It’s been about two years since I got bitten by the sour mash bug. I’ve now bought literally dozens of different types of bourbon, everything from the pleasant drinkability of 80 proof stuff to the deep burn of the 150 proofs. I’m happy to say, it’s all been good.
Until now, when it officially reached the level of magnificent.
Early on in my bourbon travails, I became acutely aware of a product name being tossed around in chat rooms and at tastings: Pappy Van Winkle, specifically 15 Year Old. I decided to take a look around for a bottle, but I soon learned what a comically pointless exercise that was. No stores had any in stock; some clerks actually laughed out loud when I inquired, explaining that unless you’re on a waiting list, you don’t have a prayer. See, the folks at Pappy deliver only scant amounts every year, and it never hits the shelves—you put your name on a list, and you just hope there’s enough to go around when it comes in.
I’ve never been a big fan of hype, but this was too ridiculous to ignore. I mean, how good could it possibly be to merit this kind of effort? And did I ever have a chance of procuring a taste, let alone my own bottle?
No time like the present. I started putting my name on the list of every liquor store near my immediate neighborhood. The response was generally the same: “You probably won’t get any this year. Maybe next year.”
For every month that went by, Pappy Van Winkle became more of an obsession for me. To say it reached Holy Grail status is a bit of an understatement. Still, the lingering question remained: Even if I ever got a bottle, how could it live up to expectations?
It was a pretty nondescript Thursday night in early November. While making dinner, I decided to play my phone messages from the day (yes, I still have a landline. Deal with it!). The first two were robocalls, and just as I was about to stop listening, I heard, “Ken, this is Total Wine. We have a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for you. Please pick it up in the next three days.” You can guess the rest—I dropped everything and high-tailed it over to the Total Wine immediately. As I waited in line, one of the clerks came over, holding a cell phone: “This guy is out of town, and wants to know if his friend can pick up his bottle of Pappy for him.” I felt like I was in line to buy a Cabbage Patch Doll!
I should have been satisfied with one bottle, but I asked the clerk if I could put my name on a second list, just in case some of those on the first list didn’t pick up their bottle. He gave me a look that said, “Never gonna happen,” but wrote my name down anyway.
To be truthful, I waited a few days before trying a glass. I wanted my first sip to be memorable, so I waited until it felt like the right time. In this case, it was during an episode of Sons of Anarchy, a show the wife and I never miss. So I sat with my glass, hesitating slightly before taking that first nose. This was the moment. Was my world about to be rocked?
I’ve been a bit verbose up to now, so let me give this to you straight: This is, hands down, the best bourbon I have tasted. Nothing in my 20-something-bottle collection even comes close.
The best word I can find to describe Pappy Van Winkle is “complex.” There is so much going on here, yet what it accomplishes seems so … simple. The nose lets you know you’re in for a real treat. There are all the usual bourbon smells here—oak, maple syrup, a bit of caramel—but the more you smell this, the more you detect. I got notes of fruit, vanilla, toffee, and so much more.
But it’s the first taste that really wows. There is an intense sweetness at first, and as you swallow, the taste and spice dissipate almost immediately—until about 3-4 seconds go by, and then you’re enveloped by a warmth that just makes you want to smile. Everything about this whiskey is just … tight. It feels like the result of decades of hard work, like something that screams obsession.
I’ve read plenty of tasting notes for Pappy, and thought I knew what to expect. But nothing prepared me for this experience.
And this story has a really cool post-script. That “second list” I put my name on? Yep, someone actually didn’t show up to pick up their bottle. So I was able to get a second one, guaranteeing that I won’t weep uncontrollably once the first bottle is empty.
If you’re a bourbon fan and are very patient, put your name on some waiting lists for next year’s shipment, which should be coming out around late October or early November. You’ll probably want to start saving up, too—Pappy Van Winkle 15 will cost you around $100. Not that you’ll be complaining once you pour your first sip.