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Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old Bourbon Review

Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old Bourbon Review

In terms of modern bourbon releases, no other label holds the kind of mysticism and allure to a wider range of enthusiasts than Pappy Van Winkle. It was 1994 when the Beverage Tasting Institute awarded a 99 out of 100 score to the 20-year-old bottling bearing this famous name. From then on out, the Van Winkle name was lifted into the stratosphere – and it hasn’t come back down since.

I feel like I barely need to give the 23-year-old version an introduction at all. Everyone who has dabbled in bourbon has heard about it. It’s the top dog of each years’ 6-bottle Van Winkle lineup mainly because it’s the oldest and the most expensive. And the price it fetches on the secondary market is also one of the highest for an annual release. At the time of this review in mid-2024, a 2023 release was fetching over ten times its retail price at around $3500. So how did it get to this point?

“Nothing can stop us, we’re all the way up”

– The Van Winkles (probably)

I’ve already gone over much of the lore of Van Winkle bourbons (and the sole rye whiskey) in my previous reviews on the topic, but to explain Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year (also known as PVW23 for short), we have to look at the origin of PVW20.

It is said that when PVW20 first came out in 1994, it contained bourbon made from a ryed mash bill that was sourced from a defunct distillery called Old Boone that closed in 1977. This is the bourbon that would go on to score a “99” in the Beverage Tasting Institute’s competition and put the Van Winkle name permanently on the map.

Julian Van Winkle III went on to release a 23-year-old version in 1998. And while he has never publicly admitted the source to the older one, most enthusiasts have concluded that the timeline matches up with the original barrels of Old Boone. If he had leftover barrels from his first bottling of PVW20, those would have turned 23 years old in his warehouse in Lawrenceburg by that date.

Most enthusiasts are baffled to learn that some of the earliest products to wear the “Pappy Van Winkle” name (all other Van Winkle products at the time never used the word “Pappy”) were made from ryed bourbon instead of the famous wheated bourbon from Stitzel-Weller.

Another example of a Van Winkle bottling that may have contained Old Boone Bourbon

As a quick aside, these Old Boone barrels were purchased from Wild Turkey (then owned by Austin Nichols) who had purchased them years prior. This was not an uncommon thing for distilleries to do during this time. Wild Turkey was seeing some unexpected growth and wanted to make sure they had enough bourbon on hand in case they ran short.

For the record, there is no hard documentation that Wild Turkey ever used these Old Boone barrels in their products. There are some enthusiasts who speculate that some Old Boone bourbon made its way into various labels of Wild Turkey with the most famous rumor being that it went into early batches of Cheesy Gold Foil.

Pappy Van Winkle switches over to Stitzel-Weller

The first release of PVW23 came in a tinted green glass bottle and was dipped in gold wax. This made it very distinguishable from the second release which came out in 2003. The second release was bottled in non-tinted glass and wore a gold foil seal. As far as the bourbon inside was concerned, the 2003 version was made from stocks of Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon. This would be its standard for many more years.

Stocks of Stitzel-Weller bourbon are generally thought to have dried up after the 2014 bottling of PVW23. Preston Van Winkle commented to the blog bourbonr that 2015’s release of PVW23 contained a majority of Stitzel-Weller barrels, but some Bernheim and Buffalo Trace were also used that year. That would line up with the 1992 timeline of Sazerac buying what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery and beginning distillation of their own wheated bourbon.

Speaking of Bernheim Wheated Bourbon, what was it? Up until mid-1999, United Distillers (now known as Diageo) still owned the New Bernheim Distillery. For years they had been consolidating their distilling operations in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency. They had shut down Stitzel-Weller Distillery after 1992, which was the source of wheated bourbon that Julian was buying for his brand. But since United Distillers still had many brands that were using wheated bourbon, they switched production of it over to their new newly built distillery in Louisville (which replaced the Old Bernheim Distillery).

By some accounts, the mash bill was slightly different as was the distillation equipment and process. But the bourbon was still excellent. Julian continued purchasing barrels of wheated bourbon made at Bernheim but it’s not clear how much he had.

Eventually, Mark Brown (Buffalo Trace’s President) made Julian an offer he couldn’t refuse to join with his distillery. Julian moved his leftover stocks of bourbon (and rye) to Frankfort.

Modern Day PVW23

The bottle I am reviewing today was bottled in 2022. It is widely believed to be the product of barrels produced entirely by Buffalo Trace. The only thing slightly interesting in this release is that the barrels would have been laid down prior to Julian Van Winkle III coming on board to work with Buffalo Trace. It is highly unlikely that any barrels of Stitzel-Weller or New Bernheim wheated bourbon are blended into this particular year’s batch (the last time they were was supposedly in 2017).

Now the Van Winkle team still gets their pick of the litter from Buffalo Trace’s warehouses. They don’t have any oversight over the distillation process because according to Preston Van Winkle “the family has always had the good sense to pay the experts to do that job for us.”

Speaking of that maturation team, they are comprised of a small group of Buffalo Trace employees and Julian + Preston Van Winkle who taste through and identify exquisite barrels of wheated bourbon being matured inside the Buffalo Trace warehouses. Many people say that they have certain warehouses with certain sweet spots that they tend to favor, but nobody has said where those locations were for sure. My internet searching has only resulted in descriptions that the barrels come from the lower tiers of the brick warehouses on the main campus, with one particular description hinting to Warehouse L being a primary building. Take that with a grain of salt.

So how does this bottle of 23 year old wheated bourbon taste? Let’s find out.

Tasting Notes

Nose: My first thought when sticking my nose in the glass is just how alive the scents are. I was expecting nothing but oak. Instead what I found were melted cow tails, cherries, Dry Orange Curacao and room-temperature root beer. There’s even a slight smell of marshmallow within. Of course oak is present at every turn. It’s graceful in its approach and never hogs the attention. PVW23 doesn’t make my top spot for oaky noses, but it’s probably in my top 10. I also need to give a shoutout to notes of wood char and something close to cream or butter. They’re not that strong, but they add additional layers of complexity.

Palate: A thought enters my head before I take the first sip “what if the palate has just as much variety as the nose did?” Then I take my first sip and… it’s an absolute oak bomb. It takes me several sips before I eventually begin to find something other than oak. I’ll get to those in a minute, but my best description of the oak I’m finding is a very lacquered, antiqued taste that is completely dominant and just a smidge bitter.

Peculiarly, even with all the oak, each sip maintains just enough balance to not get repressively bitter. I occasionally find a break in this veritable forest to taste other flavors like scorched caramel, butterscotch candies, resin and charcoal briquettes. There’s even a hint of Christmas fruitcake, ribbon candies, a dash of allspice and a miniscule amount of pepper. Every sip of PVW23 tastes just as old as the age statement says it is. In fact, I’ve had Orphan Barrel releases that approach (or surpass) the 23 year mark that don’t show this much oak. It’s crazy

Finish: The finish doesn’t see the oak letting off the pedal. It’s still everywhere. I know this doesn’t tell you how it tastes, but I’m going to take a minute and comment that I really can’t compare the taste of this oak to any other bourbon I’ve had. It’s like I just inhaled a cloud of fine oak dust through my mouth and haven’t rinsed it out yet. Somehow – miraculously – it maintains just enough sweetness to not make this a terrible experience at the end. I don’t know how. And as I sit there and let all of the flavors that I just experienced wash over me, I can pick up small notes of dehydrated cherry pieces, a hint of honeycomb, jasmine and expired jelly candy.

Score: 8/10

Well that was certainly an experience. I had seen other reviews and been warned about the double-edged sword that PVW23 was when it came to tannins. I now know what they were talking about. Despite all of my notes talking about the oak, it always rode the razors’ edge when it came to being balanced.

I have had much oakier (and younger) bourbon before that clearly spent too much time in a barrel. But PVW23 never seemed to cross that line. I think that other flavors suffered as a result, but I was still able to find flavors and scents that I did not think I would before I reviewed this bottle. I’m impressed.

Final Thoughts

Is PVW23 worth the secondary cost? Hell no. If you’re vain and think that swinging a bottle of this around your local bourbon bottle shares will gain you some friends, then you’re absolutely right. You will be the top dog of that night. But I guarantee that the guys that have had it before won’t be as impressed. They know that for all the more hype this bottle gets, it’s not the masterpiece that everyone thinks it is. It’s strictly a unique bourbon for its age and drinkability. Otherwise, if you want more flavor or a deeper experience, I urge you to try PVW15 or 20 instead.

Moreso, I urge you to exit the Pappy realm altogether and try bourbons that have much more flavor and nuance without burning your tastebuds away – Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition comes to mind. But if you absolutely, positively must shell out the money to buy a pour or a bottle of your own, I suppose there are much worse options you could choose. Just make sure you drink it in good company and be thankful you got the experience in the first place.

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