BBS meets the Pappy Van Winkle family, blind

BBS meets the Pappy Van Winkle family, blind

The British Bourbon Society hosted a blind tasting of the Pappy Van Winkle range at Burger & Lobster Old Bailey on 1 September 2016. Here’s how it went down.

By @LondonLiquor

Get a bunch of bourbon nuts together and the conversation will inevitably head one way: Pappy Van Winkle … “Pappy 23 is the world’s finest bourbon”, “Van Winkle 13 is the perfect rye whisky”, “Old Rip Van Winkle 10 beats its older brothers”. Even in its post-Stitzel Weller days, the five wheated bourbons and single rye that proudly carry the Van Winkle name but actually emanate from Buffalo Trace’s distillery (except the rye but that’s a story for another day) are the rock stars of American whisk(e)y; every bit as hyped as the Karuizawas and Port Ellens of Japan and Scotland.

The British Bourbon Society decided to find out whether the hype was justified. This would require a blind tasting of the Pappy range from the almost affordable Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old all the way up to the enigmatic ‘unicorn’ that is the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 Year Old (over-oaked or liquid perfection?). A ‘Poor Man’s Pappy’, masterfully blended by @The_Bourbonator from Old Weller Antique 107 and Weller 12 Year Old, would also be included in the tasting line-up to see how a bourbon distilled from the same Buffalo Trace wheated mashbill, but costing  a fraction of Pappy prices, compared. Simple.

Except it wasn’t. Finding any Pappy in London would be difficult … finding it at reasonable prices seemed nigh on impossible. A quick search of the auction sites showed Pappy 23 going for £1500+. Things weren’t looking good … and then we checked Instagram: “My bar has Pappy and you’ll like the prices” read the message. Jake, the Bar Manager of Burger & Lobster Old Bailey, wasn’t exaggerating. Stacked up behind Burger & Lobster’s bar was one of the best American whisky selections in London, covering the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Blantons and Redemption Rye. Most important was the row of bottles bearing the image of Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr in all his cigar-smoking glory. BBS had found the perfect venue for a night of Pappy and fine food.  

Fast-forward two months and 26 BBS members arrived at Burger & Lobster ready for the largest Pappy Van Winkle tasting London had ever seen. After being greeted with fantastic Old Rip Van Winkle Old Fashioneds served with hand carved ice, BBS sat down for a feast of burger and lobsters. As the food was cleared away, Jake’s bar team began to carefully lay out the 175 glasses that would be used for the blind tasting. Each member was also presented with a BBS tasting flight mat and scorecard. For some, it would be their first experience of Pappy; others had been drinking the stuff for years. Notes were taken and scores carefully jotted down as we slowly worked our way through the flight of seven whiskies. The ‘blind’ nature of the tasting helped focus attention on how the whisky in each glass actually tasted rather than any pre-conceptions based on price. It was then time for the grand reveal.   

Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old had won by a country mile, scoring a full point higher than the 20 Year Old. Further down the score card, things got more interesting: Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old only just scrapped ahead of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old in the fight for the remaining podium places. Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old finished a very creditable fourth, beating both the 12 Year Old and 15 Year Old Releases. Biggest surprise of the night? The Poor Man’s Pappy Blend came out in front of the 12 Year Old and 15 Year Old despite costing a fraction of the price. 

Blind tastings are the ultimate leveller. What did BBS learn? The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 Year Old and 20 Year Old deserve their legendary reputation. Elsewhere, the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old had managed to beat whiskies costing three times the price. Poor Man’s Pappy established itself as a great value option for those not afraid to mix their drinks. 

Thank you to Jake and everyone at Burger & Lobster Old Bailey for hosting an unforgettable BBS event. We’ll be back soon. You can read @WhiskeyPilgrim’s take on the night here