Left at the Fork

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Our First, and Last, Taste of Pappy Van Winkle

We both enjoy bourbon more than the average casual drinker, but we are not geeks about the corn whiskey. We currently have, sitting in our liquor cabinet, bottles of Jim Beam, an artisan bourbon called Angel’s Envy, and a blue corn bourbon which we picked up at the distillery in New Mexico. We usually have a bottle of Maker’s Mark around the house as well. We even have some wretched tasting “white dog,” made in New York, which is clear, unaged corn whiskey. Sounds like we’re really drinkers, doesn’t it, but those bottles will last years.

One thing we don’t have, and had never tasted, is the legendary and elusive Pappy Van Winkle. In fact, we’d never even seen it. We’d heard the stories for long enough to know it as a “big thing” but, at $50, 60, 70 or more per pour, not per bottle, in bars, there was no way we were ever going to have a taste.

Then we found ourselves staying on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, across from Cincinnati. We were there primarily to spend time in the city across the river – we were close enough that we actually walked across a bridge over the Ohio to the Great American Ball Park one night. But it was also interesting that, although we were within walking distance of Cincinnati, we were still clearly in Kentucky. While there were Cincy chili joints in the area, the region’s restaurants clearly exhibited more Bluegrass State character than we’d expected.

We’d planned to go to a Kentucky restaurant in Fort Mitchell, the Greyhound Tavern, for their Monday and Tuesday fried chicken dinners. In checking out the online menu, we saw that they’d also posted a bourbon menu, with prices. And there were the Pappys, all of them, from the 10 to the 23-year-old versions, at we-can-do-this-once prices.

Which one to try? The 10 and 12-year-old whiskeys, while often referred to as Pappy Van Winkle, are really labelled Old Rip Van Winkle. Old Rip Van Winkle is the name of the distillery (the brand is actually distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery). While they are both supposed to be fine whiskeys, if we were going to have one chance to sample a Pappy, we were going to really sample a Pappy.

Everything we’d read indicated that the differences between the 15, 20, and 23 year bourbons were all a matter of taste, and people seemed to generally prefer the 15. As it was also the least expensive of the three, at only $25 a pour, that would be our pick. When we arrived at the restaurant and took our seats at the bar, the first thing we noticed was the bourbon menu. As we could have guessed, the online prices were out of date. The 15-year Pappy was now $30. Still a relative bargain (in the NYC area, pours of the 15 generally start at about $40 and, depending on the restaurant, could go as high as $80).

We got our Pappy, and dropped a small ice cube into the tawny liquid. This may seem like blasphemy to some, but at 107 proof we thought it was the right thing to do if we wanted to really taste what the whiskey had to offer rather than alcohol heat. Some waitresses gathered at the corner of the bar watching us in awe and whispering to each other. One of them asked what it tasted like. She wanted to know – was it super-smooth?

The first thing we noticed about the nose and the first taste was how tame the alcohol burn was, even at 107. As Colonel Potter once said about a treasured whiskey he shared with Gwen Verdon, “Not enough O’s in smooooooth to describe this.” The flavor? Imagine a top-quality English toffee with most of the sugar-sweetness removed, and add in just a touch of tobacco.

Was it worth the $30? To us, for one time only, sure. If you have the kind of dough such that a $30 drink means nothing, then why not? But we always think of those blind wine tastings where, even among wine experts, whites and reds can be confused if served at the same temperature. In other words, when it comes to alcoholic beverages, most of what you taste is in your head. Then again, the same could be said about most of life’s experiences. If it makes you happy, although it might only be a delusion, so what?

We enjoyed our brush with Pappy. Know what we enjoyed even more? The fried chicken, gravy, and long-cooked green beans that followed.

12 Comments

  1. I too went to the Greyhound Tavern. While I was tempted to get the Pappy…..I saw they had the VERY elusive Kentucky Owl for only $25 a pour. IT was well worth it. Probably one of the best bourbons I’ve ever had.

  2. Two things spring to mind:
    1. $30 is a steal for Pappy 15
    2. You put ice in Pappy 15.

  3. You are obviously not a whiskey fanatic. Poor review. Please stick to reviewing fried foods.

  4. I jumped off the Pappy Waiting Wagon years ago. My wife and I love good bourbon. We we’re first introduced to Pappy 10-12 years ago after reading an article in Garden & Gun about 4 great bourbons. I drove to my local big box liquor store and bought a bottle for around $79…. And at the time, a splurge. It was worth it though. No more!!! If you can find it around here, the 10 yr starts at $499 per bottle. 15 yr is $699. There are too damn many good bourbons out there to plunk down that kind of money. I’m done with them.

    • Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle

      November 7, 2018 at 11:45 pm

      Hi Jeff – $500? $600? $700 or more? Those prices mean you’re no longer paying for any theoretical quality. It’s now rock star bourbon.

    • If someone is charging $499, $599+ the I don’t recommend shopping from them. They are severely price gouging their customers. They really only cost under $100 each.

  5. +1 to that. If you highlight jim beam,makers, and swill from NM as your got too for bourbon you should never write a whiskey review. Complete garbage.

    • Bruce Bilmes and Susan Boyle

      November 18, 2018 at 12:14 am

      Thing is, David, we did not write a review of Pappy. Nor are we qualified to do so. We are dilettantes and made that plain from the top of our story. If you are reading Left at the Fork for an expert opinion on Pappy Van Winkle, you are in the wrong place.

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