I wanted to love it…. (Review – Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year)



Really I did.  I wanted it to be earth shattering.  Weeks after my obsessive search began for the elusive Pappy, I had just unwrapped the plastic seal on a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve for my 38th birthday.  A trade of a Thomas Handy Sazerac Antique Collection bottle netted me my most prized possession, and I was ready to wait no longer.  I had read all the reviews, heard all the tales, taken in all the mythical lore I had come across.  This was the stuff of legends.  People waited in lines across the country just a week ago to score one bottle.  One bottle of booze.  Billionaires couldn’t get it even if they tried, or so said the article I found.  Another article told me to skip Pappy and buy one of their aforementioned alternatives.  Yet I continued, unabated in my quest for the unicorn whiskey as some referred to it.  I couldn’t count how many store owners laughed when I asked if they had Pappy.  I visited every store, tried to befriend every owner, and used any technique possible to place myself in a position of acquiring a bottle.

Two months after my quest began, here it was.  As I set the freshly opened bottle down on the kitchen counter, a strong aroma of the unicorn whiskey started to fill the air.  My wife commented that it smelled really good as it wafted around the kitchen.  I have to admit, the stuff smells pretty legendary.  Hopefully as you begin to follow my blog, you will see that I am fairly new to the bourbon tasting/reviewing party.  I consider my sense of smell and taste pretty good, but damn if I know how to put it into words.  People say they smell caramel, oak, butterscotch in this bottle.  I just smell some damn fine whiskey.  It’s sweet for sure, and I just can’t place the smell.  I would say the butterscotch reference is the closest for me.  Butterscotch and f*@ing awesome whiskey smell.

I poured about 1.5 ounces and let it air out for a minute or two.  I admired the color, a beautiful amber brown, with a nice looking coating where it had hit the side of my glen cairn glass.  I swirled it around a little bit, noticed the complexity, and continued to enjoy that damn fine smell.  Then I took my first sip.  It was a little harsher than I expected.  In fact it almost burned a little.  It was only 90 proof, but it stung the back of my throat a little and that alone kind of covered up the flavor for me.  I added a small ice cube and let it melt and tried it again a few minutes later.  This time it was less harsh and I had some nice flavors come across, but again I don’t know how to describe them.  I definitely got some oaky flavor, some honey, but it still ended with a little burn in my throat.  The aftertaste I would say had some caramel, but there had to be some spice there that was burning.  A few more sips netted the same result, a nice flavor, but a gentle burn, followed by an aftertaste that was almost like a caramel candy.  I finished the glass, set it down, and realized… that it was disappointing.  Really disappointing.  And I also realized I have had much better whiskey at a fraction of the cost.

I thought surely there must be a mistake.  Maybe it was dinner that I had that messed things up.  Maybe my glass was dirty, or the ice cube was polluted.  Or maybe I was getting a cold and that effected things.  Surely if someone would wait in 32 degree weather for a bottle of this stuff, that something was just wrong with me.

So I waited a day and tried it again.  This time, I put 1 whole ice cube in and let it melt all the way.  I let the whiskey sit for 10 minutes after that to open up.  And then I began to sip, slowly, trying to find myself loving it.  And sure enough, the same result.  A decent taste over my tongue, a slight burn, a slight sweet finish, but not near one of my favorite whiskeys.  On both nights, I filled my glass back up with some Elmer T. Lee, and realized how much better it was.

I am only 1 guy and I only have 1 opinion, but this wasn’t worth the hype.  It wasn’t worth the obsession.  This is decent whiskey at best.  Perhaps the 15 year or 20 year are earth shattering, and this 12 is simply a meteor that blazes out in the sky.  Perhaps I’ll never know if that is the case, but to be honest, I’m not going to lose any more sleep over it.



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