Van Winkle Special Reserve

vanwinklesrNow that 2009 is in full swing I’m going to start breaking open the couple of bottles I received during the holiday season from thoughtful friends and family.  One of the benefits of writing a blog about American whiskey is that it creates and easy gift category that will never fail to disappoint.

It’s in this spirit that I come to my first selection from the Van Winkle line of bourbons – Van Winkle Special Reserve.  Famed for their 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle bottling, Old Rip has seven main-line varieties in all, with VWSR falling right in the middle of the range (also the only one with out the words “Pappy” or “Old” in the name).



– Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

– 90.4 proof


Van Winkle Special Reserve comes in a tall, slim bottle capped with red foil which leaves plenty of glass-room for the onlooker to admire the contents within.  This is by far the simplest labeling of the Van Winkle clan, decorated only by thin lines of black around the edge and a single red line toward the bottom.  The slightly textured paper is printed only with the basic information about the beverage: what it is, its name, its age, and its distiller.  The only seemingly extraneous information is the “Lot ‘B'” beneath the age statement.

One interesting thing to note is the special placement of the word “Kentucky” – appearing prominently above the words it modifies, “Straight Bourbon Whiskey” at the top of the label.  A quiet pride showing through the otherwise poised and gentlemanly presentation.

Thankfully, no back label beyond the government warning.


Van Winkle Special Reserve has a very pleasant nose.  What came to mind immediately was grenadine and dried leaves.  Certainly sweet, but impressively deep.

On the tongue VWSR is just as sweet at first, hitting the tip of the tongue with gusto.  This sensation fills out into cherries, popcorn, and some significant wood before melting in to a full-mouth slow-burning spice of a finish.  This is something to savor and draw out for as long as you can.

Over all:

This bourbon has a holistic feel to it that many others do not.  It’s hard to pull out individual bits and pieces from the entire experience.  At 90 proof, it strikes the right balance between heft and drinkability, but nothing has been sacrificed when it comes to complexity.  Nicely done.

Makes you wonder what they keep in Lot A…


4 thoughts on “Van Winkle Special Reserve

  1. I recently found a bottle of this after MUCH searching. Simply put, I think it is the best bourbon I’ve ever tasted. Someone once gave me a shot of the 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle, and I’m sure it was awesome; but I don’t really remember exactly what it tasted like. This 12 year old, on the other hand, easily surpasses the other bourbons I’ve tried. Since it’s so hard to find, can you recommend anything similar to it that is comparable in price and easy to find? Other than: Maker’s Mark, Blanton’s, Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve, Booker’s, Baker’s or Knob Creek. I’ve tried these and don’t think they’re equal to the Van Winkle 12 year old. I know that isn’t a strictly fair comparison becuase of varying proofs, etc. I’m just eliminating the obvious mid to high end brands I’ve tried.

    1. If you’re looking for something further down the price scale with similar qualities, the best I could think of would be Old Fitzgerald 1849. It’s punchier with more distinct flavors, but has a similar profile. To replicate that smooth, autonomous feel you’d have to go with something like Rare Breed or Jefferson’s Reserve – but despite their similar ‘shape’ (for lack of a better word) they don’t really match the flavor profile.

      Thanks for reading, Jason!

  2. The closest thing to Van Winkle that I can find regularly is Eagle Rare (10 yr). It is just as sweet and smooth but lacking the overall complexity.

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