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Review: 2018 Van Winkle Bourbon

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Context: I don’t remember when Face Pappy was gathering dusty on the shelves under $100 retail or the Twisted Spoke was getting private 16 yr. Van Winkle bottlings or Binny’s dropped an 18 yr. cask strength single barrel. In the early aughts, I was drinking Macallan 25 for $12.50 a glass during Half-Off Happy Hours at the Trocadero on the Sunset. I sought out the Trocadero for the Macallan because, as clueless as I was about whiskey back then (no idea what made a whiskey, scotch or bourbon unique, thought rye was just slang for whiskey), even I could recognize their Macallan as a “good deal.” Plus, I felt cool ordering an expensive brand with an age statement older than me. Those random Tuesday afternoons were my first side-by-side tastings – Macallan 12, 18, 25 for ~$30. The only tasting notes I’ve preserved from those days are, “Wow! I really can taste the difference! They keep getting smoother!”

Macallan and Pappy fill similar niches. They say something to the general public who might see a bottle in front of you in a high-end restaurant or when you have guests over and they pursues your home bar. You pay the up-charge for the peace of mind that when you share it, people have been culturally primed to say “it’s good.” You can reasonably expect a profile that’s easily accessible rather than challenging or polarizing.

The first time I remember hearing about Pappy was somewhere around 2009/2010 when my brother called me from Boston and said he’d been on a waiting list at his local for a year. He was wondering if I could track one down in Michigan. I thought wait-lists seemed really dumb and didn’t bother trying to track any down (we weren’t as close back then). The next time I gave it any thought was in 2013, I attended a birthday party at an understaffed cocktail bar and saw a bottle with the Pappy face on it. I asked the bartender how much it was. Frantically, she said, “I don’t know. Twenty bucks.” I said I’d take one neat and she free poured about 4 oz into a rocks glass. It was the 23 year. I carried it around the party and let anyone who wanted to sip, sip. The universal response was an unenthusiastic, “Yeah. It’s pretty good.” I felt equally uninspired. But I made it my only drink for the night, and the glass started a few conversations. So, contextually, I considered it a good value well before I realized the discount I was getting. Since then, I’ve ordered various expressions at bars when the price doesn’t seem aggressive, especially if I’m with someone else who might find it memorable.

Here are my takeaways from a 2018 flight. Plus a few special wheated guests.


Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yr. – 2018 – 53.5%

Nose: Full of cinnamon. Dark cherries. Birthday cake frosting. The age shows here. Everything is a little richer than your standard Weller Antique.

Flavor: More of the same on the palate: cinnamon, cherry, frosting. Flavors are rich.

Palate Structure: Dense up front. Oak provides plenty of action. Drops some flavor in the finish and the oak gets a little prickly, but the finish is long.

Alcohol Integration: Rowdy and punchy, but doesn’t throw me off too much.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Weller Antique

Wild Turkey 101

Score: 7 (Highly Recommend) Very rich and maintains a lot of those Weller/Van Winkle dessert notes that I love.


Van Winkle “Lot B” 12 yr. – 2018 – 45.2%

Nose: Nose is muted - light oak, fresh glazed pastries.

Flavor: Apple and caramel. Oak seems really dialed back. Boarding on weak.

Palate Structure: Light and flat with a short finish.

Alcohol Integration: Underproof. Easy sipping.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Basil Hayden

Weller 12


Score: 4 (Not Complaining) What comes through is pleasant. However, the structure and intensity is weak.


Pappy Van Winkle 15 yr. – 2018 – 53.5%

Nose: One of the best bourbon noses I’ve experience in a while. Deep, rich, specific. Carrot cake. Oak. Baking spice.

Flavor: Cream cheese frosting. Leather. Candied cinnamon. Oak into the finishing before the frosting returns.

Palate Structure: The front end is full. But, all in all, it's pretty linear. The real standout is a finish that provides action and digs sweet at the tail.

Alcohol Integration: Brings just the right kind of long heat.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Stagg Jr.

Russell's Reserve SiB

Score: 8 (Stash One) Nose and finish are top notch. Love that carrot cake note.


Pappy Van Winkle 20 yr. – 2018 – 45.2%

Nose: Overpowering varnish on the nose.

Flavor: Over-oaked. Everything is drowning in woody-varnish notes. Finish is short and dry.

Palate Structure: All right angles for me. Sharp and angular with the oak and varnish.

Alcohol Integration: Drinks unpleasantly overproof without fruit or sweet notes to soften things up.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Orphan Barrels

Eagle Rare 17 yr. (90 proof)

Elijah Craig 18 yr.

Score: 3 (Wish I Was Drinking Something Else) Big let down here. Moves into the same generic over-oaked profile of lots of hyper-aged bourbon.


Pappy Van Winkle 23 yr. – 2018 – 47.5%

Nose: Surprisingly, the oak management here is much better than the 20 yr. Still a lot of wood, but it's layered and absent varnish. There's even some desserty notes creeping in.

Flavor: Rich caramel. Well integrated wood spice. Cake frosting.

Palate Structure: Great finish. Manages to rise and fall with complex oak on the palate and still lace some sweetness into the finish.

Alcohol Integration: More heft than I anticipated. Pleasantly overproof.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Armagnac 30+ yr.

Elijah Craig 12 yr. (old bottles)

Score: 6 (Solid - Above Average) Didn't expect to favor this over the 20 year. But this retained more complexity and handled the wood better.


William Larue Weller – 2018 – 62.85%

Nose: Deep with dessert and dried, earthy notes. It's decadent.

Flavor: Tobacco. Figs. Caramel. Leather.

Palate Structure: Doesn’t seem quite as complex or dynamic as some previous years, but it’s hard to find fault. Still offers a compelling ride.

Alcohol Integration: Handles its proof exceptionally well.

You’d Dig This If You Like:

Glendronach Single Casks

Four Roses Private Selections 10+ year

Score: 9 (Stash Two) I can nitpick a point here or there, but there's a reason BTAC rolls out some of the best bourbon every year.


Pappy Van Winkle 15 yr. – 2009 – 53.5%

Nose: Lively, retaining more fruit than the current versions - green apples. Deep caramel.

Flavor: Some welcome dusty notes - oily, malty, buttery, grain driven. Corn husks. Cinnamon.

Palate Structure: More action and structure on the palate than the 2018, but there are some loose threads in the finish.

Alcohol Integration: Touch hot on the back-end. But you won't complain.

You’d Dig This If You Like:


Score: 9 (Stash Two) Just edges the 2018 for me. Which is a real credit to the 2018.

Rating System

10 - Reevaluate My Budget

9 - Stash Two If Able

8 - Stash One At The Right Price

7 - Highly Recommend It To Strangers

6 - Solid - Above Average

5 - Acceptable For The Situation

4 - Not Vocally Complaining

3 - Wish I Was Drinking Something Else

2 - Nothing Nice To Say

1 - Drain Pour

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