Happy Independence Day, America!
Ok, so I’m a bit late with this one. I actually wrote up my notes on the 4th, but didn’t get around to finishing the post until today…
After a recent purchase of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 year bourbon, I realized that I now have four premium, wheated bourbons to compare (I’ve found that I tend to prefer wheated bourbons to rye). Four great American whiskies for July 4th? Perfect! I compared the PVW to William Larue Weller 2009 release, Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17 year, and Parker’s Heritage Golden Anniversary. Ok, I guess I haven’t read anything about the use of rye and/or wheated bourbon barrels in the Parker’s release, but it sure tastes like a wheated bourbon. [Update: They're making a big deal about the fact that the 4th edition of Parker's Heritage is going to be a wheated bourbon, so maybe the Golden Anniversary is all/primarily rye. Fooled me.]
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 year ($55 – $75) is a regular bottling, but it seems to come out in relatively small batches and sells out quickly (at least here in AZ). According to the bottle, it’s based on the same recipe as the PVW 20 year, just aged for a shorter period. It’s bottled at 107 proof (53.5% abv). This bourbon has a great mixture of fruit and spice, with some definite wood influence (but not too much) in the form of vanilla and oak. Extremely balanced, it hits the palate just right, with a good zip on the tongue, but not so much as to need water. Rye bourbons are known as the spicy ones, with wheaters being sweet. In this case, there’s a nice nutmeg spice on the tongue along with the maple syrup sweetness. Again, just wonderful balance. The finish medium-long and it’s all good. No bad after-taste at all. I haven’t tried the 20 year, but I can’t help but wonder if this bottling is the sweet spot in the range. There’s plenty of wood influence, and I wonder if the 20 year would come across as a little less balanced. Plus, it’s an extra $50 or so for that one.
William Larue Weller (2009) ($65 – $85) is part of the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). Bottled at 134.8 proof (67.4% abv) in 2009, this whiskey is bottled at barrel proof and only minimally filtered to remove the bigger pieces of char. This release and George T. Stagg, a rye bourbon (also of the BTAC collection), are about as close as you can get to buying a Buffalo Trace whiskey straight out of the barrel. I enjoy drinking WLW neat now and then, just for a bit of a thrill on my tongue, but for this comparison, I watered it down to around 100 proof. At this proof, it’s really not that different from the PVW 15. I want to say the WLW is a little more fruity, while the Van Winkle provides a touch more spice. What the Weller provides that the PVW can’t is the occasional thrill of drinking it neat. It’s a pretty amazing experience, as it’s incredibly drinkable, even if it does kill off the taste buds after about 5 minutes.
Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17 year ($75 – $100) is a special release of Stitzel-Weller juice from right before Stitzel-Weller stopped operating. Bottled at 94 proof, my bottle is #505 from Batch No. 2 (out of 7 or 8 batches, I believe). The Jefferson’s has a similar backbone to the WLW 2009, but brings out even more red fruits on the nose. Even though it’s bottled at 17 years, there’s less raw oak on the nose than either of the previous two. How did they manage that? It’s sweet on the palate, with a little less spice than the other two expressions, but still well balanced. A medium, sweet finish leaves the tongue watering and wanting more. There’s not a very strong drying sensation. This bourbon has plenty of complexity, yet goes down sooooo easy. A great bottle to share with aficionados and occasional drinkers for a special occasion.
Parker’s Heritage Collection (Third Edition) “Golden Anniversary” ($135 – $150) is a tribute to master distiller Parker Beam, and contains whiskey from 5 decades, with the majority of the whiskey aged between 10 and 20 years. You can see the full press release here. The nose on this whiskey is flat-out amazing. Easily the most complex of the bunch. All of the fruit and spices of the others, plus a stand-out vanilla and orange combination that John Hansell described well as Orange Creamsicle. There surely isn’t much of the older whiskies in here, as the oak, while present, is completely tamed. What’s amazing here is that there is so much vanilla and cocoa, but so little raw oak/cedar. It’s like they figured out a secret to keeping the best of the barrel influence and weeding out the questionable stuff. The palate and finish lie somewhere in between the somewhat mellow Jefferson’s and the other two expressions, with nice spices, medium drying, and a medium-long finish. Just outstanding.
Comparative thoughts: These are all really amazing bourbons, and well worth their higher prices as far as I’m concerned. The only warning I would offer is that the Jefferson’s Presidential Select reminds me a bit of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist. It’s complex, balanced, and highly drinkable, yet when doing head-to-head comparisons, it can come off as being a little flat. I still strongly recommend it, but drink it on its own and appreciate it for what it is. Moving on, Pappy Van Winkle 15 and William Larue Weller kind of scratch the same itch for me. However, I was really impressed with how perfect the bottling proof is for the PVW. The WLW 2009 is totally worth purchasing, and offers a unique strength for a wheated bourbon, but if you missed out on it, don’t fret too much. Just go buy a bottle of PVW 15 and enjoy the spicy/fruity/oaky balance. The Parker’s Heritage is really expensive, but totally unique in flavor and creation process. Only you can decide if it’s worth paying that much for a bourbon. If you do buy it, and you usually drink bourbon from a tumbler, try pouring some of this in a brandy or scotch nosing glass. Sit back, and take in that incredible aroma.
Update: For my own tastes, I would put these bourbons primarily in the B+ range relative to the scotch whiskies I’ve rated, with the Parker’s Heritage sneaking up into full A- territory with the likes of HP 18 and Dalmore Mackenzie. A year ago, I thought of bourbons as more of a second-class citizen. Pleasant enough, but even the good ones were “B” whiskies. I’ve really warmed up to the bourbon profile (especially wheated ones) in recent months.Cheers, Jeff