I keep hearing people telling me that they picked up “three bottles of Pappy” or five bottles or some other number of bottles and then find out what they have is a couple of bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo and a Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo. None of these are “Pappy Van Winkle” Bourbon. Different brands. Different taste profile. I just shake my head in wonder and let it go because they don’t know any better, but there is history to the brand.
Julian P. Van Winkle (Pappy) was one of the three founders of Stitzel-Weller distillery after prohibition. He was the salesman for the three partners and the most publicly recognized face in the company. He also out lived Farnsley and Stitzel by about 15 years. His son, Julian P. Van Winkle, Jr. ran the company after his death until 1972 when the company was sold to Norton-Simon. It was not Julian Jr.’s fault the distillery was sold. It was a combination of circumstances that included the heirs of Stitzel, Farnsley and even his own sister wanted the money instead of the distillery. Who can blame them when Bourbon sales were declining every year and inventories were building up in the warehouses with barrels of Bourbon they could not sell.
Julian Jr., sold the distillery but remained in the business. Part of the sale included a clause that allowed him to purchase barrels of whiskey for bottling his own product. He also purchased barrels from other distilleries such as Yellowstone to fill his decanters. Yes decanters. That was his primary business in the 70s with “Apothecary” decanters decorated for St. Patrick’s Day or college football teams, or any other event that the customer wanted to commemorate. He also revived the “Old Rip Van Winkle” label that had been dormant for years. He bottled The Old Rip Van Winkle as 7 and 8 year old expressions. His son Julian III would change this to 10 yo 90 proof, a 10 yo 107 proof and eventually a 15 yo 107 proof all in the drum shaped bottle with a similar parchment look label. Julian P. Van Winkle III joins his father in the business in 1977 and inherited the company when his father passed away in November 1981.
Julian the third is a true master of whiskey. He knows good whiskey when he tastes it or at least he has many people that share his preference in whiskey. He took his father’s small bottling business and grew it into what it is today, but it was not easy. Julian Jr. had been doing his bottling at the Old Fitzgerald Distillery, but in 1982 that contract ended and Julian III had to find a new home. He purchased the old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky. in 1983. Juliann III also expanded the sales in to Japan by supplying whiskey for such brands as Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs and others. Julian III picked many great barrels of bourbon for his brands. He had the advantage of purchasing only what he thought was good whiskey and passing on barrels below his standards. It was not easy and he worked many long hours at his Lawrenceburg bottling hall and barrel rackhouse filling orders and shipping cases.
It was in the late 80s that Julian found a fantastic image of his grandfather and wanted to honor him by using it on a Bourbon label. It took a few years but he finally found the Bourbon for this new brand. He had managed to purchase the last of the Old Boone whiskey from its owners, Wild Turkey. They had purchased the Bourbon in the early 70s when the brand was growing and they needed whiskey to fill bottles in new markets. They purchased their own distillery at about that time and the Old Boone whiskey was not needed for their needs so they sold it to Julian. Julian Jr. had purchased Old Boone Bourbon to fill his decanters and bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle in the early 70s before Old Boone closed its doors, so Julian III was familiar with the product. The Old Boone distillery was in Valley Station in the southwest corner of Jefferson County, Kentucky had closed in the mid 1970’s and the whiskey Julian purchased was not 20 years old when he purchased it. He placed the barrels in the warehouse and waited. In the meantime he introduced the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo in 1991. Julian then created a label with the image of Pappy he had found and thus was born Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 years old Bourbon. Julian later told me that he was scared to death when he released the brand as he had no idea if people would drink a Bourbon that old. It did succeed because Julian III knows great whiskey that has aged well. He later released a 23 yo version of the brand using the same whiskey. When he ran out of that whiskey he started using wheated Bourbon from Stitzel-Weller to fill the bottles. There was a need to fill bottles because the brand was a success. The brand earned top honors in the ratings at the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago and Wine Enthusiast Magazine published the results. This high score inspired others to concentrate on promoting older versions of their brands. Things were going well but Julian knew that trouble was down the line in the future. United Distillers had closed Stitzel-Weller at the first of July 1992 and he was going to need whiskey for his brand. Not just any whiskey, but old whiskey because the youngest product he sold was ten years old. He had 10 years old Rip Van Winkle, 12 years old Van Winkle Special Reserve, 15 years old Rip Van Winkle, 20 and 23 Years Old Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve brands of Bourbon and a 13 years old Van Winkle Family Reserve rye to support.
Julian told me at the time that he did not sign on with Buffalo Trace for himself, but for his son Preston. He knew that there was a chance he would be retired before the whiskey made at Buffalo Trace was ready to bottle. This was in the year 2000 and the whiskey made for Pappy then is still not ready, well sort of. After signing on with Buffalo Trace the 15 yo Rip Van Winkle was changed to 15 yo Pappy Van Winkle, but remained a 107 proof whiskey with only a bottle and label change. That whiskey is ready, but unfortunately they did not make enough to meet the demand and it is still in short supply. The whiskey for the older versions is still the barrels he purchased of Stitzel-Weller Bourbon purchased when it was still available. It is very limited in supply so that meant that in order to keep the brands alive, he had to purchase some barrels that he probably would have rejected when he had plenty of barrels to choose from. It is still a great Bourbon because Julian III has a great knowledge of how to age barrels for long term maturation and a great sense of taste and aroma.
Julian P. Van Winkle III has done a lot of hard work to create the brands he is known for today. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is a great product in all versions, but so are all of his other expressions. I personally like the 10yo Rip Van Winkle quite a lot. I also take a minute when I drink it to remember not Pappy Van Winkle, but his son Julian Jr., who kept the family in the business and made possible the success of his son Julian III by doing so. That is one reason it irks me when people call this Bourbon “Pappy”. To me Old Rip Van Winkle will always be associated with Julian Van Winkle, Jr., a great whiskey man in his own rights.
(Check out Pappy & Co, the merchandise arm of the Van Winkle Family Business)
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl