Blind Tasting my way to Pappy Van Winkle 

Words by @MCRBourbon

The headline of Hedonism Wines' newsletter a few weeks back caught my eye: ‘Pappy Van Winkle Giveaway and Blind Tasting’. Not the kind of e-mail any BBS member could ignore, even on a Monday morning! Hedonism had received a small allocation of the Van Winkle whiskies, a single bottle of the 12, 20 and 23 year-old expressions, and had come up with a fun way to allocate them. The rules were simple: a blind tasting of five American whiskies at their store in Mayfair, London for £65. Each participant would be asked to identify the distillery, ABV, age, US state of distillation and mash bill. There would be three tasting sessions and the winner of each would get to pick a bottle of Pappy, with first choice going to the person with the highest score. 

If you are a reader of the BBS blog, you probably already know a fair bit about the Van Winkle whiskies and may have even come to one of BBS' Pappy events. For anyone who doesn't, 'Pappy' is amongst the most sought-after bourbons on the market today. While retail prices are fairly reasonable, bottles are almost impossible to find in shops and frequently can only be found on the secondary market auction sites for insane prices. Having been fortunate enough to own various Pappys over the years, I've long considered the 23 Year Old to be the best. Finishing my last bottle of 23 Year Old was a mixed experience: saddened to see it go but also grateful to have experienced an incredibly unique and complex wheated bourbon. The chance to win another was too good to turn down. 

Being that I live in Manchester, over 160 miles North of London, I booked a ticket for Hedonism's Saturday afternoon blind tasting session with a day return train. I also blagged my bourbon partner in crime, and frequent bandit of my top shelf, Jack into coming along for the ride. We would make a day of it and meet up with a couple of BBS buddies in the Lexington afterwards for a few pours, before getting the train back up North.

Training

As soon as I'd signed up, I began training for the event ... for two gruelling weeks. Picture, if you will, a Rocky-style pre-fight preparation montage, Eye of the Tiger belting out, my incredibly supportive girlfriend pouring me mystery whiskies from my collection and me, doing my best to guess what they were. Initially, my results weren’t great. I could mostly get the distillery but pinpointing the exact whiskey was hit and miss. Sometimes, I was miles away. I did what every aspiring champion should do: I drank more whiskey. My results improved to the point where I was correctly identifying multiple bottles blind. I was ready.

And then, a minor setback. The night before the tasting a good friend had come back up North. We went out in Manchester for a few scoops and then went back to mine for a few more. I don’t know how I did it but I somehow managed to get myself on the train with seconds to spare. A microwaved cheese and tomato panini that was the temperature of molten lava acted as a well needed stomach sponge. Somehow, Jack and I made it to Hedonism in Mayfair with time to spare.

The Event

First impressions of Hedonism were good. Despite being a frequent browser of their website, I had never visited the store. Nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous selection of every type of wine and spirit imaginable. American whiskey-wise, there were unicorns galore. A 1990 Van Winkle 17 Year Old, Michter’s 25 Year Old Rye, and Martin Mills were just some of the legendary bottles sat on the shelves.

Ben Murray, Hedonism’s Spirits Buyer, hosted the tasting. It quickly became apparent that Ben was as passionate and knowledgeable about American whiskey as they come and a thoroughly nice bloke too. Nine of us sat around the table as Ben explained the rules. Ten points were available for each of the five whiskies. If you guessed the exact whiskey, you would get maximum points for that round. The previous night’s high score stood at twenty. I had half expected the pours to be run of the mill, easily obtainable, mid to low level pours but I was wrong! After nosing the glasses for a few seconds, I realised that irrespective of whether or not I won a Pappy, this tasting offered great value for money. And so the blind tasting began. 

Whiskey One: a no-brainer: a Buffalo Trace wheater all day long. Struggling between Van Winkle 12 and Weller 12, I opted for Weller 12, which it proved to be.

Whiskey Two: I had it down as barrel-proof and around twelve years old so I guessed at Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. This was Four Roses Small Batch 2015 LE. I’m still quite disappointed that I didn’t get it right as it’s one of my favourite bourbons of recent years!

Whisky Three: I struggled with. I could tell it was a rye, not massive proof and quite old so I guessed Sazerac 18. This was High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 which I had never tasted before so I thought my guess was OK. 

Whisky Four: I knew straight away, Parker’s Heritage Malt. So distinctive and it made sense to be on there for variety.

Whisky Five: I was miles off. Initially, I thought it was an old bourbon but then I got some typical MGP rye notes. There was a ton of orange peel and some of the distinctive ‘pickle juice’ I’ve seen people mention with MGP rye. I was torn between Willett XCF or WFE Rye and ended up marking it as an eight year Willett Rye. It was Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21 so a massive fail on my behalf.

The whiskies varied at each session and there were some ridiculously good bottles there. Ben was kind enough to send a picture of the final line up. 

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The scores were announced and I was the winner on the day with 28 points, leaving me in first place. Jack came a respectable second with 20 points. I was guaranteed at least a Pappy 20 year and if nobody beat my score in the last session that evening, the 23 year was mine. After leaving my mobile number with Ben, we went to the Lexington to meet the proprietor and BBS legend Stacey, where we continued to drink some fantastic bourbons.

Victory!

On the train home, I checked my phone to see that I had a voice message. It was Ben asking for a call back. My hands were trembling as I returned the call, eager to know how I had done. I was informed that nobody had managed to beat my score and the pick of the bunch was mine! A Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old was mine. 

 

At a recent Van Winkle tasting, Preston Van Winkle mentioned that Hi-Spirits, the new UK distributor, were working hard to ensure that Pappy only went to people who would actually drink, rather than flip, it as per the Van Winkle family’s wishes. This is an initiative that BBS wholeheartedly supports. Indeed, we recently held a Blanton's tasting and Pappy Van Winkle raffle with Milroy's of Soho. If you won the raffle, you could buy Pappy at retail price – the only rule was you had to take the foil off in the store to immediately stop any temptation to flip. Similarly, one of the rules of the Hedonism competition was that the Pappy bottle would be defoiled before being sent out to customers.

At around midday today, my bottle arrived in nuclear bomb-proof packaging and parafilmed to high-heaven. I poured myself a nice glass as soon as I got home. Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old is just as fantastic as I remember it and I feel incredibly lucky to have won this bottle. It will be thoroughly enjoyed by me and some of my good friends over the coming months.