Books

Recovering a Family Legacy, and a World-Class Bourbon

Wright Thompson on CBS Sunday Morning in 2018. (CBS Sunday Morning/Screengrab via YouTube; book cover via Amazon)
Pappyland is a story about what really makes bourbon special.

Over the last decade or so, the bourbon industry has experienced a boom that is unparalleled across the rest of the liquor world. Collectors line up outside their local liquor stores hours before opening just for the chance to purchase an allocated bottle (I am guilty). And Pappy Van Winkle—the 15- to 23-year-old bourbon emblazoned with the face of Pappy himself — is the gold standard against which all others are judged. Bourbon has several immutable characteristics: It must be made in the United States (but it needn’t 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 barrel at higher than 125 proof.

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 about the bourbon industry, though there is enough about bourbon in it to satisfy your everyday connoisseur. But that’s not what makes it such an enthralling read. In 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, friendships, and history.

Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. (our Julian’s grandfather) began his career as a whiskey wholesaler for the W. L. Weller & Sons distillery. After W. L. Weller’s passing, Pappy and his coworker Alex Farnsley purchased the company, and after Prohibition ended, the two merged with Arthur Stitzel’s distillery to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which opened on Derby Day in 1935. Trouble descended on the Van Winkles after Pappy died in 1965. Pappy’s mantra was “We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” That mantra did not continue to the next generation. Julian Jr. and his sister split Pappy’s 51 percent stake in the Van Winkle distillery. As bourbon sales spiraled downward nationwide, the family that owned a 49 percent stake wanted to sell the company. They convinced Julian Jr.’s sister that she wanted the same. Faced with a fractured family, Julian Jr. stopped opposing the sale, and in 1972, the company (and all of the Van Winkle family heirlooms) was purchased by conglomerate Norton Simon.

Pappyland begins at the 2017 Kentucky Oaks, where Thompson watches Julian mingle with friends, family, and admirers at Churchill Downs. At this point, Thompson and Julian are all but strangers. Over the next 200 pages, Thompson takes the reader on a journey through Kentucky, and through time. He and Julian travel to the old Van Winkle family distillery — now owned by a conglomerate that makes Blade and Bow Bourbon — for a Derby Eve party. The two sneak away from the party to explore the historic grounds where Julian spent so much time as a child. There is a sort of melancholy. The heir to what is now the most sought-after bourbon on earth is, in a sense, a stranger in his own land. That is the case throughout the book, whether it be at the old Stitzel-Weller distillery, or at 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 old Stitzel-Weller distillery, decided to sell off (for as low as $200 each) some of the last barrels of the bourbon that Pappy distilled. Julian bought as many barrels as he could afford and began bottling one of the world’s first 20-year-old bourbons. He decided to pay homage to his family and to the old distillery: He named the bourbon “Van Winkle Family Reserve” and slapped a picture of Pappy on the label.

When Julian and Thompson arrive at the old Lawrenceburg bottling plant, they meet with the current owner of the facility, a man who has used his backwoods ingenuity to convert the storage room of the old bottling plant into his home. The plant is a little worse for the wear — not so different from how it looked when Julian spent his days bottling bourbon there. Back then, he says, the building “looked less like a place to make fine bourbon and more like a place where you’d successfully hide a body.” Now, it’s full of broken machinery and electronics (along with various critters that have taken up residence in the parts of the plant where the current owner — who Thompson describes as a hillbilly Robinson Crusoe — doesn’t venture). Julian spent hard days in that holler, fixing things with chewing gum and string, so to speak, while his children played on the grounds. But that holler is where Pappy Van Winkle rose from the ashes.

The Van Winkles now produce their bourbon through the Buffalo Trace distillery, an enormous facility that sits on the banks of the Kentucky River just outside downtown Frankfort. That bourbon is coveted worldwide. And as Thompson so artfully 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 the Van Winkle’s bourbon back from the depths.

Julian’s story struck a chord with me. In 1876, my great-great-great grandfather H. E. Pogue started a distillery in my hometown of Maysville, Ky. He, his son, and his grandson ran the operation from 1876 until Prohibition eventually rang the distillery’s death knell in 1935 when H. E. Pogue III was forced to sell to a conglomerate. My cousins Jack and H. E. Pogue IV, along with their children, nieces, and nephews, revived the brand in 2005. In 2012, they re-established a distillery in Maysville, in the old family home, which lies on a hill overlooking the banks of the Ohio River, the same site where the original distillery once churned out 50 barrels of whiskey a day. When Jack died in 2015, there was a wake at the distillery; we toasted with the first bottle of bourbon to bear 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 of the work — from distillation to packing — to this day is still done by the family.

Although this is primarily a book about Julian’s path to revitalizing the Van Winkle’s legacy and about the familial relationships that shaped that endeavor, it is also a story of Thompson’s own reckoning with his family. Thompson describes growing up with an alcoholic father, choosing not to become a lawyer like his father was, and his own struggles as a father. Much like Julian’s, Thompson’s journey was shaped by his relationship with his father, and the next stage in that journey was becoming a father himself. Thompson also recognizes that there is a profound importance in connecting with your home. Be it an Italian restaurant in Clarksdale, Miss., the old Stitzel-Weller distillery, or the defunct bottling plant outside of Lawrenceburg, Thompson shows that places (and the memories associated with them) can have a profound impact on one’s life path. Thompson switches back and forth between telling Julian’s story and his own. Some may find the transitions distracting. I found them valuable in illustrating the parallels that, in some ways, we all share with Julian’s story.

Thompson is a talented storyteller, that’s for sure. But to me, what makes Pappyland so great is his masterly prose. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to meander through the backroads outside Lexington should be able to close his eyes and picture the rolling bluegrass hills and thoroughbred farms Thompson describes. At one point, Thompson and Julian make their way to Elmendorf Farm, on which stands what is left of the old Green Hills mansion. James Ben Ali Haggin, a wealthy attorney and thoroughbred owner, built the mansion in the 1910s. All that remains today are ruins on a hill overlooking horse pastures. As Thompson artfully describes the scene:

Up to the right, I saw a flash of white through the trees. Then it came into view, like something on Marconi’s Tuscan hilltop, the strangest thing: four Corinthian columns and the wide marble and stone entrance stairs, the only part of Green Hills that remains. It was stranded out here like Ozymandias, except instead of sand stretching to oblivion, it was green Kentucky bluegrass.

If you pick up this book hoping to learn about the intricacies of the bourbon industry or expecting an overview of the current lineup of Van Winkle products from Buffalo Trace, you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you want to see what makes bourbon (particularly Pappy Van Winkle) special, then you will be enchanted 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’s important to know our past, all of it, the beautiful and the ugly, and it is also important to value our families and carry their memories with us, which often creates the urge to polish and clean and erase. Those competing interests—to look clearly at our home while also sculpting our past into a carrying case for familial identity—are at the heart of nearly every part of Southern life.

I’ll keep this lesson in mind next time I have a glass of bourbon. I’ll have it the way the Van Winkles prefer it: with a twist of lemon.

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