Friday, November 1, 2013

Very Very Good: A Very Very Old Fitzgerald Tasting for the Record Books




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). 

Of course I was excited when I heard a few months ago that LAWS was planning a tasting of Stitzel-Weller bourbons, wheated bourbons from the now shuttered distillery that was founded and operated by Pappy Van Winkle. Even though I knew they were planning such a tasting and I always expect great things from LAWS meetings, when I clicked open the email invitation, I did a double take.  Lying before me was pretty much the dream bourbon tasting of every bourbon enthusiast in the world, ever.  It was beyond ridiculous.  Seven different Very Old (and Very Very Old and Very Extra Old) Fitzgeralds, ranging from 8 to 18 years old, most distilled in the 1950s, including three 12 year olds from three different eras in the distillery's history.  Most bourbon fans would consider themselves lucky to taste just one of these Stitzel-Weller gems, and here was a whole set of them staring me in the face.




Going to this type of tasting fills me with a mix of joy and apprehension.  There's always the chance that these bourbons won't meet the ultra-high expectations.  There have been many times when I have gotten my hands on a treasured whiskey and found it to be just good but not as exceptional as I'd hoped.  You just never know.

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.

 

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW.

Keith said...

This whole post is a humblebrag!

sku said...

Really Keith? I didn't think I was being humble at all.

AaronWF said...

Isn't participating in this sort of activity supposed to make you go blind??

I saved an excerpt from an interview Julian Van Winkle III gave at some point over the last 8 years or so. He mentions the roller mill that cracked the grain instead of pulverizing it, the well water used at the distillery that is unusable today because it's probably polluted, the shape of the still, the shape of the doubler, the particular yeast, the old cyprus fermenters. He says, "...all the stars were lined up just right for that place as far as I was concerned..."

I've also read about the flora and fauna surrounding the distillery and aging warehouses imparting characteristics to the whiskey. It's just fascinating to think about all these factors that produced bourbon profiles that not only don't exist any more, but profiles that can give you the kind of spiritual experience you described regarding the 1952/1964.

Sku, it's these sorts of experiences that makes everyone think you hate whiskey ;)

Anonymous said...

Sku,

Do you know what year the Pappy 15 was bottled in that you pulled from the LAWS bar to do that comparison?

Josh

sku said...

Josh, great question. I believe it was a 2008, so likely a SW/Bernheim blend.

Anonymous said...

Just what I wanted to hear! The first Pappy 15 I purchased was the 2008. Been holding onto it ever since. Can't wait to crack it open now in order to have a better understanding of what you described above (assuming with 99% certainty that I will never get to try a real McCoy VVOF).

Josh

Anonymous said...

I am rarely ever jealous of people...I figure I have it pretty good..but dang. Y'all are a lucky bunch of guys.

Josh Feldman said...

Unlike Anonymous here, I'm often jealous and I'm extra jealous now. What an epic tasting! What a glorious review and wonderful set of tasting notes. Thanks, SKU.

Thomas Mckenzie said...

While some of the things that made these bourbons great do not exist today, such as barrels made of old growth timber, and grains that were not hybrids like we have today being the main two things lost, bourbon like that can be made today. I have researched long and hard to see what made the bourbon of today not as good as years ago. The biggest too most widely discussed are still proof and barrel proof. Those whiskies probably came off the still no higher than 110 proof, and most likely went in the barrel around 100. But I think one of the major things that effected a great change is the automation of stills. A ky beer still is a hard thing to control manually, I know, I run one every day. The old still hands had to know when to make adjustments to steam and beer feed. This caused some small variations in a run that can cause flavor. Today the only large distillery with no automated still is Dickel. All the rest have a temp probe in the head of the still, you set it for the proof you want and a computer controls both beer feed and steam. In a matter of seconds. Beer stills are real sensitive to weather. Being a tube they act like a barometer of sorts. They tell me the old still men were so in tune with the still that they could tell you sometimes 48 hours before a weather front made it to Ky just how bad the weather would be. The human element is the biggest thing lost in bourbon making today.

sku said...

Really interesting Tom; thanks for posting. As far as you know, do most micros do it by hand or are some also using the automated stills?

Bob said...

I wonder if it all had something to do with leaving the whiskey in glass for 50 (!) years (in addition to whatever was done differently back then). Someone should perform an experiment, preferably with that time machine ...

The Rookie said...

Holy crackers Sku!!!

Cool points Thomas.

JasonQ said...

For the record, I'd just like to say that you are FUCKING KILLING ME.

Matt said...

Sku, do you know roughly what these would have cost in today's dollars, like were they $30 whiskies, $100 whiskies, etc.?

sku said...

Good question Matt. Unfortunately, I have no idea what these went for at the time, much less in today's dollars.

Anonymous said...

Hedonism in London has two 1955 bottles for sale at $1500 US.