Under federal regulations, Bourbon must be made from a mix of grains composed of at least 51% corn. What is in the other 49% is up to the distiller. Usually, the corn content is quite a bit higher than 50% and the remainder is filled in with some mixture of other grains (rye, barley (malted and un), wheat, etc.).
In most Bourbons, rye is the major secondary grain. You can really taste this in a Bourbon like Buffalo Trace, which has a strong rye kick to it. In others, a smaller but distinguished group, the major secondary grain is wheat. Known as wheaters by aficionados, these Bourbons replace the strong spice of rye with the subtle sweetness of wheat.
Makers' Mark is probably the most widely known of the wheaters, but among the most loved is the Van Winkle series, made by Buffalo Trace, including Old Rip Van Winkle and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons.
Like many Bourbons, Van Winkle has a rich heritage. It is named for Julian Van Winkle, an elder statesman of the now closed Stitzel-Weller distillery which produced WL Weller Bourbon, which is also now produced by Buffalo Trace. The Van Winkle Bourbon is still made in conjunction with the family.
The Van Winkle line includes Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year old and 10 year old 107 proof, Van Winkle 12 year old, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye Whiskey and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15, 20 and 23 year olds. I tried the Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, 20 year old (Buffalo Trace), 45.2% alcohol ($70-$80)
The Pappy nose has lots of alcohol for its relatively low abv. Overall, the aroma was not very assertive. Very nice flavor with, indeed, no rye spice in evidence. Still, it's less sweet than I expected. There is an acidic, almost tannin like flavor to it that gives it a bit of a bite and the effect of a well aged Zinfandel, the type of wine that is almost chewy. Sweetness emerges only in quick glimpses. It's more savory than sweet which differentiates it from many other Bourbons in the Buffalo Trace line. This characteristic also flies in the face of the commonly held notion that wheaters are always sweet.
This is a Bourbon that conflicted with my expectations in many ways. The lack of pronounced sweetness, the wine-like qualities and the lack of rye gave it a different flavor profile than most other Bourbons I've had. An interesting whiskey indeed.
So find a bottle and jump on the Van.