Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wheaters Part 2: Van Winkle and Air, a Blinded Comparison

Most of what is written about whiskey and exposure to oxygen revolves around the rate at which it spoils when exposed to air. "Finish off the bottle quickly once it's below 1/4 full," we are told, because it goes downhill fast from there.

In my experience, this has certainly been true of peated scotch, which makes sense as peat phenols are "antioxidants;" the phenols more readily react with oxygen, sparing the rest of the compounds in the whiskey at their own expense. Over time exposed to air (and indeed even exposed to air in the maturing cask), peat flavors diminish. I have also found a reduction in complexity in older American whiskeys, like George T. Stagg and some older ryes. Here, I think it likely that many of the volatile compounds that contribute to pleasant aroma on first opening simply evaporate away with repeated air exposure.

However, I have not found the evolution of bourbons when exposed to oxygen to be universally negative. In particular, I have found that wheated bourbons tend to improve over time. When first opened, I have tended to find Weller 12, a previous Van Winkle Lot B and ORVW to be pleasant, but a bit simple. As the bottle journeys toward empty (usually in my case over several months) I find that I enjoy it more and more. I have even gone so far as to split new bottles of wheater into two 750ml bottles to accelerate the process. I can't help but think that this is due to oxidation reactions, but it could be many other factors (my palate, light, phases of the moon etc.)

To be empirical, I planned ahead this time. When I opened  my latest Lot B (AKA Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year-old bourbon), I immediately stored 200ml in a sealed bottle with almost no airspace and happily drank the remainder for a little over 2 months until there was only about 200ml left. I then sadly put both bottles away in dark cupboard until today. They have been in the same environment with respect to temperature, light, humidity, etc. In order to be as circumspect as possible, I will be tasting these blind. I have poured 20g of bourbon each into identical Glencairn glasses, randomized after being placed on identical coasters, marked on the bottom. I will be tasting them sequentially, cleansing the palate with filtered water and 2 wheat crackers before each dram. No difference in color was noted, so no precautions against unblinding by color were taken.

Glass 1

Nose is medium intensity: Faint citrus and stronger wood and caramel and vanilla notes, along with dulce de leche and acetone/aldehydes, also a fainter nutty note and hint of pine. Pleasant, but not aggressive. The palate is unmistakably "wheater", with caramel, citrus, milk chocolate, integrated oak and very well-tamed alcohol. There is a slight bitterness here that distracts. The end-palate and finish start with a pleasant baked-goods flavor (almond croissants, white bread); this trails on for about a minute leaving a very faint herbal note along with a small amount, again, of bitterness.

Overall, this is pleasant, but I would not $60 for it again, nor do I even prefer it to Weller 12.

Glass 2

The nose here is more intense, with more prominent caramel and vanilla; these seem "sweeter" and more in balance with the acetone. I prefer this nose: it is a preview of the PVW 15 nose, in many respects. The palate is again sweeter with apparently bigger body and less burn. I'm here getting less complexity, but it is more pleasant. Mainly primary wheat/caramel/vanilla notes, but none of the previous bitterness. The finish is without burn and otherwise very similar.


I prefer Glass 2. It is a bit more "primary," but the complexity of Glass one was due partially to flavors I found unpleasant. Mainly, glass 1 was bitter, and glass 2 was not. The nose on Glass 2 was also notably more intense. Even after letting them both sit out for 15 minutes, the findings are the same. The differences are not night-and-day, but they are significant. I still don't think Glass 2 is worth $60, but it is closer. I prefer ORVW 10/107 and Weller 12 to both glasses.

So, which was which? Glass 2 was without air! Hm. I expected differently. Perhaps I have been mistaking complexity for pleasure, or maybe it is mood-dependent, but in any case I today prefer the fresh Lot B. I guess its time to finish these off!

Next: Wheaters Part 3: Battle of the 12 year-olds (Weller, Van Winkle, and Old Fitz)


  1. Ryan:

    Awesome approach man! Your reviews are a fresh look compared to the same ol' same ol' that other bloggers routinely do. I completly understand how the nose on the "fresh" pour was more pronounced. I have always had my doubts that the Lot B was worth the hype, espcially considering it's 3x the price of the Weller 12. I admit, that I have 2 bottles of the Lot B from consecutive years in the pantry, unopened (only because I am still working on a Pappy 20). I am curious how Julian decides which barrels make up the Lot B? I am assuming they are simply the honey barrels from the Weller 12 stock? I would really like to get my hands on a Old Rip 10/107, but unfortunatly I am only allocated 1 bottle per year and I alternate between Pappy 15 and Pappy 20. I guess my stash of age stated Antique Weller 7/107 will have to suffice.

    You mentioned how your GTS profile starts to diminish with time, funny though, i think just the opposite. I am working on a 2009 GTS and at first pour, the alcohol could have burned off all of my taste buds. Now (9 months later),that I am down to 2/3 to 1/2 bottle, it is truly the best bourbon I have ever smelled/tasted. It is so complex, I don't see how the FR SB 2012 (that everyone raves about along with the Band Wagon bourbon drinkers)could even comapre!? I have not been able to locate it yet, but I am very familiar with the profile of the FR SB (very very floral and EASY to sip).

    Anyways, looking forward to your next review. I am on a business trip in Louisiana now, trying to find some rare "stuff". I located a Hirsch 16 year for $499 (I don't think so!) and a lifetime supply of the 2012 BT Antique Thomas Handy. They have pleny of bottles of the 84 proof Makers. Do you think it's worth picking up for "shits and giggles"? I was told that none made it to Texas, my home state.
    Also, I saw a 22 and 28 year Hirsh?!? I have never heard of either..


  2. Hi Josh,
    Thanks for the great feedback. For the GTS, I think the 2009 was special compared to the 2012, which I still like very, very much. I think, generally, that GTS beats all but Pappy 15 and Hirsch 16 for American Whiskey. I actually skipped the 2012 FRSB, though I did get the SmB; some of their barrel-proof stuff is really nice and more complex/powerful than the standard SB (2011 SM LE and barrel-strength OBSK come to mind).

    As for your trip, the Makers 84 is apparently not that scarce (Dave Driscoll at K&L wrote about it today and is selling it for $5), but if I were in front of it, it might have shits and giggles appeal.

    If the Hirsch 22 you mentioned is the H22 rye, I would buy it without reservation. It is the Medley-distilled rye that comprised the awesome Hirsch 13 rye and that goes into VWFRR. Better/similar to Vintage Rye 21/23. My second post on the blog discusses it. I paid 120 each for a 21 and 22 and think that while high, it is worth it for incredible whiskey from a closed distillery.

    28 year Hirsch is said to be very woody and is usually near $400; I've not had it either- for that I'd just go all the way to the H16, which is truly awesome (though stupidly overpriced).

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Ryan,

    I "misspoke" (Roger Clemens coined term) about the Hirsch. It is actually a 25 Year Rye, not a 22 Year Rye. They are asking $199. Any knowledge of the source of this whiskey?

    After reading David's article about the MM 84, I am going to pass. But then again it's only $24. We will see if it makes the suitcase on Friday morning...

    I have never tried the Hirsh 16, mainly because the price tag for a bottle is $499 or a pour at a bourbon bar in the French Quarter was $95, please explain why this is such a great whiskey and is there another whiskey to even compare it to?


  4. (left you a comment on your Taketsuru review, btw, and thanks for that)

    H25 is, I am told, from the same stock of Medley rye as the H22 and (and BMH 23 for that matter). I have not had it. As the 22/23 is on the verge of being overoaked (for my palate), I would be careful depending on how much you like oak.

    Hirsch 16 is famous as the last bourbon made at the original Michter's distillery in Pennsylvania (unlike all current Michter's products). It is a great example of an extra-aged bourbon and is in the same class as GTS or Pappy 20/23 in my book. I like it just a bit better as is combines the best qualities of both (smoothness and desert-like barrel character along with rye spice and an incense-like quality). It's basically perfect bourbon. Chuck Cowdery wrote a book about (which I hear is very good). I think it was released around $100, which it is totally worth, but often sells for $800, which is silly.

  5. I wanted to add a comment about airing PVW. With my 1st 13 year rye I popped and drank. I thought it tasted like paint thinner. 6 months later I was house cleaning my liquor cabinet and thought I would try one more time before tossing out, yes I was going to toss it! Needless to say 6 months later the flavors dizzying. So much so I had my cousin in Ireland buy 3 bottles in England (of course none available here in US) and ship to me because I could not find any in the US. Found the same situation with subsequent bottles.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for commenting. While I think I like the rye better than you when first open, I completely agree that it improves significantly. I have found this true of the Sazerac 18 rye as well.