I first met Julian Van Winkle III in the early 1990s. He called me and asked if he could videotape the presentation I was giving to the Beargrass Creek and St. Matthews Historical Society on the history of distilling in Kentucky. I told him I had no objections and he showed up to the event with a video camera and tripod. He introduced himself and we talked for a few minutes before the presentation and then introduced me to his father’s sister who also came to the lecture. This was my very first Bourbon presentation and the Van Winkle family were just a few of the old distilling family members who were present. There were several members of the Brown family, Todd Hollenbach, Ralph Dupps and Buddy Thompson in the crowd. I knew I did well when Julian’s aunt came up to me afterwards and told me “You did well and got most of the things correct.”
Julian sent me a copy of the tape he had made and I still have that tape in my office files. I later helped his sister Sally and Sam Thomas look through the records of Stitzel-Weller at the United Distillers Archive when they were researching her book Always Fine Bourbon. This started a friendship that I have always appreciated and I have nothing but respect for the Van Winkle family. That is why I looked forward to reading this latest book about Julian and his work growing his part of the family business. I think that Wright Thompson did a very good job with the book. I do wish he had read my book first and then he would know that Kentucky had plenty of distillers during the time of the Whiskey Rebellion and those distillers that fled Pennsylvania did not stop in Kentucky where the Federal Marshal could still arrest them, but fled to Spanish territory, usually New Orleans. However, that period of history is not the focus of the book and I can forgive him for that one mistake.
Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last, Wright Thompson. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. 246 pp.
Wright Thompson states in the first chapter that when he was researching the book that he quickly decided that there were enough parallels between his life and Julian Van Winkle III’s life, that he would write the book drawing upon those parallels. On the whole it works well but there are a few times that I felt he was stretching his story a bit and he could have made his point more quickly. It is very clear that he is not a historian, but he is a talented journalist. He skillfully describes his times with Julian and discusses subjects in the book that a historian would not have considered of intehttps://pappyco.com/products/pappyland-a-story-of-family-fine-bourbon-and-the-things-that-lastrest, but they really are important to the story. A major theme of the book is just how important the whiskey Julian puts into the bottle is to him and his family. Julian’s early life at Stitzel-Weller Distillery and his relationship with his father help explain that relationship of Bourbon whiskey to the Van Winkle family. Thompson documents the tough times Julian had in the 1980s and early 1990s just staying afloat in the whiskey industry. All in all, the book does well at describing the person that is Julian Van Winkle III.
The book is a straightforward narrative. There are no illustrations or footnotes. There is no index or bibliography. Thompson does make some references to other books and writers in the story and gives credit where credit is due, and there are acknowledgements at the end of the book.
This is a very good selection for anyone creating a whiskey library. It will make a very good companion piece to Always Fine Bourbon. My one complaint is that Thompson makes it sound like Julian and his brands of whiskey were the sole reason for the present-day boom in whiskey sales. Julian was a leading player, but no more so than the Kulsveens, Elmer T. Lee, Booker Noe, Jimmy Russell and the other Master Distillers that were out there promoting Bourbon in the late 1990s. With that said, I am sure that this book will become an important reference book for future whiskey writers and historians.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller