I hauled out my Van Winkle Lot B today after reading an article which was an interview with Julian Van Winkle III. The article was in Garden and Gun (August/September issue), a magazine about which I know nothing (I heartily recommend this article). The mag was brought to me by a friend who knows that I am inordinately fond of Van Winkle bourbons. Mr. Van Winkle (note that, I, a Southerner, having never met Mr. Van Winkle, would never deign to call him, 'Julian'....... it would be far too presumptious) comes across as an interesting and quite modest fellow who has no desire to expand his empire by changing anything he does. He claims no special talents for his taster, but is an acknowledged master at what he does by many bourbon lovers........ and, I certainly acknowledge his mastery at producing wonderful bourbons.
As I recall it, on the day he was interviewed he was at Buffalo Trace sampling the first batches of Van Winkle bourbon (I assume this is according to his own recipe) ready for bottling (again, I assume this bourbon will be for Lot B 12 YO bourbon, but it is never stated). I also need some help in clarifying whether Mr Van Winkle has previously selected bourbons for his labels from Buffalo Trace stocks, as I suspect has been the case (John Lipman, Mike Veach, others?).
The bottle of Lot B from which I am drinking was originally purchased at $40, but I haven't a clue what it sells for now except that I know that when it is available, it will not be $40. It, like all the Van Winkle bourbons is exceptional bourbon. It has what I prefer to call the subtlety and the delicacy of the Van Winkle bourbons, yet, as especially is the case with the 12 and 15 YO Van Winkle bourbons, it is the barrel richness that delights the palate.
There is not a Van Winkle bourbon that I have ever had that did not suit my palate to a tea, and I have owned them all in abundance, and at present still have 5 at hand, plus several Black Maple Hills ryes and boubons, rumored to be Julian Van Winkle selected.
BUT, there are other excellent bourbons available at far less cost that are the equals of the Van Winkle bourbons. Among these are several Heaven Hills products, several Four Roses products, some Wild Turkey products, some Beam products, some Buffalo Trace products, some Barton products, some Brown Forman products. Each of these distilleries produces some first rate bourbons to keep me happy when I exhaust my Van Winkle bourbons and refuse to buy more (or only the very occasional bottle) for cost reasons.
Thus do I arrive at the sentiment expressed in the title of this post. Thank you for your patience in making it thus far. I wondered if I could not construct a Lot B quality bourbon for about that same $40 that I spent for that bottle of Lot B that I now possess.
Lot B possesses, as do all Van Winkle bourbons (I have absolutely nothing to gain in praising these bourbons, so my opinions are 'clean' here), a certain, 'je ne sais quoi' quality that is their own, that apparently owes its existence to the Van Winkle genes. How close dare I come, in my attempts, to this Van Winkle gift. It may be for you to decide, if you are interested.
The primary characteristics I find in Lot B are richness, balance, complexity, and subtlety (this one I take to owe a lot of time in the barrel........ reaching for those very difficult to define qualtities that Julian Van Winkle has an exceptional talent for recognizing)........ in short, the characteristics of an exceptional wheated bourbon.
So, me tells meself, which bourbons on hand, for less that $40 might provide a similiar set of characteristics, while still likely falling a bit short of Lot B. Age is an important characteristic in ALL Van Winkle bourbons...... they rely on tannins (in my opinion........ something I have said for years now on BE) to offset sweetness and build subtlety and delicacy (the model being that of 50 YO Cognac........ the French know more than Americans about long barrel aging......... they are more patient).
I will not waste any more of your time in how I arrived at this vatting, other than to defend its components, but here is what I came up with (as a $40 or less substitute for Lot B).... along with its proportions.
I want to stay within the wheat recipe to a great extent, so I choose 5 ml of 107 proof Weller Antique for its barrel richness and alcholic presence. I next choose 20 ml of 12 YO W L Weller for its mature softness and delicacy. My next choice was arrived at by comparing some superb boubons from the Old Forester Birthday Bourbons (often underated bourbons of extremely high quality). For this purpose, I chose 25 ml the 2010 Birthday Bourbon for its 12 YO tannic/pot stilled qualities that give it sublety and sophistication. This is now about a 94 proof bourbon, and it is one I assert can be made for no more than $40 a bottle and is quite the equal of Lot B.
The purpose of this post is not to diaparage in any way the extraordinary talents of Julian Van Winkle, but to assert that with a good knowledge of bourbons and your own palate, you can build your own bourbon that fits your particular palate.......... which is equal to the best bourbons, as acknowledged by the 'experts'. I am a committed believer in the notion that some bourbons are better than others, and that we do, in fact, have bourbon 'experts' and accepted opinions that matter as guides (and matter a lot). But, I also recognize that folks who do not claim great expertise (but are quite experienced with bourbon) such as Julian Van Winkle, always (having a modest wisdom on their side) provide room for the person willing to invest time into developing his or her own bourbon palate............ which can offer some guidence to others.
Bourbon Enthusiast is a site devoted to people who love bourbon, and know that, any opinion to the contrary being uninformed, bourbon drinking is an art, albeit it a potentially dangerous one. It is probably reserved for the few, which makes it neither good nor bad, it just is that way.
The Bourbon Enthusiast site offers you the opportunity to go beyond being someone who likes bourbon, to one who is a true Enthusiast, to one who goes to another level of Bourbon Appreciation. Van Winkle bourbons, to their everlasting credit, open that passage to another level!! Julian Van Winkle, in that scenerio, is an American hero, and like all great heroes, is modest. But, I think it important for us Bourbon Enthusiasts to find our own way....... and never, never, to accept what others say (without dismissing their findings) about bourbon.
You do indeed have a sacred right to your opinion as to which bourbons suit you......... but you do not have the right to express an opinion, claiming it to be informed, on bourbons, if your opinions on bourbons has been formed in the absence of a wide experience of their variety and quailty.
I gladly support your venturing out on a limb in your bourbon opinions, and certainly in your bourbon reviews, but always, always, acknowledge that you are humble in the presence of the complexity that lies at the heart of the bourbon expertise........ just as Julian Van Winkle has done.
In this sense, Julian Van Winkle, as presented in Garden and Gun, is the model for bourbon experts......... he claims no special knowlege nor insight, but he honors his own palate........ formed as it is by vast experience!!
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas