The Stitzel-Weller distillery and its association with the Van Winkle family is legendary. So much so that to discuss it here would be redundant for the experienced bourbon connoisseur, which of course you are, right? If not, now you know what you have to learn about!
The idea here was to taste the three different "eras" of Very Very Old Fitzgerald 12yo. (1) Distilled and bottled entirely while Pappy Van Winkle was running the distillery, (2) distilled under Pappy's watch but bottled by his son Julian II, and (3) bottled in the mid-1980s with (theoretically) no Van Winkle involvement at all.
But of course, we couldn't stop there. We had to taste those in proper context! So we sandwiched that tasting inside a complete lineup of the Very Old Fitz brand.
Did these bourbons live up to the hype? Many did, and which ones were really the best depends on who you ask. What was incredibly clear was that bourbon is simply not made like this any more. At the end of the first run-through of the lineup, we attacked the LAWS bar to sample some of today's well-respected bourbons… and you know what? Most current(ish) bourbons that we otherwise loved were just plainer in comparison. Even watery. To the extent that we discussed how much, in the course of the tasting, we'd become acclimated to the more complex S-W profile. It's been said over and over again, and it's true: for whatever reason, they just don't make bourbon like they used to anymore. There definitely is just "something extra" in these premium Stitzel-Weller products.
What was especially obvious was the difference between production eras on the 12yo's. The 1980's-bottled one was universally considered the least delicious, and while it was still good bourbon, it just didn't come close to the magic in the VVOF's bottled in 1964 and 1968. The 1980's VVOF was lighter, with a nuttier character to it, and didn't taste particularly unusual compared to today's stuff.
Between the 1964 and 1968, it was a matter of preference -- but the majority voted the 1964 the favorite of the night, with some members saying it might be the best bourbon they've ever tasted. Yep.
We also sampled the rarely-seen 10yo, 15yo, and 18yo, but since few people read down this far on the page, I'll let you click through the tasting notes above to get your own impression. And be sure to check out Sku's writeup on his personal blog