Reviewed by: Ted
Its pretty common for distillers to lay down Scotch for long periods of time, with age statements in the range of 18-25 years in relative abundance. Bourbons on the other hand are a whole different kettle of fish. Warmer storage temperatures and the use of virgin oak casks means that bourbon reaches maturity and develops character far more quickly than its Scottish counterparts. Therefore, if you come across a bourbon that says it’s 20 years old, you know you’re looking at something pretty special.
The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old is an experience unto itself, a man amongst the boys. Now into its 4th generation, the dynasty began in the 1870s when Julian P ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle entered into the proud Kentuckian tradition of bourbon making. These days the Van Winkles make their spirit at the Buffalo Trace distillery, but they have not lost their dedication to crafting spirit of an exceptionally high standard.
Apart from the age, what makes Van Winkle bourbon special is that they use corn, barley and wheat instead of the more usual corn, barley and rye in their mash bill. They claim that the use of wheat creates a much softer, smoother spirit and helps with the aging process.
Compared to your standard ‘ol bourbon, the PvW Family Reserve 20yo is a far more delicate creature. You can still tell it’s bourbon when you take a sniff, but it doesn’t wave the fact in your face. Instead it gently strokes your nostrils with vanilla, ginger and Grand Marnier.
As you would expect for a spirit this age, it is superbly smooth with no alcoholic kick at all, which is interesting as it is still bottled at 45.2%. It feels very light and silky in the mouth, and if you draw some air through it goes all tingly, sending shivers down your tongue. Floral notes, particularly rose, mingle with sweet white grapes, maraschino cherries and alcohol-soaked cake. The finish is quite short and as smooth as a baby’s proverbial.
The PvW Family Reserve is the thinking man’s bourbon; gulping it down is simply not an option as it needs some time to respond in the mouth. At first glance it seems deceptively simple, however with some gentle probing it reveals more and more character. There are definitely interesting things going on, but you have to chase them down, work for the full flavour. The dedicated and thoughtful approach is worth it in the end though, as the reward is a spirit of epically elegant proportions.