60 Minutes of Epic Tasting – Part 1 “1985 Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye”

I got the text towards the afternoon, “I’m in town, can you meet up? I brought a few things you have to try.”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “Good stuff?”

“Does a certain rye from 1985 sound like good stuff?” was the response.

In the 80’s this would have been a person to person call, and the only sound my buddy Adam would have heard on the other end would be that of a plastic phone hitting the floor, then a dragging sound as the coiled cord tugged the phone back across the linoleum.

I just responded, “I’ll bring glencairns.” Dot. Dot. Dot.

Adam only had an hour to spare in his busy schedule, and frankly I was happy just to get to that little bit of hang time. 60 short minutes, which I assumed (correctly), would be filled to the brim with all the most fantastic distilled and aged liquid my heart could flutter over.

We sat down, exchanged pleasantries, etc. while I simultaneously pulled out two clean glencairns without breaking eye contact or interrupting the conversation. As time was short, we wasted none of it, and got right down to the business at hand; drinking epic bourbon…and rye. Specifically rye, actually.

The first pour out was one I was sure to be smitten with, the “1985” Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. If you recall from past blogs, I’m not a rye guy, but I sure do love/crave the VWFRR. The 2015 edition was my first foray into the world of Van Winkle rye, and I gave it high praise.


But the 1985 was a completely different animal. Made at the request of French client, this is the 100 proof, non-chill filtered juice that is the stuff you dream about. There is some bit of argument about whether this is a 13 year, or a 14 year. Technically all VWFRR up until last year came out of the same tank, and recent releases have been labeled “13 Years Old”, therefore this should be 13 too. But others say, since this was released in 1999, it’s a 14 year. Yet Julian Van Winkle himself says the 1985 was 15 years old. 13, 14, or 15, I find that fascinating. I’d give anything to sit with Julian Van Winkle and discuss the in’s, out’s and majestic magic of his various bottlings, and listen to his words without so much as cutting in with a question. But until that happens, all I can do it stick to profiling the flavors of the bottles I try.

Adam had diced his bottle into 4oz Boston rounds, exclaiming that he feared the bottle going stale. He tossed me the little brown bottle and said “Pour it out”. I did. Heavenly aroma filled the immediate vicinity of my nose.

I can only describe the color in the glass as “Bruce Brown Sunset”. It reminded me the final scene of one of my favorite movies, On Any Sunday, (made by Bruce Brown). Steve McQueen, Mert Lawill and Malcolm Smith are blasting their XR 750’s up and down a lonely southern California beach at sunset, and you can only make out their silhouettes in the golden wash as the sun sinks slowly into the Pacific.


“Dear Lord,” I said as I nosed the leggy beast in the glass, “this smells fantastic.” The nose is so creamy and rich. It was the biggest bear hug of vanilla. Mixed into the wash was a component of cinnamon spice, and a faint, sugary fruitiness. The glass was like a miniature confectionary, turning out the loveliest baked sweets. It was really complex, and I sat for a long time deciphering the flavors. I turned to my friend and said, “I can’t get them all, I’m trying but I can’t. There is so much going on here.” He laughed and agreed, ‘Good, right?”

I said, “This is literally liquid luxury.”

The flavor is scrumptious, and classy. Extremely developed, given the moderate proof, but a testament to the maturation. More of the vanilla, mixed with a breath of oak and spice of the classic rye variety. Ah, that oak. A fine, thin layer of cocoa dusted over the top of the pile. There is nothing astringent, pungent or over-alcoholic. But just to remind you of the refined nature of this juice, there is pepper present that keeps the sweets in check. It’s just so composed. This really has more in common with the well-mannered releases of the era; extra smooth, the flavor and proof working together instead of independently. None of the flavor components step on each other, rather they build on each other, like a layered spice cake with butter cream frosting. I commented that there would have been no reason to fill Boston rounds in my house, for the simple reason that this bottle would not have lasted long. The mouthfeel is just so incredible, very syrupy.

The journey from flavor to finish was the whiskey equivalent of the grand symphony build at the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life”. So much flavor and mouthfeel to enjoy, building, building, building. Then BOOM, that sharp tonal smash on the piano keys delivers a moment of finality, which holds and rings out. In this case the “ring out” is the finish, revealing its purpose with a great, warmhearted burn. Nowhere near the atomic, tear inducing explosion I usually enjoy. It hit all points throughout my entire palate, complimenting and amplifying the lingering flavors, dissipating slowly. The sun sets behind the pacific. The light dies. End of scene.

The post nose gives up all that heady rye and sweet old oakiness, choco-yumminess and soft spice. I sat for many minutes, huffing them empty glass. I caught Adam looking at his watch, and I snapped out of my Van Winkle induced brain fog, remembering that the moments were fleeting, and there were more bottles to sample.

I said before that I believed this rye would be one I was smitten with. I was. I am still. In fact, I am ruined by it. I’m not a rye guy, but I am now a 1985 VWFRR, 100 proof non-chill-filtered guy. The most telling part of the tasting was this: I didn’t stop smiling the entire time I was sipping the 1985 VWFRR. I was actually aware of that. This rye just made me….happy.

Wash the glencairn. Swig some water. On to the next pour.

Part 2: Willett Bonili 16 year, Barrel 470 “Lord of Dankness”.

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