Monday, July 14, 2014

And Then There Was a Van Winkle Bourbon Barrel Box and It Was the Best Box Ever Made

The video above is mostly just a well-made video you can enjoy for what it is. Heritage Handcrafted does interesting things with used bourbon barrels, including this project with the Van Winkles. Pappy & Company is an outfit run by Pappy Van Winkle's great-granddaughters, who happen to be triplets. It sells everything Van Winkle except the whiskey, which is still the province of their father and brother.

The distillery shown in the video is Buffalo Trace, of course. There is no Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. The Van Winkle whiskeys are a collaboration between the Van Winkles and Buffalo Trace.

The phenomenon that is the Great American Whiskey Revival of the Early 21st Century has spawned many sub-phenomena, of which Van Winkle mania may be both the silliest and most profound. The Van Winkle whiskeys are very good but their supposed exceptionalism is exaggerated to an extreme. Still, with retailers and illegal resellers doubling and tripling (and more) the suggested retail price of the Van Winkle whiskeys, and acting like they're doing you a favor, at least this is the family trying to feed the beast in a tasteful way.

Credit where credit is due.

The other day, on a bourbon web site, a self-identified bourbon beginner was using a smart phone app that prompted him to ask a vague question about Pappy 23, like "is it really all that great?" How to answer? Bourbon should be enjoyed and people may enjoy it however they choose, but even if you can afford a Ferrari, you probably shouldn't take your driving lessons in one. "Why not start with the best?" is the usual counterargument, but if what you've learned so far about bourbon is that Pappy is the best, then what you've learned is not useful.

It's not that something else is the best, it is that the early lesson you should have received is that 'best' is a false and destructive standard. The essence of the bourbon hobby is experience. When you buy a new video game, do you also buy a cheat book so you can rush to the end? Maybe you do. In both cases, you've only cheated yourself.

The unintentional humor in the video is how everybody throws back Pappy 23 like it's an everyday thing, and I suppose if your name is Van Winkle it can be. Mazel tov. Just like how it's on offer at every dive bar in "Justified." It's an inside joke, but a bitter one for the average bourbon drinker who would just like to try the stuff. Here, though, the human brain is very accommodating. If you move heaven and earth to get a taste of Van Winkle, expecting it to be nectar of the gods, it probably will oblige.

To that end, every Wednesday at Twisted Spoke here in Chicago is Whiskey Wednesday, and all whiskey is half-price, including Van Winkle. (Note: at the moment, the Spoke's website is being renovated, so you might want to call first.)


DMcG said...

Very interesting, Chuck. I suppose its like any hobby, really, in that people get intrigued or interested in something and they want what they think is the "ultimate" experience right away. I think we've all dabbled in certain hobbies and not all "stick" and therefore you get many folks in it for a taste, pun intended. Regarding the box. Is it a stand alone product or does it only come with glassware AND booze? Looks nice anyways!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for another thoughtful and precise dialogue. I totally agree that the experience is the focus--some nites I want to have a pappy nite and will have an ounce or so...Other nites I want a little more zing and will have a Willett rye...Both are excellent bourbons at separate ends of the spectrum and neither is better than the other. To be able to enjoy both is the pleasure...and i also like to pour a Talisker or Lagavulin on occasion be able to enjoy the pour should be the point..Again thanks for your insight

Alex said...

Like many things, it's more about the journey. Whether Van Winkle bourbons are the best, you certainly won't appreciate them if you've never had anything before--they're either going to taste too strong, or they're going to just taste like "bourbon" and you'll never remember how it actually tastes. But once you have several other reference flavors under your belt, including being able to taste some nuances (and once you can sip bourbon without a mixer other than water), you'll know where a new one falls on the spectrum of your previous experiences.

The more you've tasted, the more you'll recognize any "best" bourbon as being more appealing to you than anything else you've ever tasted--if you've only tasted a few other bourbons before, you'll be under-prepared to find your favorite (the "best").

Chuck Cowdery said...

Great point. Tasting Van Winkle with nothing to compare it to is an empty experience.