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Sitting at the bottom of the Pappy Van Winkle line of whiskies is a bottle that you’ll get instantly roasted for by calling it “Pappy” – it’s Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year. Just because it’s the youngest (and probably most plentiful) version of all the Van Winkle’s doesn’t mean it’s easy to find by any stretch. But you probably already knew that if you’re reading this review.
Every barrel of Van Winkle sold these days starts its life as a barrel of Buffalo Trace Wheated Mash Bill (aka a barrel of Weller). These barrels typically don’t have a set warehouse or area of the warehouse that they reside, but the Van Winkle family employs a handful of tasters whose job it is to sample all of the those barrels to find which ones are maturing into a profile suitable to wear their name. Once the barrels are marked as worthy of the Van Winkle name, the sampling doesn’t stop. They continue to get tested to see if they have what it takes to become a 12, 15, 20 or even 23 year old example. Very few will ever make it to the top.
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Stats
Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) officially gained a 10 year age statement along with the a bottling proof of 107 in 1983. The 90 proof version (which was what it had previously been bottled at) continued to be available side-by-side with the 10 year until 2011 when it was discontinued. In 2013, ORVW saw another change when it began to be bottled in the wine-bottle shaped glass that makes it so recognizable today.
I won’t get into the history of Stitzel-Weller and the Van Winkle family in this bottle review. That’s a story that’s more apt for my Pappy Van Winkle 15, 20 or 23 reviews. Just know that the modern version of Old Rip Van Winkle (2013+) does not have the possibility of Stitzel-Weller (or other bourbon) being in it. It all starts out as Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbon recipe of which no official mash bill ratio has ever been released. Most enthusiasts generally agree it contains somewhere between 10-20% wheat.
Old Rip Van Winkle is bottled at 107 proof which is an homage to when 107 was referred to as “barrel proof” for many brands. Barrel Proof had a different definition many decades ago and nowadays we’d probably associate it closest to the term “Full Proof.” Full Proof is a term where a fully mature whiskey gets proofed down to the its original barrel entry proof. Of course, this assumes that the liquid gained proof throughout maturation. 107 just happened to be a very common proof that a lot of distilleries barreled their bourbon at – including Stitzel-Weller (which this brand shares a lineage with). Interestingly, 107 is a proof that many producers continue to use for their releases to this day including Old Weller Antique 107, Baker’s and Pure Kentucky XO (just to name a few).
Why buy the Old Rip Van Winkle over its Lot B sibling?
All this talk about proof leads me to talk about Old Rip Van Winkle’s sibling bottle; Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot B. Lot B is a 12 year old product but is bottled at a considerably reduced proof point – 90.4 to be exact. The age is supposed to increase mellowness and be more presentable to a wider amount of palates. The ORVW’s higher proof is supposed to give us a much more robust drinking experience at the cost of matureness. They’re the ying to each other’s yang.
In terms of retail price, both are extremely similar (separated by about $20) which equates to about a $200 difference on the secondary market between them. If you don’t have experience with the secondary market, that $200 difference might seem like a lot, but it’s not. It really comes down to the which profile the buyer prefers.
So if you’re an enthusiast with a tongue that’s used to high-proof options, the choice is clear: buy the Old Rip Van Winkle. That’s what I did to get this bottle all the way back in 2019 at a raffle held by The Rural Inn. My name was called early enough that both ORVW and Lot B were available. I didn’t hesitate to claim the ORVW because i knew I was going to drink it. Years have gone by and I still don’t regret my decision.
Waiting all of these years has given me ample time to study this bottle. Just kidding, I rarely drink from it. It seems like its too special to just sip on my own so I wait for somebody else to ask for a pour. But does that mean it’s not good enough to be desirable? Let’s find out. This is a 2019 bottling, so if yours isn’t, expect there to be some differences. Just like always, I have sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The nose carries a sense of refinement about it that is noticeable. There are plenty of seasoned wood and ground cinnamon scents that are more attractive than usual. I was expecting that the wood note would come off as more mature, but it’s right about where I would expect a 10 year old bourbon to be. Sweetness and fruit scents come from cherry cola and a vanilla-orange dreamsicle. There is also a faint bit of rosewater- which hints to this underlying, barely imperceptible feature that most Van Winkles have – a floral note that I can’t fully explain how it got there. Not many other wheated bourbons have floral notes.
Palate: A common theme I’ve had among other ORVW’s that I’ve tried is a flavor akin to “Dr. Pepper.” Just like Dr. Pepper has 23 different flavors that are hard to zero in what exactly they are, so does ORVW. Tannins come by way of seasoned oak and tobacco leaf. Fruits center around dehydrated cherry and apricot pieces. The cinnamon from the nose transforms on the palate into something that feels like it dries your tongue out a little bit. And as for the sweetness keeping this whole dram afloat, I find flavors closer to molasses than caramel. That’s fine by me because that makes it seem richer overall.
Finish: Lingering notes of cinnamon, seasoned oak and cherry-flavored pipe tobacco make the finish a little more spicy and tannin-forward than I was expecting. Otherwise, a smoother flavor note of crème brûlée gives a nice custard-y vanilla finish with a bit of burnt caramel. The finish is uncomplicated, but excels at the flavors that are present.
This is a bourbon that has no real flaws to it. Among its competitors at this (retail) price, age and proof, this easily takes the gold. Would I buy this again at retail? Absolutely. Do my friends who have drank from this bottle love it? Without a doubt. But is this significantly better than its competitors to warrant the hype? No way.
Old Rip Van Winkle excels at what its supposed to – but don’t mistake it for a Thinking Man’s bourbon. Most over-hyped bourbons never really excel at making us change how we look at things anyway. They simply give us the things they already know we like in large enough quantity. All too often, simple bourbons carry unnecessary accolades because influential people sing them praises. And yes, I’m aware that I can be one of those people sometimes, haha!
Do I think that Old Rip Van Winkle deserves the hype that surrounds it? It should be clear by now that I don’t think so. But does it deserve the hate from some people? Not at all. ORVW and the rest of the Pappy lineup have earned their modern-day reputation based off their past. They keep that reputation by releasing bourbon that doesn’t have many flaws but struggles to break out of the mold. It has turned thousands of new drinkers who have tried it into self-proclaimed “wheated bourbon lovers.”
But if your bourbon journey is more about finding the things that blow your mind through new sensory explorations, then ORVW just won’t do it for you. The excitement after one drink begins to cool and before you know it, you’re on the search for something with more flavor. ORVW’s popularity was gained by the fact way more people with average palates have sang it praises. So if you’re thinking that Pappy is the holy grail of bourbon, I urge you to try this once just to say you did… and then keep looking. If you’re new to bourbon, the main thing to take away from this review is that there are way better bottles out there.
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