“Two cubes?” asks Corina Darold, the bartender at Cakes & Ale in Decatur, before she pours my glass of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-Year Family Reserve. I nod. Water unlocks the aromas and flavors of bourbon, but I particularly like the way slowly melting ice awakens the character of this unusually mature whiskey. Drinking it is like lingering over a world-class pastry chef’s ace creation: Apple and toffee scuffle for taste-bud space with sneaky spice and vanilla. A flash of orange peel shimmers through each sip’s afterglow.
The glory of this extraordinary bourbon—made with a recipe that uses wheat, rather than the more typical rye, in its corn-based sour mash—comes with a twofold price: It’s expensive and it’s notoriously hard to find. Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, its small-batch maker, releases only between 900 and 3,300 bottles of Pappy 23 annually. Your best bet for finding a bottle, which generally retails for around $230, is the Internet. Holiday Wine & Spirits on Buford Highway had a couple bottles at press time. Greens and Tower Package Stores infrequently carry it or one of the company’s lesser-aged bourbons. Local Southern-influenced restaurants sometimes receive small allotments. Cakes & Ale sells it by the glass for $24. A splurge, absolutely, but paired with one of Cynthia Wong’s desserts—say, the rhubarb–brown butter crumble I savored alongside my Pappy 23 in the spring—it’s a vice I’ll gladly pony up for. oldripvanwinkle.com
Photograph by Caroline Kilgore