by John Q. Adams III
In 1893 at the age of eighteen, Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. started working as a salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons wholesale in Louisville, KY.
In 1908 he, along with Alex Farnsley (a fellow Weller salesman) , bought Weller & Sons.
In 1910 they acquired the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery which made bourbon for Weller. The two merged to become the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
From 1920 to 1933 (during prohibition,) Stitzel-Weller was one of six distilleries licensed by the government to produce whiskey for "medicinal purposes."
On May 4, 1935 (Kentucky Derby Day) the Stitzel-Weller plant was opened. Their major brands were W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still.
In 1972 the Van Winkle family sold the distillery and it was eventually closed 1992. Since that time, a very limited amount of bourbon has been sitting in stainless steel tanks. It is bottled in 15, 20 and 23 year expressions and released only once or twice a year.
In June 2002, Julian P. Van Winkle, III (Pappy's grandson) and his son Preston entered into a partnership with Buffalo Trace Distillery to produce the Van Winkle line of bourbons.
PVW 15 is 107 proof and is a wheated bourbon which means that the main ingredient is corn and the second grain is wheat (as opposed to rye) with malted barley making up the rest of the mash bill. (Other wheated bourbons include Maker's Mark, Old Fitzgerald, and W. L./Old Weller, and Rebel Yell.) It is my understanding that any bottle with Pappy’s picture on it is whiskey that was distilled at Stitzel-Weller (not Buffalo Trace) which means when you drink this, you get a taste of history.
This is a spectacular whiskey and one of my personal favorites. I share this with you because all reports seem to indicate it will soon be gone from the shelves and if you enjoy great bourbon, this may very well be your last opportunity to get it at a fairly reasonable price. The taste of PVW 15 has been described as (among others) buttery, vanilla, caramel, toffee, & maple with a finish that is sweet, balanced and smacks of oak. I would agree that it is a complex drink that, if savored, does reward you accordingly.
For those of you who concern yourself with ratings, the Beverage Tasting Institute rated the PVW 15 at 98 points (Superlative) in Feb. 2004. (Similarly, the BTI gave the PVW 20 a score of 99 in January 2008.) It generally sells for between $50 and $100 and if you can find it at the low end, you owe it to yourself to buy all that your budget allows. To quote a friend of mine: "It will never be cheaper than it is today."
My sources tell me that there may be one final release of PVW 15 in the spring of 2011 so this could be the last time you'll see it on the shelves (reportedly to be "replaced" by Old Rip Van Winkle 15 year 107 proof, perhaps due in November 2011?...). Of course, you may still find it as a "dusty" bottle (something discontinued but remaining on the shelves of stores where discerning patrons don't know better, wink, wink) but chances on that are shaky. The name alone makes PVW 15 an automatic grab for most folks and a February 25, 2011 CNN piece seems to agree with me regarding availability. And note that after the 15 year disappears, it is only a matter of time before the 20 year disappears as well. Consider yourselves duly warned.
That said, I leave you with Pappy's motto:
We make fine bourbon.
At a profit if we can,
at a loss if we must,