Taste Test: The (Cult-Like) Pappy Van Winkle's 20-Year Reserve Bourbon

Is the elusive Pappy Van Winkle worth the hype?


Around the table at the Pappy Van Winkle 20-year Reserve Bourbon taste test was an eclectic group of tasters: a whiskey distiller at Kings County Distillery, the owner of the Flatiron Room in Manhattan, a whiskey blogger, investors in the whisky business, a liquor distributor, reporters, a pastry chef (who shared he often uses bourbon as his secret ingredient in his pecan pie), and a few self-proclaimed whiskey "novices." As we waited to try the six glasses in front of us, Heather Greene, whiskey sommelier at the Flatiron Room, led us through the basics of Kentucky bourbon — all the while building us up for the beloved Pappy Van Winkle. 

As we mentioned before, Pappy Van Winkle has taken the world by storm; never before, Greene said in the tasting, had she seen such a hype around one bourbon. To get your hands on a bottle, she said, you have to be of a special VIP status — as in, which bartender/distributor friends can get you one of the 7,000 bottles sold each year. So really, Greene wanted to know — did we think the hype was worth it? 

We guided ourselves through a blind taste test of the six Kentucky bourbons. Everyone (myself included) suddenly became very aware of our tasting and nosing capabilities — maybe we weren't all that skilled in tasting bourbons, after all. And which one was Pappy Van Winkle?

Two of the six bourbons stood out to me, number one and number five. I wrote on my tasting menu "fruity, buttery, strong" nose on number five, with a "vanilla, fruity, buttery" taste. I wrote similar notes on number one, but inexplicably liked number one just a bit more. 

At the end, Greene asked us to call out what our favorites were. Two others by me also liked numbers one and five; but the crowd was varied — number four was a favorite, as well as number three. So where was Pappy Van Winkle hiding in the bunch — and was it a favorite? 

The lineup: 

Michter's 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon

Blanton's Single-Barrel Bourbon

Basil Hayden's Bourbon

Jefferson's Small Batch Bourbon

Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year Reserve Bourbon

Noah's Mill Bourbon

The consensus of the group? Jefferson's, which Greene said "offers the most bang for your buck," followed by Michter's. Turns out, Pappy was number five — one that stood out to a very small minority of the group, and one that no one really proclaimed to love. In fact, the group was more interested in the other bourbons featured — one taster said she couldn't believe she didn't pick out her boubon at home as her favorite in the test. Greene herself was stunned — no one liked the Pappy. "And it wasn't just the novices who didn't like it, or the experienced drinkers who didn't like it," she told me after the test. "It was everyone" — nearly a consensus. When I asked if she liked Pappy the best, she told the truth — no. 

Still, Greene added at the end, everyone's palate is different; there's no saying whether Pappy is truly the best because it's different to everyone. Would I drink Pappy again and enjoy it? Most likely. But the mystery of Pappy, and its hype, may still live on. 


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