Julian P. Van Winkle was a Bourbon Baron that bridged the periods from pre-Prohibition to post-Prohibition. Julian Van Winkle was born in Danville, Ky. in the year 1874, into a family that was not invested in the whiskey business. He was a well-educated young man who needed a job in 1893, so he came to Louisville, Ky. where he was hired by W.L. Weller & Sons as a salesman. He was only 19 at the time but he quickly found that he had a knack for selling whiskey. Later in life, he recalled these days in an April 9, 1959 article in the Louisville Times newspaper that Weller told him to never drink with a customer: “If you want a drink, you have samples in your bag and you can drink in your room”. This was sage advice for a new salesman not even out of his teenage years.
Julian quickly became an excellent salesman, going by horse and buggy through the hills of Kentucky selling W.L. Weller & Sons whiskeys. He would later recall that when he saw smoke coming from deep in the woods and hills, he knew that was his competition – moonshiners. W.L. Weller retired in 1896 and died a few years later. Julian remained in the company as a salesman and in 1908, he and another salesman, Alex T. Farnsley purchased controlling interest in the firm. George Weller remained as President, Farnsley was Vice President and Julian Van Winkle was Secretary-Treasurer of the new ownership. It is at this time that W.L. Weller & Sons start contract distilling with the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, also in Louisville. They form a friendship with Arthur Philip Stitzel that would last their lifetime.
During Prohibition, W.L. Weller and Sons joined forces with A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. George Weller retired in 1920 and Julian Van Winkle became president of the company. A. Ph. Stitzel became the Secretary-Treasurer in Van Winkles place. Farnsley also became Vice President of A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and Van Winkle became Secretary-Treasurer. Stitzel, of course, was President of the distillery. The distillery was a concentration warehouse and Stitzel had a license to sell medicinal spirits. Since the same three people owned both firms, Weller and Stitzel sold medicinal whiskey during those dry years.
After the repeal of Prohibition, the two firms merged to build the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. It was a tough time to build a distillery. The Great Depression was five years long when Prohibition ended, but the partners managed to find the money. Part of it came from selling the old A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery on Story Avenue in Louisville to the Frankfort Distilling Company. According to a letter written by Van Winkle, they decided to use a recipe that was from the Stitzel family that used wheat instead of rye because it tasted better at a younger age. They knew that it would take at least four years to rebuild the stocks of aging whiskey for a good bonded Bourbon. The recipe proved to be popular and they stuck with it until the distillery closed in 1992.
The 2nd world war made it hard to keep a distillery in business. The distilleries had to make industrial alcohol for the war and were only paid the cost of making the alcohol. This meant many distilleries could not pay their debtors and were forced to sell to larger companies like Schenley, National and Glenmore. Stitzel-Weller managed to avoid that and by the 1950s was thriving. Van Winkle knew that there were people like himself that remembered drinking Bourbon out of the barrel so he created a barrel proof expression of the Weller label.
First, Farnsley and then, Stitzel, passed away in the late 40s and Van Winkle gained complete control of the business. The heirs of Farnsley and Stitzel still owned their part of the business, but they trusted Julian Van Winkle to run the company. It was during this period that he became known as “Pappy” Van Winkle. He was well respected throughout the industry for his experience and leadership.
Julian Van Winkle remained a salesman at heart. He would host sales teams at the distillery and often take them shooting doves during the season. He kept a couple of bird dogs at the distillery. Van Winkle wrote advertisement articles for Old Fitzgerald in which he would tell amusing stories which ended by telling people something about the brand and why they should drink it. The 1950s were good times for the distillery, the brands and the employees. They were making money and surviving when many other independent distilleries were being purchased by large liquor companies.
The 1960s were not as kind to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. First there was a strike in 1961 that would last almost two years. Then Julian Van Winkle died in 1965. His son Julian Jr., took over but due to the changing situation, he was forced to sell the distillery in 1972. Declining Bourbon sales made it harder to make a profit and the heirs of Farnsley and Stitzel convinced Julian Van Winkle’s daughter Mary Chenault (known as “Rip”), that they should sell the distillery. Julian Jr. had no choice but to go along with the sale.
Julian Van Winkle led a full life. He also gave back to the community through charitable gifts and his leadership roles in the industry. He truly was a Bourbon Baron.
Photos courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and from the archives of Michael Veach