Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old: Better than the Pappy 20?

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Like all good stories, this one starts with me walking into my favorite liquor store, my eyes widening and heart rate accelerating as I see something exciting on the shelf, and culminates with me doing a happy dance and walking out with a bottle of whiskey.

This week, I walked into Petite Cellars and walked out with a bottle of Pappy 15. 

“But it’s not even Pappy season,” you might say.  I KNOW!  That’s what makes it all so ludicrously exciting.

I almost didn’t want to mention the name of my liquor store, because I don’t want you guys buying up all of the rare stuff before I get there, but I really have to hand it to them.  Their rare booze strategy is pretty brilliant. 

Just part of the huge bourbon selection at Petite Cellars.  And sometimes, when you least expect it, there will be Pappy.
Just part of the huge bourbon selection at Petite Cellars. And sometimes, when you least expect it, there will be Pappy.

They release rare bourbons gradually. 

Every shop deals with the Pappy craze differently.  Some have a (years long) waiting list.  Some have a call list for their best customers and then it’s first come, first served.  Some probably hide it and just let their friends buy all of it.  Some mark it up 500% or more, put it in a case, and wait for someone to be willing to pay that. 

Petite Cellars seems to just put a bottle on the shelf from time to time, with no fanfare, at essentially retail price. 

Here’s what I love about that strategy.

1) It rewards their regular customers.  If you aren’t there buying other stuff, you’re not going to know they have Pappy or Stagg or whatever on the shelf.

2) From a business standpoint, it’s brilliant, because I will basically never go anywhere else now.  I went in this week looking for something affordable and interesting to bring to a party.  I was nowhere near Petite Cellars.  It was out of my way.  But I went out of my way, because what if… what if they had something exciting on the shelf? 

It’s variable ratio reinforcement.  Not to get too technical, but in terms of pure behaviorist conditioning, randomly rewarding me with rare bourbon for stepping into their store is the best way to get me stepping into their store regularly. 

Will run mazes for bourbon.
Will run mazes for bourbon.

The kind of reinforcement schedule that Petite Cellars has set up is the one that leads the little lab rat (that would be me) to press the bar the most often (i.e., go to their store) in hopes of a reward (PAPPY!). 

It’s genius, really.

3)  The thing I love most about the strategy is the surprise factor.  It’s like finding an amazing collection of records on vinyl at a yard sale, or a designer skirt with tags on it at Goodwill.  The unexpected surprise, the feeling of windfall, takes something that would already make my day, and makes it even more exciting. 

Hats off to you, Petite Cellars.  Keep doing what you’re doing, and I will keep popping in even when I don’t really need anything.  I don’t know any other stores doing it this way, but they should be.

Now let’s talk about the Pappy.

I know we would all probably snatch up whatever year Pappy we could get, but what if you’re in a position to choose?  I’m going to risk my reputation here and say that, if I had a choice, I would get the 15.

Yup, you heard me.  Given a choice between Pappy 20 and Pappy 15, even if price were no object, I would get the 15. 

I’ve done detailed notes on the 20 in the past, so here I’ll talk more about the 15, with the 20 serving primarily as a comparison.

PappVW15yrThe nose on the 15 is sweet and strong.  Intense honey, cinnamon, and vanilla right away. Oak and toasted nuts come in the second wave.  Letting it breathe a bit opens up the aromas considerably, and adds some chocolate and toffee, as well as a kind of wet wood smell.

Smelling it side-by-side with the 20, the nose on the 20 is more balanced and refined, but the nose on the 15 is more interesting to me.  If you’re only going to sniff them, it’s a bit of a toss up.  But we’re not just going to sniff them, are we? 

Oh, hell no. 

The taste of the 15 is divine.  Caramel, cinnamon, and buttery corn up front, with black cherries and peppery spices coming in as it moves mid-palate.  The mouthfeel is thick, clinging, and luscious.  It is in the mouth that the Pappy 15 really shines.

There is a bit of “bourbon burn” that moves along the tongue.  In contrast to the 45.2% ABV of the Pappy 20, the 15 is a bit stronger at 53.5%.  It’s no secret that I like some strong bourbon, so this heat is a positive attribute for me.  If you use the word “smooth” to describe your favorite whiskeys, you might be happier with the 20.  But if you, like me, appreciate that spark of sweet fire executed to perfection, Pappy 15 will deliver that for you. 

Finally, the finish on the Pappy 15 is fairly long and well-balanced with caramel, oak, spices, and candied nuts.  

I’m not gonna lie.  The finish on the Pappy 20 kicks the 15’s butt.  The finish on the 20-year is amazing. 

These are both absolutely exceptional bourbons.  You can’t go wrong, really.  But if you’re primarily a bourbon drinker and like stronger bourbons, I’m going to say go for the 15. 

See, the 15-year shines when it is actually in your mouth.  Like, you know, when you’re actually drinking it.  It’s thick and sweet, with plenty of complexity and spice, and that delicious heat that comes with the higher proof.  The sensation of it in your mouth as you roll it along your tongue creates a sensual experience that surpasses just taste and smell. 

For me, the 20-year doesn’t really hit its stride until the finish.  But, to be fair, that finish is magically, astonishingly good. 

OK, when I started writing this, having tasted the 15 for the first time, but not having tasted the 20 in a few weeks, I was fully committed to my “Pappy 15 is just better than Pappy 20” stance.  Now, tasting them side by side, I’m wussing out a little bit. They’re both just so good, and for such different reasons.

I’ll leave you with this.  If you, like me, prefer your bourbons sweet and strong, and put a high premium on amazing mouthfeel, you are likely to prefer the 15-year over the 20.  If you prefer smooth elegance and a ludicrously long, complex finish, the 20 is likely to please you more. 

Truth is they’re both freakin’ amazing, so if you manage to find either one, buy it.  And if you have a choice between them, just buy them both.  


2 thoughts on “Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year-old: Better than the Pappy 20?

  • February 6, 2014 at 8:45 PM

    Boy, I wish I could join you in your excitement. I found not one but two bottles of PVW 15 at the same time I found the Parker’s Promise of Hope and the Jefferson 21 Presidential. And after three tries, the PVW15 tastes light and tepid next to the other two less hyped but similarly priced bottles. I was crestfallen. I have friends who have the 20 and the 23, and I’d love to do a comparison tasting. And I know the flavor profile is different year to year. But based on the 2013 PVW15, I dont know if I’d ever go out of my way again to purloin a bottle. The PHC Hope is so smooth and mellow, toffee and caramel and vanilla, with almost no burn. The PVW15 was so light and flavorless next to it, it tasted like it was cut with water – a LOT of water! Les Miserable!

    • February 18, 2014 at 5:04 AM

      That’s so odd, not my experience at all. I haven’t tried the Promise of Hope. Will definitely look for it. I’m sure you can find someone to take that bottle of Pappy 15 off your hands…

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