As I wrote last week, things were a lot different in the bourbon world just a few years ago. You could buy plenty of stuff off the shelf that you can't find now, including Van Winkle whiskeys. What's more extraordinary, the Van Winkles even did private bottlings, for retailers, clubs and even for an individual. One of the most legendary Van Winkle private bottlings was a Van Winkle 12 year old Lot B bottled for Randy Blank, popularly known as "Van Blankle."
Randy Blank had been a fan of Stitzel-Weller bourbon since 1982, when he served Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond at his wedding. In 2004, Randy emailed Julian Van Winkle with the idea of doing a private bottling. To that point, the Van Winkles had done bottlings for retailers and bars, but never for an individual. Randy originally asked about a barrel of Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107, but by that time, the ten year old was no longer 100% Stitzel-Weller bourbon, so instead, he went for the 12 year old Lot B.
So it was that in August of 2004, Randy headed to the Buffalo Trace distillery to select his now legendary barrel. He met with Julian Van winkle and sampled from five different barrels of Stitzel-Weller bourbon that had been distilled in March 1992. Since he planned to give a lot of the bourbon away, he was going for an approachable profile and zeroed in on the barrel he thought was "smoother and lighter" than the others. The bourbon was bottled in September of 2004 and yielded 17 cases, many of which Randy gave away to friends and charity auctions. The barrel cost $7,000 which averaged out to a paltry $33 per bottle. The reviews were glowing, often comparing the whiskey to Cognac with its soft, sweet notes. There are only a handful of bottles left, mostly in the possession of Randy and his relatives. It may not be something most people will be able to try, but if I was going to sample it, I thought it was worth leaving a written record.
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year old Lot B (Van Blankle), 45.2% abv
The nose is old dusty bourbon with some medicinal notes. The palate is initially sweet with candy notes, then savory in that distinctly Van Winkle way, fading to slightly medicinal note and a finish with a nice balance of wood and spice.
This is an understated, really wonderful bourbon with a good balance of sweet and spice. It's very well balanced, and I can certainly see what Randy was thinking when he tapped it as a people-pleaser; the initial sweetness, the spice and the touch of medicinal, savory notes, make it approachable and fun but also complex and interesting. It's a beautiful composition and is far better than any bottle of the 12 year old Lot B I've tasted. This one is legendary for a reason.
Many, many, many thanks to Randy for the sample and photos.