June 11, 2020
Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald and everything Van Winkle (from Buffalo Trace) are some of the most sought-after bourbons on the planet, vaunted for their heritage, quality, and rarity. Funny thing is, both are also wheated bourbons, in the minority of bourbon made today. Just like bourbon made with rye as the main secondary grain, there can be a lot of variation between wheated bourbons from different distilleries because of different mashbills, yeast, barrel aging, etc.
Since I am exceedingly fortunate enough to have access to both Old Fitzgerald 15 Year, the last release from 2019, and Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year, part of the heavily anticipated annual Van Winkle releases, I want to do the tough work of comparing them to find out just how different these Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace wheated bourbons are from one another. Given how different their rye bourbons are, it’s easy to expect that the wheated ones will be very different as well, so let’s find out in this Old Fitzgerald 15 Year vs Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year comparison.
The below table outlines key facts and figures for each wheated bourbon.
Old Fitzgerald 15 Year is like roasting smores on an open fire in the backyard while Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year is a like a fruit basket. As drastically different as they are, I’m crowning Old Fitzgerald 15 Year the winner because it gives me so much more of what I want. Some will prefer Van Winkle because it is fruitier and less dark and nutty, and that’s good too. Both are good, Old Fitz is better for me.
I haven’t had Van Winkle Special Reserve since I reviewed it in 2018, but I’m pleased at how floral, fruity, and calm it is. The oak is so subdued that I wouldn’t guess that this was 12 years old. It truly is a bouquet of fragrant scents that remind me of a blend of bourbon and pear / apple brandy on the nose, while the flavors shift towards honey and vanilla with complementary fruit. It’s delicate, viscous, and complex, albeit a little underwhelming, underproofed, and occasionally forgettable.
Old Fitzgerald 15 is absurdly rich and flavorful, delivering big and bold flavors of caramel, honeycomb, chocolate, toasted marshmallows, smoked oak, cinnamon, candied oranges, ripe peaches…the list goes on. It just makes me say “wow”. I always had to sip Old Fitz 15 second in order to not overpower Van Winkle’s softer flavors, again a testament to Old Fitz’s bigger personality even with only 4.8% higher ABV. Old Fitz 15 is a wonderful bourbon that I won’t soon forget.