It was pitch dark, pouring rain, and I was crammed into a car with four strangers like a cork in a wine bottle. We were on our way to an estate on a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky to sample Pappy Van Winkle at a private tasting during night one of The Bourbon Social. The Whiskey Barrel Society, a fledgling national drinking club headquartered in Kentucky, was hosting the event and I was beyond excited. I’d read so much about this label over the years and really wanted to see what all the hype was about. Apparently if you buddy up with your local liquor store owner in Kentucky you can grab a bottle at a decent price on a semi-regular basis before it even hits the shelf (and it never hits the shelf). However, I live in SoCal and people round these parts aren’t exactly stalking their local liquor mart to score some PVW. The average west-coaster with a decent budget for alcohol is seduced by vintage wine and artisan tequila. Bourbon is still off the radar for the general population despite the “bourbon hysteria” constantly toted by the media. Bourbon, however, is very much on our radar and a spirit that we’re slightly obsessed with.
Once inside the home, we all mingled for a bit while the tasting tables were being set up and the food was being prepped. What I didn’t know until the last minute was that every serving of Pappy would be accompanied by a dish from a tasting menu developed to compliment the flavors of each year. Chef Dan Wu from the 5th season of MasterChef was in the kitchen cooking up sample-size masterpieces as we took our places around each table.
Kyle Dynes, founder of the Whiskey Barrel Society, hosted the evening and directed us through the history of Pappy, the tasting notes for each bottle, the mystery surrounding the stolen or "lost" cases, why they’re affectionately referred to as unicorns (it’s hard to believe the bottles really exist), and how to properly enjoy a glass of bourbon.
Now, speaking of portions, each tasting would be one ounce, which I knew I would not be accepting. Yes, I can drink six-ounces of bourbon just fine thank you very much, but goodness gracious not in two hours. So the gentleman sitting on my right graciously agreed to accept half of each of my servings, much to his delight and my relief.
Before I took that first sip I have to admit I was slightly nervous. I didn’t want to be disappointed after so much anticipation. Would there be something magical about this spirit or would it be imperceptible from all the others? How would it compare to our favorites like Booker’s, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Maker’s 46, Jefferson, and Bulleit? I’m happy to report that every sampling lived up to my expectations. Each sip was incredibly smooth, packed with a potpourri of flavors with satisfying mouthfeel. And the food that accompanied each serving was insanely good. To experience this event on your own you'll have to get yourself to this year's Bourbon Social beginning October 1st.
Until then, here are our tasting notes to help guide you to finding your very own unicorn.
Pappy Van Winkle ~ 12 Year
- notes of apple, banana, lemon, crushed leaves, and caramel
- subtle mouthfeel
- 5/10 for hotness
Pappy Van Winkle Rye ~ 13 Year
- notes of vanilla custard, orange rind, maple syrup, and cedar
- mellow mouthfeel
- 7/10 for hotness with lingering heat
Pappy Van Winkle ~ 15 Year
- notes of caramel, fresh waffles, vanilla, honey, whipped cream, wood
- medium mouthfeel
- 5/10 for hotness
Pappy Van Winkle ~ 20 Year
- notes of vanilla, butterscotch, orange juice, wet wheat, toasted almonds
- full mouthfeel
- 4/10 for hotness
Pappy Van Winkle ~ 23 Year
- notes of caramel, vanilla, sea salt, orange juice, toasted marshmallows, creamed corn
- full mouthfeel
- 7/10 for hotness