuity oak.
Finish: Spices and crunchy wood, at 47.8% abv, this is a HUGE whiskey!
– The Chaps at Master of Malt –