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Who was Pappy Van Winkle and why is his whiskey so expensive?

A story of family, bourbon candy and things that last
By Wright Thompson

For the dedicated whiskey connoisseur, sampling Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbon is a quest worthy of Tolkien. With small production and a long 15-23 year aging process that creates a tight supply / high demand situation, the Spirit is decidedly elusive at its starting retail price of around $ 120. Bars that stock it can charge $ 75 or more, and collector sites list the whiskey for $ 5,000 a bottle. So what is that about Pappy Van Winkle?

Wright Thompson sets out to answer this question in “Pappyland: A Family Story, Bourbon Candy, and Things That Last”. The book is a moving journey that combines biography, autobiography, philosophy, Kentucky history, history of the origins of bourbon and an insider’s perspective on the making and marketing of Van Winkle whiskey. The line of human strength running through all of this is Julian P. Van Winkle III, the grandson of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr., who opened the Stitzel-Weller Distillery just outside of Louisville on Derby Day in 1935 and produced various brands until he died in 1965.

“There was no way to separate the bourbon mythology from its personal history,” Thompson writes of Julian III. To understand the story, the author spent part of three years following Van Winkle as he continued the family business he took over in 1981. Now produced in partnership with the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfurt, his Pappy Van Winkle’s family reserve is a liquid tribute to a grandson. to his ancestors. Thompson, a senior ESPN writer from Mississippi, identifies himself as the Boswell of Bourbon Country here – a keen literary watcher and respectful fanboy with an obvious affection for his subject, even dubbing him “Booze Yoda.”

“Pappyland” evolves smoothly through the family tradition with the subtle nuances of a well-aged bourbon; it has top notes of stoicism and melancholy and a lingering finish of pride, even when recounting the tough times. Everyone drinks a lot of really great whiskey and Thompson admits, “To be honest it gets repetitive after a while, I know. I know. ”But he goes on to report in detail what goes into each coveted bottle bearing Van Winkle’s name.

Though speckled with humor and light moments, “Pappyland” takes a critical approach to the cultivation of squeezing corn, shattering the myth as needed to reveal lesser-known bits and pieces, like the fact that popular brands like Elijah Craig and Evan Williams were created by Jewish marketing distillers. While it sometimes feels like Thompson is circling the block (stopping for pie and coffee) with a few anecdotes, his ability to zoom in and out from the global to the personal level sets things right. perspective, especially with complex topics like dynamics. of the father-son relationship.

Even beyond the playlist on an honky-tonk jukebox, the image of American whiskey is often tied to melancholy memories and a lonely longing for the past. As novelist Walker Percy wrote in a 1975 essay for Esquire, “Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust. Thompson echoes that sentiment in his own way: “Vodka is for skinny and scotch for wrestlers and bourbon is for homesick.

It is no longer the headquarters of the family business, but Pappy Van Winkle’s original 1935 Stitzel-Weller distillery still stands, now owned by a multinational beverage company and used as a tourist stopover for the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey brand. A plaque bearing Pappy’s mantra remains on the ground: “We make bourbon candy, at a profit if we can, at a loss if necessary, but still bourbon candy.” As “Pappyland” makes clear, profit and loss is a part of life, and yes, bourbon is always good.