Van Winkle is one of the most famous names in the American bourbon whiskey industry. The Van Winkle family have been involved since 1893 when Julian Van Winkle, nicknamed Pappy by family and friends, began working as a salesman for the W. L. Weller & Sons bourbon company. He eventually purchased the Weller distillery and renamed it as the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. Pappy remained in control until his death at the age of 91 in 1965. Control was passed to his son, Julian Jr, and later to his son, Julian III, who remains in charge with the assistance of his son, Preston.
Van Winkle whiskey has been made at the Buffalo Trace distillery since 2002. They follow the traditional Van Winkle family recipe that have been handed down through the generations. Buffalo Trace is the most northern distillery in the famous whiskey producing state of Kentucky. The name originates from the 'Great Buffalo Trace', an ancient path (or trace) used by migrating buffalo - this stretches across North America and along the banks of the Kentucky River. The early settlers followed this path and set up a community in the late 1700s and Buffalo Trace has been operating on the same site since 1812.
All Van Winkle whiskey is made using a unique recipe using corn, wheat and barley (compared to the more widely used bourbon recipe of corn, rye and barley). The Family Reserve range is a selection of older whiskies - this 15 years old, a 20 and a 23 years old and a 13 years old rye whiskey. It is rare to find older bourbons compared to Scottish or Irish whiskies of the same age. This is because the climate is more humid in America than in Scotland and Ireland, so the maturation process is faster. They are also matured in new fresh casks by law and more intense natural oils are drawn from these casks. This 15 years old is bottled at 53.5% ABV (107 proof) and will cost around £65 a bottle in the UK from specialist retailers.
This Family Reserve 15 years old is dark orange amber in colour with a gorgeously intense nose. There is a lot of vanilla and oak, with some distinct sweetness (think of golden syrup or caramel) and nuttiness (imagine almonds and coconut). A vivid scent of oranges comes through (think of candied peel), as does a waxy furniture polish aroma (sounds strange but its true!). On the palate this is rich, velvety and smooth with a heap of woody oak and vanilla up front. Through this comes a lovely combination of spices (think of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg), dried intense citrus (imagine that candied orange peel again or marmalade), roasted nuts (almonds, especially), just a hint of liquorice and something slightly dark and bitter (think of a dark powdered cocoa). The finish is long and spicy with the warm wood spices especially prominent (nutmeg and cinnamon). Even though this whiskey is very balanced, we decided to add water due to the alcoholic strength - this made it sweeter (imagine more caramel and honey coming through) and fruitier (imagine some sultanas joining the orange and cinnamon from before). An excellent example of a bourbon whiskey.