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.


sam k said...

It matters not to me whether anyone comes clean on this subject. It is their prerogative to keep that information close to the vest considering the passion of the Pappy crowd and what the truth might do to their considered opinions of the current line. That passion was in evidence on the recent Pappy vs. BTAC throwdown hosted on this very blog.

The Van Winkle whiskeys, though sometimes excellent, are, in my opinion, absolutely overpriced and overrated. Why does it matter where it comes from? If you like it and are willing to pay through the nose for it, then you should be a satisfied consumer.

I have been privileged to drink plenty of Stitzel-Weller bourbon through the 70s and 80s that was bottled at the age it was intended to be bottled at when it was initially distilled, and it was fabulous.

Like the overly aged Prohibition bottlings of any given brand in the 20s and 30s, these whiskeys were never intended to be aged for 20+ years, and the fact that some barrels hold up as well as they do is a testament to their quality. The rest are over the hill and are being blended into cheaper brands. Oh, the humanity!

Those S-W stocks are reaching the very limits of their viability, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that Buffalo Trace-distilled whiskeys are being blended into them or replacing them entirely. What else could we have expected?

I visited Mishter's distillery many times when it was producing what some consider to be the finest bourbon ever made...the Hirsch bottlings, but the mystique of any distillery only goes so far, and all good things have to come to an end.

And yes, you can read into the proprietors' statements what you will. When Preston says that they "...are still coming from stocks that were made at Stitzel-Weller," he isn't saying that it's ALL coming from there.

The first head-turning bourbon I had in modern times was a bottle pf Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old about 15 years ago. Since then, I've tried other Van Winkles and have usually been underwhelmed, most recently with Lot B and this year's version of the Family Reserve Rye. Not bad, but not stellar at what I paid, either. I'll take a Thomas Handy any day.

Wait, maybe they're the same damn whiskey, only the Van Winkle is seven years older. If that's the case, the extra aging brought it down a couple of pegs.

I continue to enjoy select $25-30 bourbons as much or more than Van Winkle whiskeys. That they can command the prices they do is a testament to their marketing abilities and the reverence that a few aficionados have for the brand.

Get over it. Life goes on.

BarrelChar said...

If Harlen's statements are correct, it means the Van Winkles repeatedly lied--explicitly--about their whiskeys in interviews and message board posts. If that's the case, it's a big deal. It's fraud, and they fooled everyone, including you. The fact that it didn't say "Stitzel-Weller" on the label is beside the point.

Perhaps Harlen he was mistaken, though the clarity of his statements doesn't indicate that. How could he be so ill-informed about the company's most famous product?

Hopefully, the Van Winkles or Harlen will clarify. In the meantime, it's disappointing to watch so many esteemed bloggers contort themselves in order to casually shrug off the news as irrelevant.

Anonymous said...


sku said...

Anonymous said...


Guilty as charged. I'll try to do better next time.

Jason Beatty said...

I talk with Preston about this on Friday when we were drinking. He said that if anyone had something dire to ask him that everyone knows how to get ahold of him. Again, he told me the 20 and 23 Year from this Spring were entirely from Stitzel-Weller.

I know it's still out there as I saw 3 barrels from there sitting in one of Heaven Hill's warehouses yesterday morning while going through some new Elijah Craig 12 Year single barrel that will be coming out soon.

Jason Beatty said...

When it comes to getting a response from Preston on a forum: he is so busy that he had to take his whiskey to go and only spent a little over an hour drinking.

Anonymous said...

The 'boring' wasn't aimed at your write-up, Sku. Just the subject matter. 0.000001% of Earth's population cares about that nonsense... a generous estimate.

sku said...

Anon, I totally agree, but I played into it by writing about it, so I still say mea culpa.

NP said...

What a sad sad day.
I fear the time when we will learn that Pappy is not actually distilling himself anymore.
That will be the coup de grace for me.

EricH said...

I was just wondering if anyone has any idea why Buffalo Trace (or should I say Ancient Age) was already making wheated bourbon for SW as early as 1981. Was SW not producing enough whiskey to meet production quotas or did someone see the writing on the wall and started to quietly have another distillery make bourbon to SW's recipe? It just seems odd that SW was contracting another distillery when SW was still healthy and in full production in 1981.

sam k said...

I think the 1981 date may be a typo, as S-W was very active at that time.

EricH said...

The 1981 date appears to be correct. Looking at those comments by Harlan, he seems to state that Ancient Age was already contract distilling for SW a full decade before its closure. In fact, this might explain why PVW 23 has 23 year old Ancient Age wheated bourbon (at least according to Harlan).

Now if this is true, someone had the foresight to have another distillery make bourbon using SW's recipe.

Anonymous said...

Uhhh... stitzel-weller personnell, distillate, barrels, and equipment were abducted by aliens in 1981. The government forced Ancient Age to help conceal the truth! I hear tell what that galactic stitzel-weller is damn fine juice. Boy howdy what I weren't pay upon Ebay 'fer it!

sam k said...

To NP and the last Anonymous poster: Funniest shit I've ever read on any blog. Thank you!

sam k said...

And Eric...that's amazing information, and goes to show that not only was foresight involved on the part of S-W, but excellent whiskey making capability at Ancient Age, too.