Recovering a family legacy and a world-class Bourbon
Over the past decade, the bourbon industry has experienced an unprecedented boom in the rest of the spirits world. Collectors line up outside local liquor stores hours before opening just for a chance to purchase an assigned bottle (I’m guilty). And Pappy Van Winkle, the 15-23-year-old bourbon adorned with Pappy’s own face, is the gold standard by which everyone else is judged. Bourbon has several immutable characteristics: It must be made in the United States (but it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, although 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in the Bluegrass State); it must be 51 percent corn; it must be aged in a new charred oak barrel; and it cannot enter the canyon at more than 125 degrees. In Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last, Wright Thompson tells a story about bourbon that is often lost in the furor surrounding the industry. In fact, this is not really a book on the bourbon industry, although there is enough about bourbon in it to satisfy your everyday connoisseur. But that’s not what makes it such a fascinating read. Following Julian P. Van Winkle III, the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, through his ancestral grounds in the rolling bluegrass hills of Central Kentucky, Wright tells the reader about the things that make bourbon special: family, friends and history. . Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. (our Julian’s grandfather) began his career as a whiskey wholesaler for the WL Weller & Sons Distillery. After WL Weller’s passing, Pappy and his co-worker Alex Farnsley bought the company, and after Prohibition ended, the two merged with Arthur Stitzel’s Distillery to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which opened the Derby. Day in 1935. Trouble came to the Van Winkles after Pappy died in 1965. Pappy’s mantra was “We make good bourbon with a profit if we can, with losses if necessary, but always with good bourbon.” That mantra did not continue until the next generation. Julian Jr. and his sister split Pappy’s 51 percent stake in the Van Winkle Distillery. As bourbon sales plummeted across the country, the family with a 49 percent stake wanted to sell the company. They convinced Julian Jr.’s sister that she wanted the same thing. Faced with a fractured family, Julian Jr. stopped opposing the sale and, in 1972, the company (and all of Van Winkle’s family heirlooms) was bought by the Norton Simon conglomerate. Pappyland kicks off at Kentucky Oaks 2017, where Thompson watches Julian mingle with friends, family, and fans at Churchill Downs. At this point, Thompson and Julian are almost unknown. For the next 200 pages, Thompson takes the reader on a journey through Kentucky and through time. He and Julian travel to the former Van Winkle family distillery, now owned by a conglomerate that makes Blade and Bow Bourbon, for a Derby Eve party. The two sneak out of the party to explore the historic grounds where Julian spent so much time as a child. There is a kind of melancholy. The heir to what is now the earth’s most sought-after bourbon is, in a sense, a stranger in his own land. That’s the case throughout the book, whether at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery or the old bottling plant in Lawrenceburg where Julian launched his fledgling effort to revitalize Pappy’s bourbon. In the late 1980s, Diageo, the multinational beverage company that then owned the former Stitzel-Weller distillery, decided to sell (for just $ 200 each) some of Pappy’s last barrels of bourbon. Julian bought as many barrels as he could and began bottling one of the world’s first 20-year-old bourbons. He decided to pay tribute to his family and the old distillery: he named the bourbon “Van Winkle Family Reserve” and pasted a photo of Pappy on the label. When Julian and Thompson arrive at the old Lawrenceburg bottling plant, they meet the facility’s current owner, a man who has used his wits to turn the old bottling plant warehouse into his home. The plant is a little worse for wear, not that different from how it looked when Julian spent his days bottling bourbon there. Back then, he says, the building “seemed less like a place to make fine bourbon and more like a place to successfully hide a body.” Now, it’s littered with broken machinery and electronics (along with various creatures that have taken up residence in parts of the plant where the current owner, whom Thompson describes as a hillbilly Robinson Crusoe, doesn’t venture). Julian spent hard days in that scream, fixing things with gum and rope, so to speak, while his children played in the garden. But that scream is where Pappy Van Winkle rose from the ashes. The Van Winkles now produce their bourbon through the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a huge facility that sits on the banks of the Kentucky River just outside of downtown Frankfort. That bourbon is coveted around the world. And as Thompson so cleverly describes throughout the book, it was a combination of Julian’s hard work, faith, and dedication to his family’s legacy (not to mention a once-in-a-lifetime palate!) That brought Van’s bourbon. Winkle back from the depths. Julian’s story struck a chord with me. In 1876, my great-great-grandfather HE Pogue opened a distillery in my hometown of Maysville, Ky. He, his son and his grandson ran the operation from 1876 until Prohibition finally struck the distillery’s death sentence in 1935 when HE Pogue III was forced to sell to a conglomerate. My cousins Jack and HE Pogue IV, along with their children, nieces and nephews, revived the brand in 2005. In 2012, they reestablished a distillery in Maysville, in the old family home, which sits on a hill overlooking the banks. from the Ohio River, the same site where the original distillery once produced 50 barrels of whiskey a day. When Jack died in 2015, there was a wake at the distillery; We toast with the first bottle of bourbon bearing the revitalized distillery’s name. And in July 2019, the week before I took the bar exam, my brother Ben and I went to the distillery to help bottle and package the bourbon. All the work, from distillation to packaging, is still done by the family to this day. Although this is primarily a book about Julian’s journey to revitalize the Van Winkle legacy and the family relationships that shaped that endeavor, it is also a story of Thompson’s own reckoning with his family. Thompson describes how he grew up with an alcoholic father, chose not to become a lawyer like his father was and his own struggles as a father. Like Julian’s, Thompson’s journey was determined by his relationship with his father, and the next stage on that journey was to become a father himself. Thompson also recognizes that there is great importance in connecting with your home. Whether it’s an Italian restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery, or the defunct bottling plant outside Lawrenceburg, Thompson shows that places (and the memories associated with them) can have a profound impact on the path of life. lifetime. Thompson alternates between telling Julian’s story and his own. For some, transitions can be distracting. I found them valuable in illustrating the parallels that we all somehow share with Julian’s story. Thompson is a talented storyteller, that’s for sure. But for me, what makes Pappyland so great is his masterful prose. Anyone lucky enough to wander the back roads outside Lexington should be able to close their eyes and imagine the rolling bluegrass hills and thoroughbred farms that Thompson describes. At one point, Thompson and Julian head to the Elmendorf Farm, which houses what’s left of the old Green Hills mansion. James Ben Ali Haggin, a wealthy lawyer and thoroughbred owner, built the mansion in the 1910s. All that remains today are ruins on a hill overlooking horse pastures. As Thompson cleverly describes the scene: Top right, I saw a flash of white through the trees. Then came into view, like something atop Marconi’s Tuscan hill, the strangest thing: four Corinthian columns and the wide marble and stone entrance stairs, the only part of Green Hills left. It was stranded here like Ozymandias, except instead of sand that stretched into oblivion, it was Kentucky blue-green grass. If you pick up this book in hopes of learning about the intricacies of the bourbon industry, or are waiting for an overview of Buffalo Trace’s current Van Winkle product line, you are likely to be disappointed. But if you want to see what makes bourbon (particularly Pappy Van Winkle) special, you’ll be delighted by the discussion of family, tradition, nostalgia, and history. Near the end of the book, Thompson presents one of his most memorable observations (and most important lessons): it is important to know our past, everything, the beautiful and the ugly, and it is also important to value our families and carry their memories with us, which often creates the need for polishing, cleaning and erasing. Those competing interests – clearly seeing our home and, at the same time, sculpting our past into a briefcase for family identity – are at the heart of almost every aspect of Southern life. I’ll keep this lesson in mind the next time I have a glass of bourbon. I’ll take it the way the Van Winkles prefer it: with a lemon wedge.