Because I write about beer, certain people sometimes feel compelled to make a joke when they see me enjoying a cocktail or glass of wine.
My stock answer is usually, “It’s my day off.” Or if I’m feeling sinister, “Haven’t you heard? I hate beer, now!”
Of course, I’m an omnivore when it comes to both food and drink. It’s true, I rarely crave sushi or chardonnay. But I’m equally happy with oysters and champagne or steak and ale.
When it comes to beverages other than beer, red wine and bourbon top the list. And if I meet a favorite vintner or distiller, my own little joke is that I wish their products were as good a bargain as the best beer.
I didn’t try that one on Julian P. Van Winkle, III, the third generation scion of Kentucky’s celebrated Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.
Van Winkle’s tiny, family-run operation produces a wondrous line of carefully
crafted bourbon whiskey that’s become famous for its complex oak-aged flavors. And because it’s so expensive and hard to find, the February issue of Fortune magazine declared Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon — also known as Pappy Van Winkle’s — “the ultimate cult brand.”
Van Winkle will be in Atlanta for a series of presentations and a dinner at Parish during the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, May 19 — 22. During a recent phone conversation, I told him I was a member of the Pappy cult and asked him what he thought made his family’s bourbon so special.
“We use wheat instead of rye,” Van Winkle said. “That makes it softer and smoother and it ages a little more gracefully. It doesn’t pick up as much wood and char in the barrel, so a bourbon that’s 15 or 20 years old that’s made with wheat versus rye is going to be pretty different.”
There are 12-year, 15-year, 20-year and 23-year bourbons among the most beloved Pappy vintages. As with all bourbon, corn is the main ingredient. But beyond wheat, long, controlled aging is the secret.
“Older bourbon is just something I like and something our family has always produced,” Van Winkle said. “My granddad produced a 10, a 12, and even a 15. I just kept pushing the envelope into the 20-year and people have enjoyed that.”
Van Winkle, who speaks in laid-back tones as soft as his whiskey, seems both pleased and perplexed that craft brewers have become a major part of the Pappy cult.
Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver was an early adopter, aging several groundbreaking beers in Pappy barrels. And Van Winkle said he’ll be joining Oliver at Eleven Madison Park in New York City to taste a special Pappy-aged beer brewed by Brooklyn for the restaurant.
“There are major differences in barrels,” Oliver recently told me. “The Van Winkle 20 year barrels are very floral, not the big vanilla and coconut punch of Makers, for example. I’m fond of the Woodford barrels, which are complex.”
Here in Atlanta, Red Brick brewer Dave McClure is a big Pappy fan, noting the surprising number of brewers who have won Great American or World Beer Cup gold medals with Pappy barrel-aged beers.
“I’m trying to learn more about beer,” Van Winkle said. “This beer thing has gone crazy. It’s really popular and it’s really interesting. Every day I seem to get an e-mail from a brewer looking for old barrels.”
While Oliver, McClure and other brewers swear by the rare barrels, Van Winkle wonders aloud if it might just be another manifestation of the Pappy cult.
“I’d like to see the difference between, say, a Maker’s Mark barrel and a Pappy barrel aged with same beer,” Van Winkle said. “That would be fun to try.”
— By Bob Townsend, Drink blog