Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

I have heard a story of a tour guide at Buffalo Trace Distillery who made much of the fact that Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon and WL Weller 12 year old are the same age and come from the same sources. The Weller is $15 a bottle or more cheaper, said the tour guides, and it's the same stuff as the Van Winkle, so why wouldn't you buy the Weller? (I have no way of knowing whether this story is true and, if so, whether it indicates a common practice at Buffalo Trace or not. It is apocryphal, and I am retelling it not to say anything at all about Buffalo Trace but rather to make a point about aging Bourbon.) It's not strictly true that Van Winkle Family Reserve is exactly the same stuff as Weller 12 year old -- the current blend of the Van Winkle may include a small amount of Stitzel-Weller whiskey that's significantly older than 12 years old, and it also likely includes some Heaven Hill wheated Bourbon distilled at Bernheim. I doubt that the Weller has Bourbon in it from either of these sources, although I don't know for sure. But the core of the tour guide's statement is likely true: that the source for most of the Van Winkle blend is the same as the source for most of the Weller 12 year old. Same source, same age, same Bourbon, right?

Wrong. Two identical barrels containing distillate from the same still run aged for the same length of time in exactly the same spot in the rickhouse can be dramatically different in character. Why? I don't know, and neither do any of the whiskey professionals. But this basic fact is the reason why distilleries are able to produce multiple brands that are consistently different in character from Bourbon all made and aged in the same way. It's also why they need to blend many barrels of whiskey to make a batch to bottle if they want to maintain consistency of the finished product. In the case of the Van Winkle Family Reserve, Julian Van Winkle's agreement with Buffalo Trace allows him his choice of the barrels to use for his whiskies, and the Weller is selected from the rest. The Van Winkle is darker and more viscous, and it has more vanilla and caramel character that I like and less of the Wheat Thin graininess common to wheaters that I don't. There's also some unpleasant woodiness when it's first poured, but that's the only negative thing that I can say about it. It is undoubtedly superior to the Weller 12. Is it worth $15 or $20 more a bottle than the Weller? Well, to me it is.

No comments: