A few months ago, I reviewed the new Jefferson Presidential Select Bourbon and talked about the cult of wheated Bourbon from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery. Little did I know that the Stitzel-Weller cult was just getting started. Shortly after the release of the Jefferson Presidential, the Van Winkles, heirs to Stitzel-Weller, announced the release of the new 23 year old Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon. While it did not say so explicitly, Van Winkle leaked news that the 23 year old was made with whiskey from Stitzel-Weller.
The new Bourbon is remarkable, not just for its pedigree, but also for its look and price. Mimicking some of the recent high-end Scotch releases, the Old Rip Van Winkle is packaged in a large, leather-lined wooden cube that's almost big enough to qualify as furniture. It is bottled in a crystal decanter, made by the Scottish Glencairn Crystal Studio, known for their high-quality whiskey glasses, and comes with two rocks glasses also made by Glencairn. Why they included rocks glasses instead of tasting glasses, I don't know. The retail price is a whopping $350, though it's up to $400 at some stores. This is certainly the highest priced Bourbon I have seen on the retail market. Though, to be fair, it is priced comparably to similarly aged Scotches from closed distilleries like Brora and Port Ellen.
Curiously, Van Winkle has long had another 23 year old Bourbon on the market that is made from old Stitzel-Weller stocks. The Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old Family Reserve is expensive, but coming in at the $220 range, it is more than $100 cheaper than the new release. So what is the difference between these two 23 year old Stitzel-Weller whiskeys? Well, on the surface, other than the packaging (the Pappy is modestly bottled in a little cloth bag), the main difference is that the Old Rip is higher in alcohol. Of course, the only real way to tell the difference is to taste these babies, so here we go.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 year old
47.8% alcohol (C series).
The nose on this is very Van Winkle with a bit of heat to it, slightly spicy almost as if it had rye, which it does not. The first taste you get is sweet, followed by a bit of heat. The overall taste is a bit flat. This isn't as well rounded or as complex as the 20 year old version of Pappy, though it has a few of the savory notes.
Old Rip Van Winkle 23 year old
57% alcohol, not chill-filtered
The nose on this is beautiful. It's sweet, it's caramel with bits of oak, like walking in an enchanted candy forest. The aroma is lush and complex; the Pappy is much lighter in aroma. Flavor - they nailed this one. Sweet yields to savory with that chewy, aged Zinfandel mouthfeel. Waves of flavor wash over you, gone before you can name them. Trying to pin it all down I get big wood, wine and some citrus; at the end of the palate you get the sweet corn. Water brings out sweeter notes, but as with most whiskeys, I prefer Old Rip neat.
Going back to the Pappy after tasting the Old Rip is inadvisable. It tastes weak and one dimensional in comparison.
The Old Rip 23 is a lovely whiskey, while the Pappy 23 was very disappointing. Is the Old Rip worth the big price tag? Well, that's hard to say, but it is a great whiskey, and compared to other great whiskeys from closed distilleries, I don't think you can call it overpriced. Of course, there are other great Bourbons that are much more affordable. The William Larue Weller that I reviewed last year is another phenomenal wheated Bourbon for about one-fifth the price of the Old Rip. If you love wheated Bourbon and you don't mind spending a good wad of cash to try an old Stitzel-Weller, I would definitely recommend the Old Rip. Now if I only knew what to do with an large, empty, leather-lined wooden box, I'd be all set.