Sunday, April 1, 2012
Tempest in a Bourbon Pot: What did Harlen Wheatley Say and When did he Say it?
There was a great to-do in the bourbon-geekdom world last week when a member of the StraightBourbon forum posted a report of statements made by Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley at a tasting. Among the most controversial was a comment that Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old is "fully [Buffalo Trace] Juice" and that Pappy Van Winkle 23 may be at least partly Buffalo Trace bourbon. He also stated that the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye had been entirely made by Buffalo Trace for the past two to three years. Most people had believed that the Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old bourbons were still made entirely made from whiskey which had been distilled at the now closed Stitzel-Weller distillery. The Van Winkles have a partnership with Buffalo Trace which supplies them with much of their bourbon and bottles their product, and it's long been known that the younger Van Winkle bourbons are distilled by Buffalo Trace.
Like everything having to do with Pappy Van Winkle, the reaction was outsized. Posters expressed anger, felt betrayed and became cynical. Hell hath no fury like a Van Winkle drinker scorned, and plenty acted like they had been spurned by a lover. For my part, I don't really care, and here's why.
First, I've never been a Van Winkle partisan. I like the bourbon well enough, but I've never bought into the crazy hype surrounding each release. I'll taste them and enjoy them if the opportunity comes along, but I generally avoid the Van Winkle line and its high prices.
Second, we don't know the veracity of these claims. I have no reason to distrust the poster, but these were statements made at a bourbon tasting. I'm sure Wheatley was speaking to the best of his knowledge, but these were off the cuff musings, and I have no idea what he knows or how much control he has over the Van Winkle line of products. His statements appear to contradict other statements he made a year ago on the K&L Spirits podcast where he said he thought that Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old were "probably still all Stitzel-Weller." (The podcast is available here; the statement is made at approximately 24:30) Preston Van Winkle also stated on a K&L podcast last November that "the older two [Van Winkles], the 20 and 23 year are still coming from stocks that were made at Stitzel-Weller." (The podcast is available here; the statement is made at approximately 14:30).
Now, there has been a tendency on the forum to engage in close readings of these statements as if Wheatley was a prophet of some sort. He's not. I'm also guessing that he doesn't care what the composition is of these bourbons. Let's all do our best to stay grounded and remember that the number of people who do care about this issue is microscopic, even among fans of Van Winkle bourbon. This is major inside baseball. Rather than being the result of some conspiracy or misinformation campaign, I'm guessing that some of these contradictions are due to these issues not being very important to Wheatley or the Van Winkles.
Third, it would also behoove us to remember that Van Winkle is not marketed or sold as a Stitzel-Weller bourbon. Unlike Jefferson Presidential Select, the Van Winkle bourbons do not advertise themselves as Stitzel-Weller bourbon. You won't find that claim made anywhere on the bottles or in any press release. To the extent that statements have been made by Wheatley or the Van Winkles as to the provenance of the bourbon, it has usually been in response to questions from bourbon geeks. Now I've always been of the opinion that whiskey bottlers should fully disclose who distills their bourbons, but it's hard to fault the Van Winkles any more than any of the countless other bottlers that do this.
As to the Van Winkle Rye, statements from the Van Winkles had indicated that this rye was initially a blend of ryes from the Medley and Bernheim distilleries, but it was always supposed to transition to Buffalo Trace distillate, so that revelation was not surprising to me.
It's always fun to speculate about things like age and provenance and it's a time honored tradition in the whiskey world (Finlaggan anyone?), but the hard truth is that if it's not on the label, we just don't know for certain. By not listing a distillery on the Pappy label, the Van Winkles have the flexibility to alter the composition without notice. I would urge them to come clean and make a definitive statement, but I'd also urge the rest of us to stop worrying and learn to love the bourbon.