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Chatting with Julian Van Winkle


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I just got off the phone with Julian Van Winkle and wanted to pass on two tidbits of good news.

First, although I couldn't weasel the source of the VWR 13/12 out of him, he did tell me that he's got some 15 YO rye still aging in his warehouse in Lawrenceburg that's coming along very nicely. Not much of it, he said, but he'll be doing something with it one of these days. Hope we get our share and it doesn't all go to Japan!

Second, good news for Hirsch fans. Van Winkle does the bottling for the Hirsch bourbons and he told me that there is "plenty" of the 16 YO still in the tanks. They just ran off a new bottling last week with a new label noting some of the outstanding reviews and awards this excellent Pennsylvania bourbon has won. Thank God, I say. This gives Bushido and I more time to buy lottery tickets: Michter's is still waiting!

Lew Bryson

Hirsch Reserve 16 YO: Real Pennsylvania Bourbon

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Hi Lew,

Sam's WW had plenty of this on the shelves. It could be a new shipment, I don't know because Joe C. was off work the day I went in. Price has remained constant, $50 (as opposed to $75 in the 'burbs).

I didn't notice any new labelling, but I didn't look closely either since I've got several unopened in the vaults right now. I stocked up with the first bottling not knowing if any more was coming down the pike ever. I'll look again this weekend when I venture into the city. Also, I've got Delilah's scoped out.

Cheers,

Bushido

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Do you know where the "Old Commonwealth" bourbon that they sell at Sam's in Chicago comes from? It has been speculated that it is from Van Winkle. Guess I'll have to ask Joe C. about that...

The Old Commonwealth is a 10 year, 107 proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. From what I know about Van Winkle, there is a 10 year at 90 proof, and a 15 year at 107 proof. Could the Old Commonwealth be a 107 proof version, i.e. less watered down of the 10 year old Van Winkle?

I noticed that there are a few Sam's shoppers out there. Anyone have any comments about the Old Commonwealth that they sell there? It costs $20 a bottle, and seems to me to be a very good bourbon, especially for that price. I am not an expert taster, so I can't describe the flavour very well in words, but it does seem to have a very distinctive character that I enjoy very much.

-Bill

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I always assumed "Old Commonwealth" was VanWinkle's since Commonwealth is one of the names under which his Lawrenceburg site once operated. I have no other basis than that.

Historically, Van Winkle has gotten his bourbon from his family's old place, Stitzel-Weller, which has been closed for several years and is now on the block. He may still be using Stitzel whiskey, but that will run out eventually. He, obviously, won't tell where he gets it, but I am pretty confident of my sources on this.

As for "aging," the last time I was by his place he didn't have any warehouses, at least not there, at least none with aging whiskey in them. (One was recently demolished and the other was falling down and full of garbage.) Unless he has some barrels stacked in some corner of the bottling house, or is renting warehouses somewhere else, or has built a warehouse in the last couple years, his reference to "his" warehouses may be just a euphemism.

When there's Old Weller Antique (7 yrs./107 proof) to be had for $16, why buy any other wheated bourbon?

- chuck

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Well, Bill, I'll tell ya... When I called Van Winkle's offices today to get hold of Julian, they told me he was "at the distillery" and asked me if I had that number. They gave it to me, I called it, and a woman at the other end answered "Commonwealth!"

Conclusions are left as an exercise for the student.

Lew Bryson

Hirsch Reserve 16 YO: Real Pennsylvania Bourbon

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>When there's Old Weller Antique (7 yrs./107 proof) to be had for $16, why buy any other wheated bourbon?

I have not tried that one. Do they have it at Sam's?

What about the W.L. Weller Centenial? Is that a wheated bourbon too?

-Bill

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Lew, next time you chat with Van Winkle, tell him I love him! The 15 y.o. bourbon is perfection, IMHO.

On the other hand, if he bottles 15 y.o. rye and ships it all out of the country, our love affair is OVER!

--Jeff Frane

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Everything in the Weller line is wheated, as are Old Fitzgerald, Old Rip Van Winkle and Maker's Mark. I was disappointed by the Weller Centennial, especially for the price. For the best combination of quality and value, you can't beat the Weller Antique. It's even in that cool, gold veined, barrel shaped bottle Stitzel-Weller also used for the justly legendary Very Very Old Fitzgerald. I get it at Gold Standard Chalet on Clark Street, which is more convenient to me than Sam's, but I'm sure Sam's has it too.

- chuck

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BTW, I heard from Julian today. He apparently visits this forum, saw my note, and wanted me to know that he does, indeed, have a 200' x 50' warehouse at the Commonwealth Distillery site in Lawrenceburg. I stand corrected.

Wouldn't it be great if he would actually join and contribute to the forum? I'm sure we'd all like to take advantage of his knowledge and experience.

- chuck

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That WOULD be great!

JULIAN!! Come play with us! <g>

Lew Bryson

Hirsch Reserve 16 YO: Real Pennsylvania Bourbon

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Julian:

Thanks for providing this opportunity! I have several questions. First, a web site devoted to whiskey (http://www.mindspring.com/~mccarthy/whiskey/corn.htm) claims that the A. H. Hirsch 16 YO is "a high rye content Bourbon containing 50% corn, 38% rye, and 12% malted barley." If this were strictly true, it would fail to meet the legal requirements for sale as bourbon. So, any comments/info on the actual mashbill? If you cannot say, would you hazard an educated guess about its rye content? Along related lines, are there any bourbons with rye contents anywhere in the neighborhood of that whopping 38% given above? I have not yet had much experience with rye and bourbon whiskeys, but, from what I have tried thus far, I know that I very much like rye whiskey (and have a bottle of your Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 YO stashed for the upcoming False Millenium) and high rye content bourbons. For some reason, I appear to be in the small minority who find high rye boubons to be relatively smooth and sweet tasting, and very flavorful, while finding wheated bourbons to be somewhat harsh tasting.

My second question concerns Old Potrero. I have not tried it yet, but, assuming you have, do you have any opinions regarding making straight rye whiskey from 100% malted rye? Any pro/cons relative to more conventional mashbills? Any plans to have a go at this yourself?

Thanks for any insights/info you can provide and cheers!

Ed

Ed

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Julian: lest it seem like simple brown-nosing, I'd like to note it's a public record that the 15 y.o. Van Winkle is my ultimate, favorite bourbon. Of course, I haven't had the 23 (?) y.o. -- way out of my price range. But I have poured the 15 y.o. for others with the simple note that *THIS* is the ultimate expression of American whiskey. To me, of course.

I find all your whiskeys exceptional, in fact, and was smitten with the Reserve Rye as well.

Please, don't change anything!

--Jeff Frane

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Good man!

No real burning questions right now, only one I'm really interested in right at the moment is about the unmalted vs. malted rye question, and I intend to ask Fritz Maytag about that in a couple weeks. Glad you checked in, you've got some real fans here!

Lew Bryson

Hirsch Reserve 16 YO: Real Pennsylvania Bourbon

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Greetings Julian,

I hope that you will not think I am being too impertinent, but there is a question which has been haunting me for about a year now that I was hoping onto which you might shed some light. Is the A.H. Hirsch Rye the same whiskey as the Van Winkle's Family Reserve Rye? Does it (they) come from the old Medley distillery in Owensboro? Any family connection to the Rittenhouse Rye 50«v released by Heaven Hill, other than by brand name association?

Thanks,

Bushido

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Jeff,

Thanks for the nice comments. Actually, the 15 year is my favorite,before dinner, also. I just finished off a bottle while in Arizona this week.

After dinner, it's definitely "Pappy".

Julian

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Bushido,

If I told you the answers to those questions, I would have to shoot you after I told you. I will tell you that I do bottle Hirsch Rye.

None of my rye is related to Heaven Hill or Old Rittenhouse.

Julian

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Julian,

Thanks for the nondenial denial. It's as clear as mud to me now. Well, whatever they are, the Van Winkle ryes are very enjoyable (you know a rose by any other name). I sincerely hope that you consider additional US releases in this series....

Cheers,

Bushido

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Well I got my hands on some Weller Antique, and all I can say is, "What was supposed to be so great about this whiskey?" No offense to Chuck, who recommended it, and obviously knows a lot more about Bourbon than I do, but I have tried about 20 different kinds of Bourbon, and this one has to be by far the worst. It doesn't even taste like Bourbon! Diesel fuel is more like it.

Maybe this is what is meant by "Distinctive Character". I guess different is good, but why does this one taste so radically different than all the other bourbon's I have tried?

Sorry to be so harsh. No flaming is intended here. Maybe my opinion is different, but I just can't help but have the feeling that I am missing something here. Can someone please enlighten me?

-Bill

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Bill,

No offense taken. Different strokes for different folks. I'm just sorry you had a bad experience on my recommendation.

If you have not already done so, try diluting the whiskey with an equal amount of room temperature water. That should knock back some of the alcohol intensity and allow you to enjoy the more subtle flavors. Obviously, I don't know what else you have tried, but if you are used to drinking 80 proof bourbon neat, a 107 proof spirit can be a bit of a shock.

- chuck

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Chuck,

I actually did a little blind taste testing to see if I could substantiate my belief that there was something very different about the Weller Antique.

I put equal amounts of 3 different bourbons in identical glasses. I put an invisible identifier on the bottom of each of the 3 glasses. I then scrambled the glasses around so I did not know which was which. The 3 bourbons were:

Old Commonwealth (107 proof)

Weller Antique (107 proof)

Wild Turkey Rare Breed (108.6 proof)

So the whiskeys were all almost exactly the same proof, and no water was added to the glasses.

I then commenced to tasting the whiskey. After taking a couple of sips of each one (with some palate cleansing in between), I determined that there was one of the 3 that stood out. At first, it tasted similar to the other 2, but the finish was extremely harsh. Not smooth at all. I was getting a very strong and unpleasant after taste from that particular one.

I then decided it was time to check the bottom of the glass. Sure enough, the one with the unpleasant after taste and very unsmooth finish was the Weller Antique.

So there is no doubt in my mind that this whiskey is a stand out. However, we seem to have differing reactions to those characteristics that distinguish the weller antique from other bourbons.

Like you say Chuck, different strokes for different folks. However, I am still curious. As a bourbon taster, can you describe what characteristics you like about the Weller Antique?

Long before I ever tried Weller Antique I tried the Weller Centenial, and I liked it a lot. What would you say are the big differences between those 2?

As an inexperienced taster, I am sometimes unable to take the tastes on my tongue and translate them to words. I understand that it is pretty much of a waste to use high end whiskeys to make mixed drinks because the mixer masks the subtleties of the desireable flavours that better whiskeys have. However, in the case of the Weller Antique, I can mix myself an "Antique and Coke" that is mostly Coke. Even in a mixed drink I can still detect the offensive after taste of the Weller Antique. When I first bought it, I just started drinking it, and didn't think much of the unusual flavour. Then the next morning, it was like I had residuals. I just could not get that taste out of my mouth. I guess I must prefer something that I percieve as being "smoother". Old Grand Dad 114, or even Booker's are certainly even stronger yet. Although I do get an intense alcohol flavour when drinking them neat, I still do not get the bad after taste that I associate with the Weller Antique. It is like a harsh, almost metalic taste that I have not detected in any other of the bourbons I have tried.

-Bill

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Regarding the speculation as to Old Commonwealth being a Van Winkle product:

I picked up a bottle at Sam's today (I haven't taken it home to open it yet).

The label features a barrel with the slogan "Asleep Many Years In The Wood".

The label also has, at the very bottom, the letters "VW" in a circle--an emblem appearing on other Van Winkle products.

The whiskey is 107 proof. Who else bottles at that strength? :-)

I think it's a safe bet that Joe is getting it from Julian. Then again, Joe can pretty much get any thing he wants, I think... ;-)

Michael Shoshani

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I wrote "The label features a barrel with the slogan 'Asleep Many Years In The Wood'."

That should have read "Asleep In The Wood Many Years". Slight variation.

Sorry, Julian :)

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It doesn't happen often, but it sounds like you may have gotten some bad product. Your experience is certainly not the same as mine with Weller Antique. You made me go pour a glass of Weller Antique, and it is as I remember it, rather dry for a bourbon, a trait it shares with Blanton's. I get black licorice, char and brine on the tongue, black pepper in the nose.

All I recall about Centennial is that it seemed on a par with all the other Stitzel-Weller whiskeys and not enough better to justify a premium price. I don't have any Centennial right now to compare them.

Bourbon tasting is difficult not just because some of the tastes are subtle, but because others are so strong. I used to lack confidence in my palate too, but then I decided you just have to go for it. Like everything else, you gain confidence as you gain experience. Don't sell yourself short. Lots of people are regarded as great tasters not because they have any special gift, but because they have a forum.

So, because I trust your tastbuds, I think you may have got something that has something wrong with it.

- chuck

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Chuck,

I have read what Bill said about the Antique Weller, and I agree with you, it must be a bad bottle for some reason. I bet if Bill tried another bottle, from somewhere else, it would be fine. There is no telling what combination of aged whiskeys thAT UD puts in Centenial Weller and Antique Weller, but whatever they are, the two whiskeys can be very different. U D had alot of excess of wheated bourbon so they could have used several different ages in each bottling. But all the bourbons they used were good, so I believe the bottle Bill got is bad, why I don't know.

Julian

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