Wednesday, June 13, 2012

More Van Winkle Mania

Earlier this week, Chuck Cowdery wrote a post for the Whisky Advocate Blog about the composition of the next release of Van Winkle whiskeys this coming fall. A few months ago, I interviewed Preston Van Winkle about the 2011 release after an internet kerfuffle broke out over its provenance. We all knew that the stocks of Stitzel-Weller whiskey would not last forever and it appears that this fall's release of Pappy 20 year old will contain Stitzel-Weller blended with wheated bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Other expressions in the Van Winkle line contain bourbon made by the Bernheim Distillery, now Heaven Hill, which United Distillers used to make wheated recipe bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald and Weller labels after it closed Stitzel-Weller.

For the whiskey geeks among us, it's tempting to get worked up about these issues. As I've stated before, I would like to see a regulation requiring American whiskeys to disclose their distillery of origin on the label, but that's highly unlikely to happen. That being said, there are two things to consider if you find yourself getting obsessed about the composition of the latest Van Winkle bourbon.

First, the cult of Pappy is strong, but Stitzel-Weller bourbon, while good, is not the be all and end all of American whiskey. I've had some great Stitzel-Weller dusties, but I've also had some that were mediocre. There is a uniqueness to some of the older Stitzel-Wellers, but that uniqueness is, in part, about its subtlety and not overly compatible with lots of wood. The best Stitzel-Wellers I've had have been seven to twelve years old. In contrast, I've had some amazing old wheaters made at the Bernheim distillery. If anything, I think those Bernheim wheaters might age better than Stitzel-Weller over the long haul. And of course, Buffalo Trace also makes some great wheated bourbon as part of their Weller line. So given that the Van Winkles are using a combination of whiskeys from those three distilleries for its bourbons, the quality of the bourbon is unlikely to suffer. They could do a lot worse.

Second, bourbon is not single malt. Unless it's bottled in bond, there is no requirement for bourbon to be made at a single distillery, and unless it is made at distilleries in different states, there is no way for the consumer to know at which distillery a non-bonded bourbon was made, particularly one from Kentucky with its many distilleries. When we drink a bourbon from Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill, we assume that it was made at that distillery, but there is no way to know for sure absent sworn testimony by the master distiller. I've heard tell of all manner of contracting arrangements and even bulk sales between distilleries. We all know that, for years, Heaven Hill contracted with Brown Forman to make Rittenhouse Rye, but there may well be similar arrangements that we don't know about. In the end, we may know as little about the composition of any of these whiskeys as we do about Van Winkle.

I like whiskey history and I like knowing what I'm drinking, but in the end, what is most important for those of us who actually drink the stuff (as opposed to "investing" in it) is what's in the glass and how it tastes. In all of our heated discussion, which can be perfectly healthy, we shouldn't lose sight of that fact.


David D said...

But Steve, if I don't know where it's from I can't use that information to impress my friends, therefore making me seem more interesting in the process!

sku said...

Just tell them what most retailers do, that it was made at the Van Winkle Distillery.