Back in January, I got a glimpse of the whiskey aficionado's Valhalla, with a taste of Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year.
If you don't recognize the name, you're in good company. Pappy Van Winkle is extremely hard to find, and almost inconceivably expensive for a bourbon. It's also very, very good.
The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, which produces it, has a pedigree stretching back to the actual Van Winkle family in the nineteenth century. The Van Winkles took over an existing Kentucky whiskey operation in 1872, which they operated as the Stitzel-Weller Distillery for a hundred years. After the company was sold under stockholder pressure in 1972, Julian Van Winkle, III, a strong contender for best name in the whiskey world, decided to start from scratch with an old family recipe.
I really can't make this stuff up. You could write a book about these guys.
The more familiar Rebel Yell was one of the Stitzel-Weller brands, introduced in 1949 to commemorate the founding of the original distillery. Rebel Yell and Pappy Van Winkle also have something else in common: wheat.
Bourbons are required by law to be at least 51% corn-derived (for the most fascinating taxonomy of spirits you've ever read, check out the US Code), while the rest of the mash can be any sort of grain. Generally, this is a mixture of rye and barley, along with more corn. Rye, like its namesake whiskey, tends to be rougher and spicier than other cereals. Wheat is way on the other end of the spectrum, with a grassy note that takes you right back 7,000 years.
Pappy's mash is corn, wheat, and barley. This is a big deal to them, and, well, I trust it. They certainly know more about aging whiskey for two decades than I do. But it does make instinctive sense - if you're going to keep flavors pent up together for that long, you want them to play nice with each other.
Because it's so rare, and so expensive (our shared glass worked out to about four dollars a sip), Pappy Van Winkle is a cult obsession among whiskey drinkers. My liquor store gets three bottles of it a year, and about thirty calls a week looking for it. A bottle of the 20-year famously sold for $1,190 at auction a few years ago, and there's a bottle of the 23 on the auction block for thirteen hundred euros as we speak. Almost three weeks to go - God only knows how much it'll sell for.
A lot of this is driven by hype, yes, and the desire to show off how much money one has. Some is the product of a deliberately-limited supply, about seven thousand bottles per year. At the same time, the whiskey's been aged almost a quarter of a century. When these grains were planted, there was still a Soviet Union. It's impossible for producers to predict demand that far in advance, and impossible for us consumers to know how much a thing like that should cost.
People can spend years without getting their hands on it. The fact that I lucked into it when I did, barely initiated into the Ways of Pappy, is definitely not fair to them. Hell, I didn't even know it was a bourbon going in; I thought it was a rye. That's obviously foolish in retrospect, because twenty-three years ago, there was pretty much one rye left in America. But at the same time, it was completely instinctive - surely this whiskey, about which I knew nothing except that it was The Whiskey, precious and finely-made since time immemorial, must be some sort of 51% rye grain coelacanth, a survivor of the Volstead Act and the two great wars and American whiskey's forty years wandering in the desert?
Nope. Wheated bourbon.
I give you all of that backstory so that when I present my observations as I wrote them down that very day, my evident assumptions about what I was getting into can be appropriately accounted for:
"First of all, I'm assuming it was cask strength. No hint of water. Aging that long weakens it enough anyhow. Despite that, and the fact that it was rye, it is the smoothest thing on earth. Taking a swallow is like a meditative exercise. No jolt, no burn. Just warmth. It's very woody on the nose. Almost sweet, like they did eighteen years in oak and five in cherry. The sip is wood and grain. The swallow isn't vegetal but vegetabley, like a peppery salad green - not arugula, but in its family. Grassy. Stalk-y. Something very green. And all warm and oaked and slightly, *slightly* caramelled. Spectacular."
Obviously the sweetness, smoothness, and gentility that surprised me so much in a "rye" make perfect sense in a wheated bourbon. The noticeable plantiness should have tipped me off to the presence of wheat, but I was too focused on on the flavors of the spirit to give my analytical brain the time of day.
If you'd like to repeat my experience for yourself, a glass of 20- or 23-year Pappy can be yours at Mistral.