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."



22 comments:

Keith said...

Well, I have no idea who to believe at this point. I lean towards the Van Winkles because it just doesn't seem like it makes sense for them to lie about this. But then again, why would BT make a counterclaim? All in all, it is a bizarre situation. I'm going to step away from SB and pour myself a nice bourbon.

Ryan Murphy said...

Thanks Sku. Everyone in the community appreciates the clarification you and Preston have provided about this (shockingly divisive) matter.

Scott L Stursa said...

Thanks for taking the time to do this.

On the one hand, it's good to hear that the PVW 20 & 23 are still all S-W. On the other hand it makes it that much more frustrating that I'll never again see a Pappy 20 on the shelf in Oregon...and I can't afford one of those $500 eBay bottles.

In the course of the hour long conversation, did the issue come up of when the PVW 15 ceased to be S-W?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, clarification in the midst of the "tempest".

Anonymous said...

Any additional comments you care to add regarding bottles of VWFRR that do not have a date stamp on them? Probably just an early run (say prior to 2008 or 2009) of the Medley and Bernheim mix? I was always of the assumption when I purchased these bottles that they were aged 12-17 years before being moved to stainless which lines up somewhat with the information you provide in the article. In my inventory I have bottles of PVW23 from 2008 which do have a date stamp on them, however, I understand they may have been inconsistent with date stamping the rye or depending on the bottling line used.

Bmac said...

Thanks Sku, I think this puts the conversation to rest. I'm taking Keith's advice. :)

SB.com Guy said...

Thanks, Sku! What makes a certain bourbon forum special is the participation of those in the industry like the Van Winkles, Chuck Cowdery, Mike Veach, Tom McKenzie, Todd Leopold, John Hansell, etc. Its unfortunate when idiots spout off like they are owed something, without just thinking there could be a simple misunderstanding. I wouldnt be surprised if that participation dwindles. I no longer wonder why people decided to create their own private forum. For the first time ever, I'm kind of jealous...

sku said...

Anon, the hand written label used to serve the purpose of the date stamp, and he said you could still use them to judge general age (A before B, etc.) but the laser stamp, which came in a few years ago, is more reliable.

Scott, the 15 yo hadn't been as big an issue since the one thing everyone seemed to agree on is that it isn't SW anymore, so I didn't focus on it.

Ryan said...

Sku, great piece of journalism here. That said, I find it amusing that when people assumed that 20 and 23 were already BT, no one stopped to say "hey, these are still just as good as the S-W versions! Hooray!" ... Also, isn't everyone praising the 15 year? And isn't that BT? Doesn't that indicate that maybe, the 20 and 23 will still be good when they switch to BT?

Here is some advice from a very, very wise man: "Say not thou, 'What is the cause that the former days were better than these?' for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this."
-Solomon

Jason Pyle said...

Sku, great reporting. I have been very very critical of the Van Winkles for not being a little more clear. I understand they don't have to be, but when it begins to get ridiculous and nothing is said, I find it silly when nobody speaks up. I applaud you for digging and to Preston for speaking up.

You shut up a lot of folks today, and we can all get back to our regularly scheduled drinking.

Anyone have another mystery that we can try to get solved?

EricH said...

On a related matter, Chuck checked with Harlen and Buffalo Trace to check on the status of Weller Antique. And it has NOT been discontinued. Mr. Wheatley also denied making any statement about Weller Antique "going away." Chuck has a much longer posting on his blog, by the way.

Josh Scott said...

I can't wait to read the Mind = Blown thread now! LOL

Nice article Sku! :-)

forego is my witness said...

Fantastic work, Sku! Thanks for the good work getting this info to the people. Whenever I score a Winkle at retail price, I'm thrilled. Always delicious, no matter the year. (Or source.)

AaronWF said...

Sku, you are the man. As if there was ever any doubt!

spinningrecords said...

Nice work

Jason Beatty said...

An hour is a long time on the phone! I have been telling y'all from the beginning.

Reid said...

Sku, great job as usual of sorting through all the noise.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest StraightBourbon add a Summer Reading List thread and begin with 'The Crucible'.

SteveBM said...

Nice report, Sku. It's the extra effort that puts forth the truth.

C said...

Hi Sku,

Based on Preston's comments to you when you spoke to him in April of 2012, does this mean that even PVW 20 yr bottled at Buffalo Trace in 2012 is still Stitzel Weller juice? For example (bottle code B12 037 10:04N) should be Stitzel Weller right?

Great post by the way.

C

sku said...

I talked to Preston prior to the 2012 release, so his comments do not apply to the fall release. Later that year, Chuck Cowdery interviewed Julian Van Winkle about the Fall 2012 release and reported that the 20 year old bottled for that release was a blend of Stitzel-Weller and Buffalo Trace. That means the cutoff between pure SW and blended SW in the 20 yo was sometime in 2012 which makes sense since SW closed in 1992.

That being said, it appears from the bottle code you provided that your bottle was from the spring release. (037 indicates a bottling date of February 6). Based on what Preston told me, it appears that would be a 100% SW bottle.

C said...

Thanks. You're a gentleman and a scholar