Friday, 2 September 2016

Crowds and Kings. Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Pappy Van Winkle and Colonel Sanders

Firstly, apologies for the last month of radio silence. In a fit of brain-flagellation I decided in May that signing up to the WSET’s Diploma in Wine and Spirits would be a shrewd move. Flash forward to late August, and all notions of social life have been put on hold for two years whilst I bury my head in the minutiae of vine trellising systems and must clarification. For twenty hours a week. On top of work. Still, on the plus side, I’ll have a wealth of great party-conversation-fodder when it’s over. I anticipate the varying properties of soil nutrients being particularly well received.

Upshot of course is that blogging was put on ice whilst I broke the back of what will certainly be the most difficult and boring module of the course. That exam’s in October, and I’m hoping that normal service will be resumed afterwards. In the meantime, before I head up to Scotland for a week of East Highlands pilgrimage, a ‘thank you for your patience’ article. To those of you enamoured of all things Americana: the following contains strong traces of Pappy Van Winkle. And KFC...

I’ve mentioned my ill-advised love of poetry before, and musing on the events of this week I was struck by a line from Rudyard Kipling’s seminal ‘If.’ (God, how pretentious was that sentence?) All things considered it’s a poem which places wholly unreasonable demands and expectations on a person – frankly anyone who treats triumph and disaster just the same is a weirdo – but the opening two lines of the final stanza are actually pretty sound advice.

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch.’

Keep those lines in your head – they’re going to be relevant.

Our story begins in the back end of June at a bar in London where I had been invited to taste a newly-launched bourbon. Amidst the sipping and scribbling I found myself chatting to a couple of very friendly chaps who invited me to join their Facebook group, British Bourbon Society. Now I don’t tend to join many groups on
Facebook, preferring to adhere to a ‘cheap laughs, photos and Whisky Pilgrim articles only’ policy. But the group looked good, and a cocktail or two had blunted my inner curmudgeon, so I signed myself up.

Long story short it was an excellent decision and I’ve had a cracking time being a BBS member. And about a month into my membership I was massaging the keyboard at work when my phone squawked, telling me I’d been invited to an event by the society. Curiously, I logged into Facebook (I’m such a professional employee) to discover that the event in question was entitled ‘Pappy Van Winkle Tasting Dinner @ Burger & Lobster.’ Just about containing my mouthful of coffee I scanned the description. It was the full Van Winkle Range. Old Rip 10yo to Pappy 23. The instinctive mental image of my bank balance didn’t stand a chance. In fact I’m pretty sure I was the fastest finger on the ‘Attending’ button, and I can’t say with any certainty whether smoke wasn’t coming off the mouse as I did so. 

Bit of context for the uninitiated. The Van Winkle range is made up of wheat-recipe Bourbons of varying ages, and a 13yo Rye. They are also just about as culty as cult Bourbons get. In fact, make that as culty as cult whisk(e)y gets full stop. In terms of whiskies that aren’t one-off special releases I reckon only Yamazaki Sherry Casks move quicker than Pappy, and you’d be measuring the difference in nanoseconds. By comparison to Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection is positively sluggish. Needless to say, rave reviews follow the bottles wherever they go, online auction prices go stratospheric, and Pappy’s most ardent disciples would make Peter, John, Matthew and company look apathetic.

Confession du jour: I’d never tried any of them. Not a confession I made to the group prior to the tasting, but recorded here for the sake of full disclosure. Look, I’m a callow youth of modest means who doesn’t live in London. I did encounter the full flight rather unexpectedly at a café in Brixton once but it was 10:30 in the morning at the time, and the prices made me shudder. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think twice about it. At any rate, I was looking forward immensely to papping my cherry (pundemonium...) and doing the subsequent write-up on the Pilgrim.

Except for a niggling thought.

I make no apology for going out of my way to taste ultra-rare and ‘super-premium’ whisk(e)y every now and then. The drink’s my passion, and whilst I accept that sometimes the hype turns out to be excessive, many of these whiskies rank amongst the very finest you can taste. So I certainly wasn’t feeling guilty for having purchased my ticket, but the style of article that would emerge from it was giving me pause. Despite never having tasted the range before I’d read and heard enough from people not prone to over-adulation to be pretty confident that I would be enjoying a few pretty tasty drops of plonk. So I could taste them and add my notes to the canon of online Pappygasms, but I’d be asking myself who that would actually help.

The bottom line was that a standard-issue write-up wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Not only would it seem rather like bragging, but I’d feel half obliged to stick a caveat on the end saying ‘by the way, you won’t find these whiskies, and you can’t afford them if you do.’ Besides, a blog-piece essentially saying ‘Pappy Van Winkle is nice whiskey’ ain’t exactly cutting edge, thought-provoking stuff.

First and foremost I write these articles as a way to share a little more about whisk(e)y with my friends; to offer a pointer or two when it comes to purchases and (I kid myself) impart a soupçon of knowledge. Rather at a loss for how to turn the Van Winkle dinner into something along those lines I gave the grey matter a churning and decided that what was most needed was a second bourbon tasting dinner. But not a dinner in which my glass was charged with the fiscally unobtainable and the quasi-mythological. Rather a dinner in which the team sheet featured only American whiskey available in the UK for under £25 a throw. 

Flagship expressions of their respective distilleries. The natural habitat of The Whisky Pilgrim. I deliberated a moment or two over the repast with which to accompany the tasting but – perhaps inevitably – settled upon my other true Kentuckian love. Thursday 1st September would be the Pappy Van Winkle tasting. Tuesday 30th of August would be the province of Colonel Sanders. 

When it came to Tuesday I spent more time daydreaming about the KFC than about the whiskey. I didn’t encounter fast-food as a nipper until I was about 9, and even when I did it was strictly regimented to once a month. (After swimming, as I recall.) We didn’t have a local KFC, so McDonalds tended to be the plat du mois, but I still remember that fateful lunchtime in Leicester when my infant palate made its first union with the Colonel’s eleven secret herbs and spices. It was a moment in which, to my young mind, I stood upon gastronomic Everest. To this day I’m not entirely convinced that I didn’t. KFC is the best fast food. End of story. We’ll accept this, and we’ll move forward.

Having sent my housemates a message that chicken was on the menu I navigated end-of-day traffic with mounting impatience and shortly thereafter was through the doors of gustatory wonderland, senses swimming in all that is greasy and salty and pseudo-poisonous and subjectively incomparable. I spared not a glance for the menu – does anyone? – and placed my order, wide-eyed and hushed-voiced. I’ll hold my hand up to usually opting for the slightly philistinian Boneless Banquet, but this was a day to do things properly, so it’s Original Recipe for me. I was there in the name of research, after all. Some popcorn chicken was added (out of respect, and because you can never do too much research) and then I and my lukewarm bag of artery-Nemesis were back in the Corsa, and home in a trice.

Probably ought to introduce the whiskies at this point. The five I settled on were Four Roses Yellow Label, Jim Beam White Label, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill and the UK’s current favourite whiskey, darling of student bars across the country and bosom buddy of Coca Cola: the ubiquitous Mr Daniel’s. All available under £25 a bottle in UK stores, and all easy enough to find. I briefly wonder if it’s blasphemous to eat KFC with a Tennessee Whiskey, and whether I ought to drip a piece of chicken through some Maplewood charcoal to be on the safe side, but unfortunately I have none of such to hand.

 Having spread out my finger-lickin’ science experiment on our garden table (got to enjoy the weather whilst it lasts!) it strikes me that a palate marker is called for. Happily I’ve a bottle of Tincup handy, a whiskey for which the spirit is made in the MGP distillery in Indiana, and then cut with ‘Rock Mountains water’. Technically it meets the specs for a high-rye bourbon, but the label simply reads ‘Colorado Whiskey.’ It’s invariably the bottle my friends comment
on, and to be fair they’ve done a cracking job on the packaging, if that’s something of interest. At about £30 in most UK stockists it’s a few quid North of the whiskies in my line-up, so makes for a good gauge of whether any punch above their weight.

I’m actually rather fond of Tincup now, and I’ll be sorry when my bottle runs dry. (Not far off, as you can see from the photo.) £28-£30 is a perfectly fair price for it – nothing wildly complex, but good caramels and vanillins and a nice balance of sweetness and spice. Has a high rye content, which of course is where the spice comes from, and its distillery of provenance, MGP, handles rye as well as anyone in the world. Not much poke of course – it’s only 42% ABV after all – but that’s not what this whiskey is about, and as an easy-sipping glass it has enough of everything to keep you interested, has a super clean nose and palate and the flavours are great. Consider this a recommendation for the money.

Having put my senses through their star-jumps and toe-touches I pick a sample at random, which turns out to be the Heaven Hill. I pour it into the glass, and am struck by a sudden thought.

There is very definitely someone Machiavellian sitting on my shoulder. Perhaps Machiavellian is too far, but certainly a little voice saying ‘go on, try this, see what happens...don’t be boring.’ Fundamentally, the little voice likes to experiment a bit. Partially with the honest and proper purpose of discovering new things and playing around, but equally because he knows it will irritate the stultified snobbos for whom whisk(e)y is not meant to involve experimentation, and certainly not (God forbid) fun. You know the sort – the kind of drudgerous bore who’ll tell people that whisk(e)y beyond Single Malt is automatically inferior and who pines for a quarantine tent around himself when tasting, to prevent the possibility of some fruit three rooms away contaminating the aromosphere.

At any rate, the little voice is muttering ‘you know how they make loads of BBQ sauce with bourbon? And you know how popcorn
chicken could fit in your glass on a fork easy peasy? See where I’m going...?’ And so the tasting becomes twofold. An assessment of the whiskey on its own, and then a test of its barbecue capabilities. One of these days the little voice is going to get me in trouble. In the meantime, if you’re reading this Jack (Rickus, not Daniel) – this one’s for you.

Back to Heaven Hill. They’re behind all sorts of American whiskeys, many of which I’m hugely fond of. Elijah Craig for example, and Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye. It’s the first time I’ve tried the Heaven Hill Bourbon itself though, and straight away there’s less to the nose than there was on the Tincup. A bit less prominent, perhaps a little drier, and with a few grainy notes beside the vanillins. Feels a little less mature. Sweetness comes on the palate - a surprising amount of sweetness actually - but without the balancing spice found in the Tincup. Ever so slightly spirity, with no real kick. It’s absolutely drinkable though, and at £20 there’s some value there. But very simple. Basically, if you’re into your Bourbons, don’t expect to find anything revolutionary here.

But the killer question: how does it fare beside the popcorn chicken? Gingerly I adorn my fork with said morsel, and with suitable gravitas and solemnity for this moment of ‘boldly going’ I dip it into the Glencairn... 

...bad news, I’m afraid. Even against the delicacy of the popcorn chicken our bourbon is lost. Perhaps a slight prickle of alcohol, but not enough to convince me that it isn’t just one of the eleven secret herbs and spices making its presence felt. ‘Will this be how it goes with all five?’ I worry. ‘Are those whiskey barbecue sauces nought but marketing hoo-hah?’

Undeterred I clean the glass and move on towards the Four Roses Yellow Label. I’ve talked about my love of this distillery before – even naming its Single Barrel range my favourite whisk(e)y(s) for under £40 a bottle. But I’ve never tried their entry-level before, and I’m slightly worried that it’ll tarnish my opinion. Happily it doesn’t. Whilst the nose is slightly fainter than Tincup, it’s still plenty vocal, and there’s a distinctive fruitiness of sweet apples that neither of the previous pours had. It’s also a silkier mouthfeel than either of the first two, with more vanilla, flavour and balance than I found on the Heaven Hill. Trace of bitterness at the death, but for £20 this is cracking.

Pessimistic after the Heaven Hill result, the popcorn chicken gauntlet is thrown down before Four Roses, and this time – yes! The fruitiness of the Yellow Label accentuates the titbit with aplomb. My shoulder Machiavelli indulges in a fist-pump. Dipping sauce success has been achieved.

Feeling buoyed I reach for the Jim Beam White Label. Despite it being the best selling bourbon in the world, and one of the few whiskies I can pretty much guarantee that all my friends have heard of, despite Mila Kunis herself attesting to its quality – I’ve actually never tried White Label before. I don’t know why. Time to rectify that.

It’s pretty basic stuff. Which isn’t to say that it’s actively unpleasant, though the grainy, spirit aspects of the Heaven Hill are back. It’s just simple. There’s not much fruit, there’s not much spice. There’s caramel, there’s vanilla...and that’s about it. Maybe a squeeze of citrus if you really strain for something else, but in all honesty why bother? That’s not what this is for. It’s mellow, it’s tasty, it does exactly what it’s meant to, and it’s cheap. If you were expecting some revelation in which it turns out to be as good as Woodford Reserve Double Oaked you’re going to be disappointed. But it’s not trying to be. And, incidentally, it’s still better than most Scotch at this price.

Having ascertained that it also falls into the Heaven Hill category of popcorn chicken unsuitability, it’s time to leave Kentucky (briefly) in the direction of the man who needs no introduction. Everyone knows Jack Daniel’s, though folk of my acquaintance are more likely to have tried it in Coke than neat. There’s a lot of online debate about whether or not it counts as bourbon, centred around the fact that the neat spirit is dripped through maple charcoal before being put in barrels, and bourbon isn’t allowed to have flavours added to it. Everyone you speak to has a different opinion, and in all honesty, having heard the arguments on both sides, I don’t much care what the exact answer is. JD themselves
insist that they aren’t bourbon, they’re ‘Tennessee Whiskey’, and they probably deserve the final word.

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone use an apologetic tone of voice when telling me they drink Jack I’d be able to buy a barrel of it. But is their contrition justified? Well, first thing’s first: biggest nose of the day. Leaps out of the glass. Unmistakeably different to the previous four too – that charcoal has certainly made its presence known, though, surprisingly, so does the rye. The result is a smoky, spicy element of which there’s actually a lot to like. 

Most prominent though is the syrupy-ness of it. Even just on the nose it smells almost gloopy with thick, sugary molasses and caramel. Once in your mouth that syrup becomes even more pronounced. This is a whiskey you practically need to masticate before you can swallow it down, and I’m half expecting it to end up stuck to my teeth. Backed up by only 40% ABV this amount of body and sweetness inevitably becomes unbalanced – it needs something cutting through it, because the rye spice found on the nose hasn’t quite carried on to the palate. Big oak/vanilla/caramel/everything you’d expect – and that’s the thing. It’s a little too much of some, with not enough of t’other. ‘Sickly’ would be harsh, but not a million miles wide of the mark. I’m still more than happy to drink it neat, mind you, but this really is designed to nail something like a Lynchburg Lemonade. Also – top tip – Jack makes a cracking alternative to Vodka in a Bloody Mary. Tried it in Bristol once, and immediately had about four more.

But Jack has a last trick up his sleeve, when the popcorn chicken test rears its head. Four Roses is blown out of the water, as Colonel Sanders’ pepper slices through Mr Daniel’s hitherto gloopiness. An unquestionable winner – if KFC did this in sachets I’d occasionally pick it ahead of their gravy. And praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

Final whiskey of the day is Buffalo Trace. Now I know this bourbon. I know the distillery. I know how good it’s going to be, and in honesty I only included it in the five because I was curious to see whether any of the other four would match up. Before I’ve even opened the sample bottle I know that Four Roses came close...but no cigar, and the other three are various distances behind. The question is, can it match the Tincup, which thus far remains the standard to beat?

Well, it’s a very different animal. When I taste Tincup, my first reaction is ‘there’s a lot of rye in this.’ Nosing Buffalo Trace I’m initially thinking: ‘Fruit. Lots of Fruit. And there’s some more fruit. Oh, what’s that coming? Yep, it’s fruit.’ Actually though, it’s a lot more complex than that, and the new oak vanilla/caramel kicks subtly in ahead of a smatter of cinnamon. That fruit’s a mixture of tropical bananas and Four Roses-esque sweet apples incidentally. The take-home is that of the five samples it’s the most nuanced, balanced and settled. There’s more going on. Though Tincup may just edge it on the nose. 

Then we move to the palate, and this is where Buffalo Trace romps home. It’s not just better than the other four – it’s better by a mile. Velvet texture, medium body, super complexity for the money. Sure, the more hard-core bourbon drinkers are likely to turn their nose up at the ABV, but if you want a bottle under £25 and can’t get your hands on a Four Roses Small Batch, this is the one for you. Even (and it pains me to say this) if Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is on a sale. 

Alas, the Buffalo Trace can’t pull off a coup de grace by transporting popcorn chicken into something greater than it already is. Nope, JD is the hands-down winner on the ‘what’s the best expensive dipping sauce?’ front. A very conclusive result. Just as conclusive is that Buffalo Trace is arguably the best bourbon you’ll find under £25 in the UK, and one of these days I’ll need to taste it next to Jameson’s to see whether it isn’t arguably the best whisk(e)y under £25 in the UK full stop.

But actually, I mused, as I tucked into my now somewhat sub-room-temperature Original Recipe and fries, the real conclusion is just how well bourbon does in this price category across the board. Sure I had my niggles about Heaven Hill and Jim Beam White and good ol’ Jack – but I’m picky. I tasted them perfectly happily, and only spat them out because I was doing that with everything. (Not the KFC, don’t worry.) I would buy – and recommend buying – all five of the whiskies by the glass, and with Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and, heck, I’ll say it, even JD I’d stretch to a bottle. Though Jack would probably end up mixed more often than not. It’s a tasting that’s made me very happy indeed, this one. Because it’s a selection of whiskies I can confidently point nearest and dearest towards, that they’ll all be able to try for themselves and, most importantly, which they will genuinely enjoy. What more can a whisky blogger ask for?

Right. Sanders has had his say. Fast forward to Thursday 1st September – it’s Pappy’s turn.

To my credit I actually got a good day of work done. Difficult, when every hour prior to Pappy becomes ‘I Don’t Care O’Clock,’ but I soldier through emails and meetings, then as soon as the metaphorical bell goes I’m away at the sort of pace of which Usain Bolt can only daydream. Not much need be said of the train from Theale to London, and even less of the John West Sardine Experience that is rush hour on the tube, but eventually the hot, smelly, sweaty tide of disgruntled commuters washes me up at St Paul’s Station, from which it is just a short amble to the Old Bailey branch of Burger & Lobster.

I’d not been to Burger & Lobster before, but some of my London friends had praised it in no uncertain terms. And I do like the way they set out their stall. No uncertainties about what you’re going to be eating here. Basically, if you’re not in the mood for the foodstuffs mentioned in the name, pick somewhere else. It rather makes me want someone to set up a café called Garlic Bread & Salt and Vinegar Crisps. Niche, perhaps, but they’d make a profit off me alone.

As is my wont I arrive disgustingly early, to find the Founding Fathers of the British Bourbon Society poring over the final details of the menu. Ed, who’d signed me up to the group in the first place, introduces me to those I don’t know, and I give him a few whisky samples I’d bottled. (Highland Park, Springbank and Kilkerran, if you’re interested. Man cannot live on Bourbon alone.) The others are already on the IPA, and there’s even a bottle of aqua vitae on the table, but after my Central Line sauna I’m badly in need of Aqua Literalae, and a bottle of sparkling disappears in nothing flat.

As other members of the BBS gradually drift in, our collective eyes are drawn to the shelf in front of which industrious bar staff are working their alchemy. And there they are. In front of the Sazeracs and the Maker’s Marks. In front of the Laphroaigs and the Yamazakis. In front of the Redbreasts and the Yellow Spots. Almost casually – as if this were a regular sight in Burger & Lobster – the line of bottles for which we have all assembled. It’s not the first time I’ve clapped eyes on Van Winkle in the wild. But this is different. These bottles are all full and unopened. More importantly, these bottles contain liquid which I, who two days ago was dunking popcorn chicken into Jim Beam White Label, am going to pour down my heathen throat.

Having not been to a BBS tasting before I’ve not met anyone other than Andrew and Ed outside of the digital sphere. Amidst the wagging of chins, with pauses for mandatory photos (I’m here ‘on duty’, after all) it turns out that two of those assembled are fellow Reading-ers. They’ve even read my blog, bless ‘em, courtesy of Edible Reading’s re-tweet of my Purple Turtle experience. Obviously much of the conversation runs along the ‘have you tasted it before? How much are you looking forward to this?’ lines, but one hotly discussed subject (somewhat ironically) is the giant block of ice on top of the bar. I don’t know exactly how big it was, but it would give the Titanic a wobble or two. 

Eventually all 28 revellers are in attendance, and we’re summoned to two long tables at the end of the restaurant. We’re next to the kitchen, in which a Lobster apocalypse is presumably taking place, along with top-level burger mixology. Naturally eyes flick to the pass fairly often, whenever heaped plates of steaming goodness appear, but for the most part we’re engaged in getting to know our fellow BBS members. I’ve taken up tactical position at the end of the table, partially for ease of getting up and down, and partially to reduce the number of people whose glasses of Pappy 23 I can cack-handedly knock over by accident.

After we’ve been seated a short while, the purpose of the ice behemoth becomes clear, as Old Fashioneds are brought to the table, garnished with hacked-off lumps from the ‘mother block.’ This being a Van Winkle tasting, we’re talking Old Fashioneds crafted from Old Rip 10. It’s not quite the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever had – but I drink a lot of Old Fashioneds. And it’s definitely top tier. And it goes without saying that I can’t comment on what happened to the single surplus cocktail that arrived at our end of the table. And nor can the three people sitting in my immediate vicinity.

What of the food? Well, it’s unfair to compare it to Tuesday’s repast. Burger & Lobster don’t have eleven secret herbs and spices, for starters. So let’s just say that as food over which the Big Brother-like visage of the Colonel does not preside goes, it was very tasty tuck indeed. To begin there was the ‘Half Seven Samurai Lobster Roll,’ which was described as ‘chilled lobster meat in a toasted French style brioche bun, mixed Japanese mayonnaise & Tograshi dressing, Chinese cabbage, cucumber topped with pink pickle ginger.’ All I can say was that I absolutely loved my Three-and-a-Half Samurai roll. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted bread better than that Brioche, and given I normally avoid mayonnaise like I avoid tee-totalism I was shocked at how well the Japanese article went down. Heady fare for a man whose perennial lunch diet is a Sainsbury’s soup.

Whilst the plates were being cleared, another waitress came round the table and asked us all four questions:

1. How would you like your burger cooked?
2. Do you want bacon and cheese with your burger?
3. Would you like your lobster grilled or steamed?
4. Would you like IPA or Pilsner?

These are good questions. These are questions you want – nay, deserve – to hear every so often. Now I don’t eat lobster more than once or twice in a lifetime, so when it came to question three I repressed the urge to say ‘Kentucky Fried, please,’ and opted for grilled on the basis that – as another gourmand pointed out – everything tastes better for a bit of fire.

I sip my Pilsner somewhat tentatively – I’ll never be a beer person, alas – and eventually the heaped platters are plonked upon the groaning tables. Look, I’m not a food critic, and I’m certainly not a restaurant critic. I’ll just say this: it was a massive burger. And a whole lobster. And fries. Look at the picture and tell me how you think it was. And you’d be wrong – it was twice as good as that, and I could have done another plateful without breaking a sweat.

‘Enough,’ I hear you cry. ‘Cease your bragging and your prattle, Wells. You promised us Pappy, and you’ve rambled on nearly 5000 words without so much as cracking a bottle.’ Well, alright. You’ve waited long enough. In fact the bottles were cracked open during the break-in-play between courses, kindly brought to the tables so that BBS members could do the honours. I was given the Family Reserve Rye to draw the cork on, and I was slightly worried that I’d break it, or smash the bottle, but happily no such mishap befell. As soon as the cork was extracted, and before I could even take a judicious sniff, the bottle was whisked away.

It was to be a blind tasting, and having not sampled a single Van Winkle before, that notion had been preying on my mind slightly. Of course it was perfect from the point of view of writing honest and uninfluenced notes, but I was a little nervous about the prospect of taking a swipe at which was which. Surrounded by hardened Winkle-ers, who I imagined could tell their 10 from their 12 from a hundred yards in a force nine gale, what if I didn’t get any? The fact that there was an extra ‘mystery bourbon’ thrown into the mix didn’t help matters. ‘What if I make a colossal prat of myself?’ I worried. 'What if they’ve thrown in JD as the mystery pour just to play silly buggers, and I don’t recognise it popcorn-chicken-lessly and stick it down as Pappy 23? What if I don’t pick out the Rye from the wheaters? What if masked gunmen come and shoot me? And then correctly guess all seven and laugh at my corpse?'

But it is too late for such (legitimate) tremulousness. The placemats have been...placed, and the glasses are being brought, until, after a few minutes, I have before me the entire Van Winkle Range. And something else. The little blue tasting notes book, which is my phone’s constant pocket companion, is ready for action. There is nothing left to do but Pap.

I don’t do a huge amount of talking over my first round of tastes, trying as hard as I can not to be influenced by the comments of those around me. Having not tasted any of them previously is actually rather handy at this point, because it means I can do my scribbling uninhibited by thoughts like: ‘do I know this? Have I tasted this before? Do I think this one’s the 15?’

Once I’ve done my notes, with the title gaps left to be filled in once the big reveal takes place I can relax a little and hypothesise with the others on what we think each one might be. We’re in no doubt as to the identity of the rye, but the others all throw up questions. I’m obviously only going on booze level and how mature I think each one is, but Jordan across from me owns a bottle of the 20, and Adam to his left has previously tasted the lot. 

There’s one sample which is causing me particular difficulty. It’s by far the booziest on the palate – to the point where a lot of the flavour is overwhelmed by alcohol. Now I know that Pappy 15 is the strongest of the Van Winkle lineup, but it’s 'only' 53.5% ABV, and whatever this is tastes far north of that – I’ve tasted less poky A’Bunadhs. I know how fond the Founding Fathers of the BBS are of cask strength clobber, so I decide they’ve probably done something along those lines as the mystery pour and I jot my answer down accordingly. 

We’re also asked to rate the bourbons out of ten so the chaps can ascertain which is the Society’s favourite. Before you ask: no, this hasn’t turned me into a scorer. Yes, it was all done relatively – the one I gave five out of ten is a far better than five-out-of-ten whiskey. And yes, I gave one of the whiskies full marks. 

My pen is at the ready to fill in the titles as Ed gets to his feet for the reveal. Guess what? The one I thought was either the 15 or the mystery pour, and wrote down as the mystery pour...was the 15. Typical, right? I also got the 20 and the 23 arse-about-face, which I reckon is forgivable given I’d tried neither before, and plenty of other people did the same. Most importantly, I got the rye right. Thank Christ for that. As it turned out, the mystery pour was what’s known as ‘Poor Man’s Pappy.’ A slightly incongruous name, as it's a blend of W.L.Weller 12yo with Old Weller Antique. Basically it’s the same mash bill as Pappy, and these days the booze comes from the same distillery. Which makes it a pretty brutal ‘mystery pour’ to throw into the mix!

So. The question I’m sure many of you are asking, if you’ve managed to make it this far: Are they worth the hype?

Well, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 punches well above its weight. I put it down as the 15, partially because the booze is a little poky (hasn’t had as long to integrate, after all) but also because there are genuinely some mature notes within both bouquet and palate which complement the sweeter wood extracts. Whether you can find this for sale is another question, and there’s probably a silly Secondary Market price attached to the ‘Van Winkle’ name, but you’ve a good chance of finding this at a decent whisk(e)y bar, and if you do, try it. It’s good.

The 12 is a little simpler. This was immediately next to the 10, so I was able to taste them in direct succession, and I preferred the 10. That said, it’s an astonishingly clean pour, not a trace of feint or fault, and the flavours are clear and very, very delicious. On balance, I’ll stick to my Elijah Craig 12, at a more reasonable £35 a bottle, but this stuff’s still cracking. Try it if you get the chance – after all, you may disagree with me. (I'll allow it.)

The Family Reserve Rye 13yo is weird, but in a terrific way. Now I haven’t had a great deal of Ryes with that sort of maturity, granted, but some of the flavours coming out of that glass were things I’d never found on a whisk(e)y previously. Some – dried fruits, cloves – I’d associate more with a sherry-matured Scotch. The rye grain itself was far more revealing on the palate, and that’s where things got a little spicier. Very woody and dry. It’s worth noting that it seems to extract colour and wood flavour more quickly than the wheated VW’s when you take colour and depth of maturity into account. Not my favourite of the evening – but that’s hardly an insult. I’m proud to say I opened this bottle!

Pappy 15 was my least favourite of the evening. I’d still never turn a glass down in a million years, but it lacks the balance that’s so marked across the rest of the range – including the ‘Poor Man’s Pappy’. I don’t want to sound broken-record, because I’ve said this so many times before, but I do think some drinkers get hung up on ABV being the be all and end all. It clearly isn’t. If they dropped the strength of this to the level of the 20 and 23 it might well be the best of the lot. As it is, you taste it knowing that elements are being lost to the burn. As I say though – still gorgeous. There’s a meatiness I didn’t find in the others, the nose is seriously complex and there’s a hell of a lot to love.

Pappy 20 screamed Walnuts on the nose. I might have got the 20 and 23 the wrong way round, but there was no mistaking the jump in maturity from the rest of the samples. There’s just a new order of complexity, and that balance really does reach its apogee. The sweeter wheat elements are entirely matched by a dollop of rancio not found in the younger expressions, whilst things like leather arm-wrestle the cashew and marzipan with neither givng ground. This is actually quite fresh on the palate – so why I put it down as 23 rather than 20 I’ve no idea. Don’t listen to my own notes, clearly. Anyway, bottom line – it’s as good as they say it is.

But my favourite - written down as such before I’d discovered its identity - and without question the best bourbon ever to pass my lips, was the Pappy Van Winkle 23. It is astonishingly perfumed. It is bang on the line of having taken exactly the right amount out of the wood in which it aged, without tipping over into excessively tannic. It has those truffley rancio notes, it has deep, sweet chocolate, it has fruit and nuts and rich caramel. It has a thousand things besides which you’d be an idiot to try and pin down, because you couldn’t, and you’d miss the glorious harmony of the whole, like someone listening to an orchestra and straining to concentrate on only the flutes. I am so glad I didn’t know its identity when I tasted it. It allowed the liquid to speak ahead of the label. And what it spoke was divine. 

‘Poor Man’s Pappy’ (apparently these ‘poor men’ are better off than me) is very good. This one had been marrying for a few weeks beforehand in its bottle. It’s billed as 'just like the 15', but I actually prefer it, as it holds its ABV better. It’s also a sweeter style – doesn’t have the savoury balance and complexity of the 20 and 23, nor the mad, flavour-packed brilliance of the rye. This is more familiar territory (to me at least and, I suspect, to most.) In terms of ‘Pappy’ at home, this is likely to cost you the least. Though those Wellers aren’t exactly easy to come by either.

I’m afraid I lacked the prescience of mind to nip into a KFC en route, so the ability of the Van Winkles as dipping sauces for popcorn chicken remains shrouded in mystery. For now.

Ed summoned me to the bar shortly afterwards, where there was one more surprise in store. It was a Blanton’s that had been bottled
in 1991 for the Japanese market. I love tasting these other-generation whiskeys. They’re not necessarily always better than the stuff we drink today, as some people claim, but they are always markedly different. This one was dryer than modern Blantons, and utterly stupendous, but I sadly didn’t have time to savour it, as I needed to dash back to Paddington for the last quick train back to Reading. (If you miss it the journey takes an hour and is hell.)

Dash was the operative word, as sprints through dark London streets ensued, both to St Paul’s Station, and then from Lancaster Gate to Paddington. Glad I hadn’t drunk anything beyond a third of a glass of Pilsner on top of the whiskeys I burst into the last quick train at Paddington with all of two minutes to spare, and flopped into a seat. I still had the book I’d been reading on the journey to London, but I used this train-ride, and the subsequent taxi from Reading station to my house, for reflection on the evening and on Tuesday’s events.

Why do people like me chase these unicorn whiskeys? These insane, storied bottles with their monstrous prices and praises sung with such monumental adulation that surely nothing can live up to them? Why do we do it, when, to be crude, it all ends up going the same way, when the experience is so fleeting, and when there are so many worthier ways of spending money?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else. But I do it for the same reason the passionate rugby fan follows England to Australia for a test series. For the same reason the petrol-head buys the track-day in a Ferrari, or the climbing enthusiast treks to Everest’s base camp. And just as they know that they will never pull on the rose, that they will drive home from their track day in their two-door hatchback and that the summit will always be beyond their grasp, I know that my tasting of the Van Winkle lineup was just a moment. An extraordinary moment, almost certainly never to be repeated. But we do it because we believe that that moment, if we are concentrating, and if we fill it to its fullest, will be with us forever. That we will have done something which, left undone, would have been noted as a missing page in the book of our lives. A chance lost to Walk with our adopted Kings.

The Pappy Van Winkle range deserves its reputation. Albeit the suggestion that every single one is unfaultable is a ridiculous fallacy. But if this week proved anything, it was the depth, versatility and greatness of American whiskey across the spectrum of price. If you were hoping for a Cinderella moment in which Four Roses Yellow Label is revealed as the equal of Pappy 23, then you’re to be disappointed. Of course it isn’t. It isn’t the equal of any of the Pappy Range. But I stand by my statement that I would buy a bottle of it, and I assert just as firmly that I’ll never buy a bottle of Pappy. I love Four Roses Yellow, and I love Buffalo Trace, and I love Tincup. And not in some condescending ‘oh bless them,’ sort of way, but because they too are made - and taste - of the stuff of greatness. 

We whiskey disciples loudly trumpet the praises of the tiny-batch and the ancient-age and the ultra-luxurious. We should be just as loud in trumpeting those of whiskies which deliver, truly deliver, at prices we can all afford. All whisk(e)y cannot be all things to all people. But I believe all whiskies can be something to someone. That there is as little point snubbing the more commonplace as there is looking up at the seemingly unobtainable and telling yourself how sour those grapes must be. It is only by embracing both crowds and kings that you can enjoy whisk(e)y in its dizzying totality. The reverence as much as the fun. The experimentation as much as the dependability. As for me, I'm here for the lot. The messing about as much as the studious note-making. The flaships as much as the unicorns. I hope that will always be the case.

Which was why, when the taxi finally dropped me off, the dram I
ended the night with on the evening I met Van Winkle was the last of that Tincup Colorado Whiskey. And I couldn’t have gone to bed happier.

On which note, it’s time to wrap things up. The Corsa is ready and waiting outside...and so are the Highlands. It’s been a long write-up. It’s time for a long drive.


Huge thanks to The British Bourbon Society for the dinner and the group photo. Their website can be found below, and I recommend it thoroughly. Thanks also to Burger & Lobster for an amazing night, and thanks to the Earley branch of KFC!

1 comment:

  1. For the person with a sweet tooth
    Sweeter drinks are more likely to contain some kind of syrup or fruit juice, without any of the bitter liqueurs

    Strawberry daquiri: White rum, syrup, lime juice, and strawberry puree

    Tequila sunrise: Tequila, orange juice, grenadine

    Hurricane: Rum, lemon juice, passion fruit syrup