Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Preston Van Winkle: Everything in Pappy 20 and 23 is Stitzel-Weller
Last week, I wrote about the tempest in a bourbon pot regarding the provenance of the Pappy Van Winkle bottlings. The on-line rumblings continued this week with, in the best tradition of the internet, allegations and accusations based on speculation. I finally decided that enough was enough and gave Preston Van Winkle a call, and he spent about an hour answering my questions.
For those of you who don't know, Preston is the great-grandson of Pappy Van Winkle. He and his father, Julian Van Winkle III, run the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, which is a whiskey bottling company. In talking with him, I got straight to the point:
Regarding the issue that seems the most controversial on-line, the provenance of Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old, Preston was clear, "Everything in the 20 and 23 is Stitzel-Weller." I questioned him on the details and he was adamant that all of the whiskey was distilled at Stitzel-Weller in Louisville and there is nothing else in those bottles. Preston noted that there aren't any other barrels of that age that would even fit the bill. The Van Winkles began sourcing Stitzel-Weller bourbon from the distillery after the family sold it in 1972. They did so until the distillery closed in 1992. The barrels were moved to the Buffalo Trace warehouse a few years ago. Preston was there and saw them move the barrels.
With regard to the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, the very first run of that rye, back in the '90s, was entirely from the Medley Distillery and was released in both 12 an 13 year old expressions. That run quickly sold out and since then, the Van Winkle Rye has come from a marriage of Medley and Bernheim (Cream of Kentucky) rye that was purchased by Julian years ago and has been in stainless steel tanks. Buffalo Trace is aging rye to replace the Medley/Bernheim blend when it runs out, but Preston thinks there are probably a few more years of that tanked rye left.
With regard to statements by Buffalo Trace's Harlen Wheatley that were reported on the StraightBourbon forum, Preston was clear that while he would answer any of my factual questions, he would not specifically comment with regard to what may or may not have been said by Wheatley. He wasn't there, and he didn't hear it, so he didn't feel comfortable commenting on it.
Given that I had Preston on the phone, I took the opportunity to ask a few more details about these whiskeys beyond those that have been controversial.
For those who have wondered about the hand written numbers on the bottles of rye, they really don't mean much anymore. The best way to determine the date of the bottle now is to use the laser code.
Of course, the stocks of Stitzel-Weller will eventually run out. According to Preston, the 20 and 23 year old versions of Pappy Van Winkle have generally been right at that age and have not contained older whiskey. Doing the math from a distillery closure in 1992, this means that this could be the last year that Pappy 20 is Stitzel-Weller (this is my formulation, Preston said that was possible, but he would have to check to know for sure how much was left), while the 23 year old may still have a few years left.
I asked if there were plans for any more special bottlings such as the 23 year old decanter released a few years ago. He said there were no plans because they didn't have enough whiskey to do that. The decanter was the product of having extra stocks of the 23 at that time, so they selected the best ten or eleven barrels for the special release.
I asked about the process for selecting bottles for whiskeys that are made by Buffalo Trace, like the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old. Preston said that they are selected based on warehouse position and placement. Barrels of wheated bourbon in particular areas of the Buffalo Trace warehouse fit the Van Winkle flavor profile. There is a tasting panel at Buffalo Trace which starts with their lab staff. Every barrel that goes into a Van Winkle bourbon is tasted by Preston or his father, and often both of them. They taste them watered down to 60 proof, and yes, they spit. Preston mentioned that they were "thrilled" with the Buffalo Trace distilled Van Winkle whiskeys, such as the ten year old Old Rip Van Winkle.
As to all the on-line commotion, Preston said he appreciates the enthusiasm for his products on the internet but bristles at those who would question his integrity or that of his family. "There is no smoke and mirrors," he told me, "no misleading people for the benefit of profit." He referenced the old saying of Pappy Van Winkle, "We make fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon," and added, "and that's the way we've always done things."