Van Winkle Special Reserve review

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year

Van Winkle Special Reserve review

Distillery: Old Rip Van Winkle

Region: Kentucky, USA

Type: Bourbon (wheated)

Alcohol: 45.2%

Composition: 70% Corn, 16% Wheat, 14% Barley

Aged: 12 years, aged in virgin American white oak (opened in 2015)

Color: 1.3/2.0 on the color scale (russet, muscat)

Price: $70 MSRP (750mL), but $600+ in many places

From the Old Rip Van Winkle website:

“Van Winkle Special Reserve is the perfect combination of age and proof. This sweet, full-bodied whiskey has been described by some as “nectar.” The 12 years of aging and medium proof seem to be just right in creating a very pleasant drink of whiskey. This fine bourbon can compete with any excellent cognac as an after-dinner drink. The overall impression is rich and deep.”

Company Website

Van Winkle Special Reserve Overview

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year is from the fabled and incredibly difficult to find Pappy Van Winkle Line, otherwise known as “Pappy”. I’m calling it Pappy because it’s on the website even though it isn’t on the label.

You don’t have to agree. This is one of the few wheated bourbons on the market, and is produced (but not owned) by Buffalo Trace. Since this is a “Pappy” product, obtaining this at a “reasonable” price is difficult given the insane demand and once-a-year release. As a result, it sells out immediately or is sold via lottery. If you see it available when you walk-in to a store, it’s generally marked-up by a lot, often to over $1000. It’s laughably ridiculous. Given the hype, is this a top tier wheated bourbon? Let’s find out and see.

Van Winkle Special Reserve Smell

Van Winkle 12 immediately hits my nose with an almost overwhelming surge of alcohol, surprising for something that’s 45.2% and 12 years old. After that initial alcohol rush, there are very nice secondary notes of orange, with some grapefruit, green grapes, and apple juice that aren’t strong, but easy enough to pick out from the alcohol. The citrus and fruit notes, combined with a little bit of honey from the grains remind me of orange marmalade spread on wheat toast, as well as Tang, the sweet orange drink. There’s also a hint of walnut and cherry, as if it was an amontillado sherry. There is surprisingly only a little woodiness on the nose. 


Once the glass is empty and only the heads remain, I smell apple juice, allspice, and cinnamon. After leaving the glass alone for a few more minutes, the glass emits a slightly dusty, wood chest that hasn’t been opened for years, scent. That combination of must and orange also leads to dried orange peel. The dusty smell really threw me off, so after my first glass, I cleaned it and tried it again. Even then, that musty smell reappeared. It’s not unpleasant, just unexpected.


Underneath the alcohol, is a complex, citrusy, fruity, and nutty whiskey. It’s a unique scent, very different from the usual wood and brown sugar-forward bourbons. It’s a shame that it’s dominated by alcohol, it could have been so much more. 

Van Winkle Special Reserve Taste & Aftertaste

Unlike the smell, the Van Winkle Special Reserve is gentler on the palate. The first taste is not of powerful alcohol, but a moderate citrus taste with subdued notes of honey and grain, again reminding me of orange marmalade on toast. I can see how people describe it as “nectar”. The alcohol is present in the background, but does not overpower the other flavors. There is also some wood spice in the taste. Unlike Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, another wheated bourbon I reviewed, the Special Reserve does not have the sourdough or yeast taste.


The aftertaste is short, leaving light flavors of cereal, wood, and oddly enough, coconut-flavored coffee creamer (raw coconut meat, cream, and sugar). Swishing the whiskey around leads to a longer aftertaste and adds mint chewing gum after you’ve just spit it out of your mouth, something I would expect from a bourbon with rye, not wheat.


Overall, Van Winkle Special reserve’s flavors are very good and enjoyable, but not outstanding. The citrus and fruit-forward notes are unique and interesting, but nothing pops out and makes me think that this is amazing. If some of the flavors were a bit more bold, this could be excellent.

Place on the Whiskey Shelf

Mid shelf+

Overall, the Van Winkle Special reserve is a very good, but not great bourbon. On taste alone, it’s nearly excellent, but lacks a “wow” factor because of its muted and subdued flavors. Unfortunately, the smell detracts from the overall experience because of the overpowering alcohol on the nose. While the fruit notes in the Van Winkle Special Reserve are unique, especially in bourbon, I don’t think that there’s anything exceptional about it to take it to the “Top Shelf” level. The whole time, I just thought “This is pretty good and unique, I’d drink this again.”


For better or worse, this is one of those “rare” bottles that flies off the shelf regardless of how good everything else is around it. The Van Winkle name alone elevates it to an unobtainable luxury whiskey, but the hype doesn’t match the liquid inside. To be fair, I would still buy one if I could get it for $70 plus tax, but I couldn’t justify much paying more than the asking price, especially not $600+.

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