I've been a member of the LA Whiskey Society for around four years, and I have constantly been amazed at the selection at their meetings, which seems to get better and better. My theory is that those guys have a time machine they use exclusively to go back in time and buy whiskey (hey, that's what I'd do with it).
In this case, I'm happy to report that not only was the quality of these bourbons amazing, but the full tasting allowed us to see the evolution of the whiskey and also made us wonder why they were so different from today's bourbons.
The first tasted and the youngest of the night was the 8 year old distilled in 1958. What was fascinating was that it had a flavor profile that you simply don't find in today's bourbons. It came on dry and spicy, with some brandy notes and a mouthfeel that was at once chewy and creamy. Overall, it was subtle, not blaring spice, sugar or oak but an understated melange of notes that came together well. What happened to lovely, understated bourbons like this and why don't we have them anymore?
The ten year old, distilled in 1967, maintained the balance of the 8, but with everything pumped up a bit more. There was stronger sweetness, in a maple syrup vein, tannic red wine and more oak. As with the 8 year old, there were lots of notes reminiscent of brandy and Armagnac in particular.
Then came the flight of 12 year olds. One from each era of the distillery. The oldest was distilled in 1952 and bottled in 1964, entirely within the era when Pappy Van Winkle was running the distillery. The second was distilled by Pappy in 1956 but bottled after his death in 1968 and the third was from the 1980s, possibly distilled while the Van Winkle family was still running things, but bottled after the distillery had been sold and the name had been changed to the Old Fitzgerald Distillery.
These were three very different bourbons. The 1980s release was my least favorite. It was sweet and light and comparable to many good but not great bourbons around today. The subtle complexity of the earlier bourbons had somehow been transformed into a very light, sweet bourbon that was good but without any of those interesting notes found in its forebearers.
The 1956/1968 12 year old was nearly flawless. The complexity was back along with the brandy notes and some coffee notes (a note which I detected in a number of the older Fitzgeralds) and a spicy finish. This bourbon had a richness that wasn't as developed in the younger versions.
And then there was the 1952/1964. My notes read like a free association of bourbon flavors: "pine, oak, citrus, spice, candy, maple syrup, brandy, wood pulp" and on and on. I don't know that words can do justice to this bourbon. While the 1956 12 year old was a textbook great bourbon and many would probably favor it, the 1952 was great for reasons beyond the individual notes. There was a gestalt to it, in which all of the various notes came together into perfect balance, making it taste totally original and mind-blowing. It might just be the best bourbon I've ever tasted.
We moved on to the two rarest bourbons in the line up, the 15 year old and the 18 year old. These are hard to find any information about, even a Google images picture is tough to track down (though we will certainly fix that). The 15 year old (1957/1972) was another fantastic bourbon but much more familiar. At this age, the wood started to play a greater role, creating the balance of candy and wood (I call it the "enchanted candy forest") that I identify with the more recently bottled Stitzel-Weller bourbons. In fact, this tasted just like Pappy 15. To confirm this thought, I pulled an older bottle of Pappy 15 off the LAWS bar (such is the state of the LAWS bar that a half full bottle of Pappy 15 has languished on it for the past five years) to compare. They were nearly indistinguishable. It was amazing to me that the 15 year old Stitzel-Weller had maintained its profile so well (and that the Van Winkle family had succeeded in replicating it so well in the Pappy bottling).
The last bottle was the 18 year old, distilled in 1951 and bottled in 1969. This is probably the only bottle for me (other than the 1980s VOF) that was a let down. After 18 years in the barrel, there was a bitterness and an overoaked quality that dominated the palate and finish. It wasn't bad by any means, and in any other group of bourbons, it probably would have done well, but it suffered compared to those that came before. I couldn't help but feel that they had left this one in the barrel for too long.
And so it was, almost undoubtedly the greatest bourbon tasting I'll ever have the pleasure to attend. While I've always been skeptical of Stitzel-Weller hype, this confirmed for me that there really was something special going on at that distillery all those years ago. Sadly, it's something that is almost entirely lost to history, but I'm glad to have had the experience of a night with the real Pappy Van Winkle.
Thanks to the FussyChicken for the photos.
UPDATE: Check out the official LAWS write up (and from there you can follow links to member notes for each bottle) from the Very Very Old Fitzgerald tasting.