A chance encounter with Pappy

I don't spend a lot of time on Facebook, primarily because Facebook is bound and determined to make the user experience truly awful. But there I was, checking in as I occasionally do, just a few minutes before 10pm last Monday, and I see this post from Forequarter via head bar dude Hastings Cameron: 

Dave's doing 10-12-15-20-23 Van Winkle bourbon flights after 10pm tonight. Old Fashioneds with the 12. That is all.

Consider the following. 1) My exposure to neat booze is low, but if there's one that I've got any experience with at all, it's bourbon. (Hi, Ben!) 2) My Tuesday work shift starts at noon. 3) When am I going to have access to that many Pappy vintages? 4) My wife offered her blessing as well as taxi services.

You can guess the rest. I put on some pants and we hit the road. 

Highly enhanced because dark-ass bar.

Very respectable pours -- between 1 and 2 oz each -- of the 10-year, 12-year, 15-year, 20-year, and 23-year Van Winkles were lined up in short order. Comparison pours of a Weller and a Four Roses turned the real estate in front of me into a kind of cordial glass statuary garden; by the end of my tour of duty, Hastings had hit me with three other small tastes of another Four Roses and a couple Elijah Craigs. It's a good thing I didn't show up in my pajama pants, because I would have looked like a hobo someone slipped a fiddy to.

Hastings made it pretty clear that his respect for the Pappy brand didn't necessarily extend to fanboydom. And I'll admit that the two pours of Four Roses -- one that I didn't get the details on, and the 125th Anniversary -- were among my favorites of the night. The very woody Elijah Craig 21-year, which was presented by Hastings as oak run amok, tasted like a log cabin, and I'm not talking the syrup. Definitely not my bag.

The Van Winkle family.

But I was there for the Van Winkle, and I tried to sample as thoughtfully as my tongue could manage. The 10 was definitely hot, and as far as sipping bourbons go, I wouldn't pick it. It'd make a fine top-shelf cocktail though. The nose on the 12 was getting more caramelly, and it was noticeably smoother. That old fashioned would have been great.

When I got to the 15, though, there was a distinct shift in the aroma and flavor. Caramel gave way to more toffee-ish richness, and that meant a sweeter sip, too. If I was going to order a Pappy, neat, it'd be this year. Dave said this was the staff consensus, too.  The 20 had a great nose, like toffee and rum. The sweetness of the 15 was there, too, but it was overly hot, which stunted the finish.

And then there was nothing left to try but the old man. The 23. This is apparently a $200+ bottle, retail, with 2oz pours going for up to $75 in major markets. (There's enough of a hunt for Pappy that Eater has a Pappy Locator; the Forequarter entry erroneously makes me part of Team Forequarter, though I guess that's not far from the truth. The Locator also reveals how dirt-cheap Forequarter's Pappy flight is. It was $30 when I had it, on the day they literally opened the cases, and it's only marked up to $35 now.)

I'm probably neither deserving nor equipped to properly taste this bourbon. And when I say that the first distinct flavor I picked up was brine, like an ocean breeze, the true bourbon people will probably vomit with rage. (I mean, what is this, a Laphroaig?) But there you go. It was a composed pour, a little woody, a little hot, a little sweet. Very well-balanced, but yeah, briny.

I was told that this vintage was the last one produced at the old Stitzel-Weller facility (before Buffalo Trace took over production), so there's bound to be some unique terroir in that bottle.  For me, it's just too much, like most foie gras preparations. Too far from my tastes to be more than a novelty pour -- as if I'm going to be all blasé in front of a lineup of Pappy bottles, "oh, no, I don't care for the 23, personally." You know what I mean, though. It's the kind of thing I'd throw pants on and bolt out of the house to drink, but not a pour I'd sidle up to casually. It's an event.