It's Pappy time! That crazy time every fall when the Pappy Van Winkle's get released. Pappy Van Winkle, of course, is one of the most prized regular releases for bourbon lovers. The Van Winkle family, of the late Stitzel-Weller distillery, are known to have a diminishing number of barrels of that prized Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Along with those barrels, they also bottle whiskey made at Buffalo Trace (and their rye comes from a variety of sources).
Of late, there has been much controversy about which bottles of Pappy are Stitzel-Weller and which are Buffalo Trace. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that the 20 and 23 year old Pappys are still made from Stitzel-Weller bourbon, but there has been a lot of back and forth about the 15.
Pappy 15 is the most affordable and some think the best of the Pappy line (which also makes it the hardest to get). Based on statements made by the Van Winkles a few years ago, it sounds as if they made a big (and possibly final) run of Pappy 15 bottles from Stitzel Weller in 2009 that held them through the spring 2011 release. This fall, according to this K&L interview with Preston Van Winkle, the Pappy 15 is bourbon made at Buffalo Trace.
But suppose you happen to find a bottle of Pappy on a dusty shelf somewhere. How will you know whether it is the old Stitzel Weller or the new Buffalo Trace version? The answer is in the bottle code. If you have ever visited Tim Puett's Ardbeg Project site, you know about bottle codes. They are codes placed on each bottle that show the time and date of the bottling and they can help you distinguish between different releases of the same whiskey. Tim has demonstrated huge differences in, for instance, the Ardbeg 10 over the years, but you can't tell when the whiskey is from without knowing the bottle code.
Buffalo Trace uses a similar code which can tell you the year your Van Winkle (or your Stagg, Weller, etc.) was bottled. The code is a very small digital stamp that appears on the bottle, usually below the back label. Here's how to read it using two examples:
Example 1: K0780907:21
Example 2: N3001114:13
The first letter is the bottling line at Buffalo Trace; example 1 was the K line, and example 2 was the N line. I don't know enough about the bottling there to know if there is any real significance that can be gleaned from the bottling line.
The second three digits indicate the day of the year that it was bottled. So example 1 was bottled on the 78th day of the year and example 2 was bottled on the 300th day of the year.
The third two digits indicate the year - this is really the most significant piece of information. The "09" on example 1 indicates it was bottled in 2009, so if it's Pappy 15, it would likely be from the old Stitzel-Weller stocks. Example 2 has an "11" which indicates 2011 when they started using Buffalo Trace bourbon.
The final four digits are the bottling time on a 24 hour clock, so example 1 was bottled at 7:21 am and example 2 was bottled at 2:13 pm (14:13).
If you love your Pappy and your BTAC and especially if you go dusty hunting for older versions, it pays to know your bottle codes.
UPDATE (March 2012)
For the Spring 2012 release, it appears that the order of numbers has switched. In the comments below, a reader gave this example of a bottle code: b1204011:11k.
I would interpret it this way.
The first letter indicates it was bottled at Buffalo Trace. The first two digits are the year, so "12" means bottled in 2012. The second three digits are the day of the year, so "025" means the whiskey was bottled on the 25th day of the year, which would be January 25th. This would be consistent for the spring 2012 release. The last four digits are the time of bottling, in this case, 11:11. The last letter is the bottling line.
Bottle codes did not start appearing on bottles until 2007. For hints on dating a pre-bottle code Van Winkle, see my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline.