Continuing my recent rye kick, I had a pout of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye last night. Yup, it tastes like rye, although the rye elements are muted compared to the others that I've had this week -- pretty much, the rye comes through just on the finish. The rest of the experience is very much like an aged Bourbon, and a dessert Bourbon at that. There's a lot of vanilla and caramel and a massive body in there.
So let's play the "Where'd he get it?" game. Van Winkle whiskeys are bottled and distributed by Buffalo Trace, but that doesn't mean that everything that goes into them was distilled at Buffalo Trace. The older Bourbons, for example, are largely composed of old Stitzel-Weller barrels that Julian Van Winkle owns. The 12 year old Family Reserve Bourbon no longer has much Stitzel-Weller whiskey in it (S-W closed for good in 1992; remember that the age statement on a bottle is the minimum age of the whiskey that goes into it, so it is possible that a small amount of 15 year old S-W Bourbon goes into the 12 year old bottling), and what I've read indicates that it's mostly Heaven Hill-distilled wheated Bourbon now. In any event, consider the possibilities for the 13 year old Van Winkle rye. Beam, Wild Turkey, and Barton all distill rye whiskey (Beam for the Jim Beam and Old Overholt brands, Wild Turkey for itself, and Barton for the Fleischman brand), but I know of no relationship that Julian Van Winkle has ever had with any of them. More than that, I have never heard of any of the three doing contract distilling for any rye label. Brown-Forman contract distills rye for Heaven Hill (for the Pikesville and Rittenhouse labels), but I don't think that they did any rye distilling before the Heaven Hill distillery fire in 1996, which means that they don't have any rye old enough for Van Winkle. That leaves Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, both of which have rye stocks old enough (Buffalo Trace has stocks for the 18 year old Sazerac rye, Heaven Hill for the 21 year old version of Rittenhouse) and both of which have a preexisting relationship with Julian Van Winkle. So which is it? Beats me. I'd bet on Buffalo Trace, but I wouldn't bet much.