The Van Winkle Family have never been distillers. They have never held a job where they made the mash or ran the still to make their living, however they still had a huge impact on the industry and Bourbon as we know it today.
Julian P. Van Winkle started as a salesperson for W. L. Weller and Sons in 1893. In 1908 he and Alex T. Farnsley bought controlling interest in the firm. During Prohibition they became part of the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery on Story Ave. in Louisville and distributed “medicinal spirits” using Stitzel’s license to do so. When Prohibition ended they formally merged and built the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Stitzel was in charge of production, Farnsley was in charge of finances and Van Winkle was in charge of sales. It was in this position of sales that Van Winkle started to change the industry.
In the late 1940s Van Winkle created a brand called “Weller Original Barrel Proof” because he and many other consumers remembered the Bourbon that they purchased straight from the barrel before Prohibition. It was marketed at barrel proof that ranged from 110 to 115 the first couple of years but they then decided that rather than applying for new labels for every release, they would simply bottle it at barrel entry proof of 107. This later became Weller Antique and was bottled at 107 proof at 7 years old. Van Winkle was not the first to bottle at barrel proof, but Stitzel-Weller was the first post-prohibition company to market the brand as a barrel proof Bourbon.
In 1953 Julian Van Winkle started writing a series of “columns” that were really advertising for the Old Fitzgerald brand. They told some very folksy stories that always had a moral at the end that encouraged one to drink Old Fitzgerald. They were colorful and fun advertisements that would show the industry that it did not have to take itself too seriously to sell whiskey. Bill Samuels, Jr. would later take the same tone with his Maker’s Mark advertising.
Julian P. Van Winkle died in 1965 and his son, Julian, Jr. would take the reins of the company. His tenure as President would not last long as declining whiskey sales and the fact that the heirs to Farnsley and Stitzel wanted to sell the distillery made it impossible to keep the company. In 1972, Julian, Jr. had to sell the company to Norton-Simon but stayed in the industry purchasing whiskey from his old distillery, as well as, other barrels on the market and bottling them in decanters under the Old Rip Van Winkle brand. He passed away in 1981 and his son, Julian P. Van Winkle III took over his father’s business.
The young Julian has had a huge impact on Bourbon. He liked older Bourbon and there were plenty of barrels for sale in the 1980s. The bonding period had been raised to 20 years in 1958 so the distilleries no longer had to pay their taxes to the Federal Government after 8 years and older whiskeys were on the market. Julian Jr. had bottled the Old Fitzgerald brand with 8, 10, 12, and 15 year old expressions in the 1960s and early 70s.
The new owners continued this practice into the 1980s. Julian III created 10 and 15 year old versions of his father’s brand, Old Rip Van Winkle. He quit bottling decanters and focused on brand building. He created a Van Winkle Special Reserve “Lot B” and bottled it at 12 years old. His real success came when he decided to honor his grandfather by creating Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 year old in 1995. He was not sure that a Bourbon that old would sell but was pleased to learn that it not only sold, but earned a 99 rating from Wine Enthusiasts Magazine the following year. Julian III showed the world that old Bourbon can be good Bourbon. He followed up this success with a 23 year old expression of the Pappy Van Winkle brand.
The Van Winkle family helped change the Bourbon industry in the 125 years since they became part of the whiskey world. Barrel proof whiskeys, colorful advertisements and extra aged American Whiskeys are just part of the influences of the Van Winkle family. The fourth generation of the family have entered the business with Julian III’s son Preston working with his father selling the whiskey and his three daughters owning a company selling Van Winkle brand memorabilia and other spirits-related items. The van Winkle family will be in the industry for at least another generation, creating their own legacies.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl