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In this episode of “Next Round,” your host Zach Geballe speaks with Wright Thompson, author of “Pappyland.” Thompson’s story focuses on three generations of Van Winkle brewers and the harrowing journey that led to the world’s most exclusive bourbon. The distillery first opened in 1935, with the team breaking ground the day after Prohibition ended. From there, the Van Winkles were among the first to produce a strong, wheated bourbon and edge away from the typical corn and rye bourbon formula.
Through no fault of their own, the Van Winkles eventually lost their original Stitzel-Weller distillery due to a fluctuating market and lack of interest in craft bourbon. By 1972, Pappy Van Winkle had passed, leaving the distillery to his son, who later sold it and opened Old Rip Van Winkle. Years later, he passed the distillery down to his son Julian Van Winkle, whose story has become the focal point of “Pappyland.”
Thompson discusses Julian’s quest to produce the bourbon his grandfather used to make, which eventually received a 99 score from the Bev Institute. Almost immediately after this announcement, a bourbon craze began, and now, bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle can be found for $1,600 apiece at liquor stores on Sunset Boulevard. Despite this, 2021 will be the distillery’s first year in the black, and Julian has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Zach: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is “Next Round,” a VinePair Podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on the issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Wright Thompson, author of the newly released “Pappyland.” Wright, thanks so much for your time.
Wright: No, it’s my pleasure.
Z: So, let’s start out with just a little bit about how this idea came to be. What was it about the story of Julian Van Winkle, who’s kind of the centerpiece of the story, and who is the living connection to the history of Pappy Van Winkle. How did this all come about?
W: I met Julian years ago at a party in Atlanta. And I obviously knew what Van Winkle was and liked it. But I didn’t really know the story. I falsely and unfairly assumed that he was like a little Richie Rich — born on third base and thought he hit a triple, just inherited this booze empire. And it turns out, when I found out that his grandfather Pappy built it, and then his father, through no fault of his own — just the bourbon business completely collapsed in the late ’60s and ’70s — and they lost the distillery. So Julian built it back up from scratch, and it took a very long time. To the point that he took out so many loans to keep this thing afloat against all sound business reasons, that they’re finally paying the loans off this year. 2021 will be the first year in the black.
Z: That’s amazing. And it’s interesting, one of the things that comes through extremely strongly in the book, at least in my reading of it, is there’s this real sense of loss and regret that seems palpable to Julian’s life story and to the story of the distillery and of the bourbon. But also — again I apologize if I’m reading too much into it — but it feels like something that kind of connected the two of you. That the way that the bourbon takes him back in time seems to resonate with you, too. Is that accurate?
W: Well it’s that and I heard in “Dolly Parton’s America” podcast, which is brilliant. But the person who made it had this point where they said that, and I didn’t know this, but nostalgia comes from the Greek words for “home” and “pain.” And that idea feels like it is in the same frequency and key as bourbon. And so, yes, there is this idea that a bottle of aged finally crafted bourbon is both proof of the inexorable passage of time, and also, in some ways, an attempt to stop it. I liked that quote that “Everything dies, maybe that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies one day comes back.” It’s both.
Z: Very cool. And I know you mentioned previously the struggle that Julian went through to bring the bourbon back from the dead, essentially. And obviously there’s much more than we’re going to get to in this interview, and the book is full of these incredible recountings of everything that he went through. But I think that one piece of it that I’m fascinated by is, in a way, he’s almost haunted by the whiskey that he tasted as a young person when his family still owned the distillery, and I would just love your perspective on that. It feels like that was literally a part of him, was that your sense?
W: One, it feels like it’s very much a part of him. And two, when you realize that it’s real, that he is not trying to make “fine bourbon”. And he’s not trying to make “highly sought-after bourbon.” And he’s not trying to make bourbon that the best palates in the world find “perfect.” He is on a memory quest to try to put bourbon out into the world every year that reminds him of this smell and this taste that doesn’t exist anymore. If you stumble across an old bottle of even just crap bourbon, you know, I got a pint not crap but just mid-level stuff. I got a pint from the ’70s a couple of weeks ago, a pint of Old Charter. And it’s unbelievable. So just what people accept now as the standard, because the bourbon industry is so run by accountants and tax lawyers, that they could make a better thing, they just choose not to. And craft distillers have no shot, because they don’t have access to these huge rickhouses and the capital it takes to sit this stuff up there for 23 years. And frankly, the deeply ingrained, handed-down knowledge of barrels and rickhouses. I mean, distillers don’t make bourbon, warehouses do and barrels do. And to me, the most important person at a distillery is the person in charge of the rickhouses. Anybody can build a still off the internet and make whiskey. You and I could be making whiskey in 72 hours. Literally. And so that’s what’s so interesting is that he is chasing something that he knows is gone and that can never come back, and so it’s that thing you talked about earlier, the regret and loss.
Z: Yeah. I’m wondering, ‘cause I think it’s such an interesting piece of this story and I think of particular interest to a lot of our listeners who may have had a chance to try a little bit of what is out there from the distillery but not from the original distillery. The new project that Julian’s been working on. So can you talk a little bit about how the original Pappy Van Winkle came to be? ‘Cause one of the fun things about the book, of course, is that it’s a story of the three generations of the Van Winkle family, and Pappy seems like a real character and an iconoclast in the bourbon industry at the time. So can you talk a little bit about the founding of the distillery and of the brand?
W: It helps to go back to Pappy, who started the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. It opened on Derby Day 1935. They broke ground literally the day after Prohibition ended. And they made a lot of Cabin Still, they made Rebel Yell, they made Old Weller, but the flagship brand was Old Fitzgerald and Very Old Fitzgerald and Very, Very Old Fitzgerald. And so that was fine aged wheated bourbon. Pappy died in 1965, and Julian’s father took over. Julian’s father was a legit war hero, Silver Star in the Pacific, just a bad-a** But by 1972, he had lost the distillery. The whiskey business was just in free fall, and it pretty much stayed in free fall until the year 2000. Julian’s dad left Stitzel-Weller after he had to sell it and started the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. And he was buying barrels of Stitzel-Weller that he had made, buying back barrels of his own whiskey and bottling it. And it was the only thing he knew how to do, and he just couldn’t imagine a life not in the whiskey business. And then he died relatively soon thereafter, and Julian always felt like losing the distillery killed him. It’s interesting. Julian said there were two things you didn’t talk to his dad about: the war and losing the distillery. To let you know how both of those things existed in the same way — home and pain again, you know? And so when Julian’s dad died, Julian was like, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” And so he just spent through the inheritance and started borrowing money, and he kept putting this whiskey out, and he was bottling a lot of different stuff. A lot of Old Boone was made, which is so good. It was made by Wild Turkey. And then in the ’90s, he got a phone call from somebody over at the distillery, and they were selling these barrels of Stitzel-Weller bourbon. And nobody wanted this stuff, which is crazy to think about now. I mean Stitzel-Weller bourbon, which everyone considers is the finest bourbon ever made and that will ever be made, was 2 percent of the Crown Royal blend.
Z: I didn’t know that until reading the book, and I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes just to sit with that.
W: No it’s just unbelievable how much money they threw away. And so Julian started bottling this stuff, and he had Old Stitzel-Weller. And so as a tribute to Pappy, he started putting out Pappy Van Winkle, and no one wanted it for a little while. And then in 1997, the beverage — I don’t even know what the Beverage Institute is and I wrote a book about this stuff — but they got a 99 score, which set the “cheffy booze world” on fire. And in the way that whatever Anna Wintour puts on Vogue ends up in Kmart six years later, that score, and the chef’s fascination with this perfect product, filtered. And a bourbon craze ignited, and the degree to which Julian started the craze or was the first beneficiary of it, it’s sort of impossible to sort out. But it started with him. The hows and the mechanisms of that are really hard to unwind, but the bourbon world we know today started basically then.
Z: Yeah. And I’m wondering, you mentioned that whole “sea change” in bourbon, where it went from something where there was no market for high-end bourbon or even maybe mid-tier bourbon to now where it is. And I’m wondering, obviously Julian has in some ways benefited from that, you mentioned at the beginning your impression of him before ever meeting him was kinda “here’s this guy who’d lucked his way into this inheritance, essentially.” But there’s something that I get out of the book, and obviously you’ve met the man and spent time with him, and obviously you wrote a book about him with him, and so my sense is that at best, there’s a pain to the sense that this has become something that is so sought after.
W: It has benefits, but not that many benefits. They don’t make enough of it. Nobody’s getting rich. He’s just getting yelled at. But all he wants is for every single person who drinks bourbon to be able to drink Old Rip Van Winkle every single day. And then to have the three bottles of Pappy, they’re not meant to be a stepladder of greatness, they’re three very different things. And so, I think in his mind, he would love for everyone’s decanter to be full of Old Rip and for you to have a bottle of 15, 20, or 23, depending on what you like for special occasions, and that every person who loves bourbon would be able to do that. That’s what he would like. I mean, he’s the first person who will tell you “no bourbon in the world is worth $3,000.” And it’s interesting because they’re really against the secondary market for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is there’s a lot of counterfeiting out there. I hope I’m not talking out of school saying this, I don’t remember if this is in the book or not. I might’ve found this out afterwards. I don’t remember ‘cause I kept hanging out with them after the book was finished, so there were a couple of things I learned afterwards that that were too late for the book. Someone has a Buffalo Trace capper. So you can’t really tell the difference between the fakes and the real ones, except for hidden things that only the distillery knows. And so, some of these fakes are really good and all the fakes that get confiscated get sent to the distillery, and Julian goes in and tastes them. And he’s always like, “surprisingly, some people put really good whiskey in the fakes. It’s not ours, but it’s good.” But if you know that he’s on a memory quest and that he wants every bottle to be the closest he can do to putting out a very specific taste and smell out into the world, the counterfeits — not only are you cheating people, it defeats his entire purpose for doing this.
Z: Yeah. That’s fascinating. It’s so easy to get relegated. And I think I’m guilty of this, many people frame any conversation around his bourbons as this conversation about the price and the scarcity and the conflict between the demand and the secondary market. And that’s one of the reasons I love reading the book, is it’s obviously this incredibly personal journey for Julian, and you just get this sense of this. It is very moving and gives the bourbon in some ways — well this is my conjecture so you can tell me if you agree or disagree — but bourbon has become this huge industry. And you mentioned the declining overall quality that’s come with a lot of shortcuts that are taken for financial reasons, whether it’s barreling and bottling at lower proofs or just releasing products earlier with less aging or all of the above. But it is interesting to think about how there’s something else going on here that’s not a commercial story. ‘Cause I think those of us in the drinks industry are guilty of sometimes looking at big price tags and thinking about these things through that lens exclusively.
W: Well, it’s interesting because when he joined up with Buffalo Trace, I think he was selling 2,500 cases a year. And now, I think they’re selling between 9,000 and 10,000 cases a year. And you still don’t see it on a shelf, ever, unless it’s absurd. I love to send him pictures from liquor stores, prices on bottles. ‘Cause it makes him f****** crazy. So I love to do it. It’s one of my favorite things like, “oh, here we go. Here’s a bottle of Old Rip on Sunset Boulevard for $1,600. I love to do that, ‘cause it just makes his head explode. Also, you got to understand, this is a guy whose family was on the very top of the bourbon world when bourbon was the dominant drink in America, and he watched it all slip through their fingers, and he is living 15, 20 and 23 years in the future and having to try to understand what America is going to want to drink after he’s dead. The stuff they’re putting in barrels now, he won’t ever live to see it bottled. And so he is very conservative, because he’s been through the bust, and there are a lot of people in the industry now who haven’t. And so, he also doesn’t want to put so much stuff in barrels that he screws his son, Preston. Like in some ways his grandfather put his father in a jackpot. He’s very aware of the fact that this could all stop, and everyone could just start drinking gin. And so a lot of people are like, “well, why don’t you make more?”And it’s ‘cause he doesn’t know if we’re going to want to buy it.
Z: Yeah. I’m curious, I just wanted to ask real quickly, ‘cause I think this is actually an important piece of this, too, that you talked about having lived through that bust cycle for bourbon and how so many people in the history now just haven’t because it’s been 20 years of growth since 2000, or even since a little before then. But the other piece of this that’s really interesting to me is the original story of his grandfather is someone setting out to make a product that was distinctive from what else was on the market — a bourbon that was corn and wheat, not corn and rye. And then obviously that’s something that’s been carried through in what Julian is doing now, but obviously at the same time with the success of Old Van Winkle and and his newer products, not that it was a secret ever, but there are more and more people making wheated bourbons. Is that something that he views positively as in like, “this is the best way to make bourbon,” or as now there’s more risk of too many things?
W: No, he likes it ’cause it gives him more stuff he likes to drink.
Z: That’s a good point.
W: And you drive around Kentucky, you see a lot of cornfields and you see a lot of wheat fields. And bourbon was never designed to be a recipe. Bourbon is an agricultural crop. It’s a way for farmers who live too far from market to get all of their crops to market before it rots. It was a way to preserve that profit. And so every whiskey manual you’ve got up until the lobbyists got involved in Washington and started writing these rules about what it could and couldn’t be, there’s no such thing as a recipe. You use what grains you have. And so, it’s so interesting about how hard muscle-memory habits are to break, because a lot of bourbons still use rye, but there’s no rye grown in the state of Kentucky. It is grown in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, and all those distillers who moved from Pennsylvania, running from the tax man to Kentucky when it was still the frontier, they just knew how to use rye, and they kept bringing it in. So in a lot of ways wheated bourbon is “of Kentucky” in a way that rye bourbon is not.
Z: That makes sense. And I’m curious, too, you mentioned the legalities and the legal definitions. I’m curious about your personal opinion on this, having been heavily involved in this. Obviously nowadays, you can make bourbon legally called “bourbon” anywhere in the U.S. There obviously are certain requirements you have to meet, but it does not have to be a Kentucky product. Does it feel to you like bourbon should be a Kentucky thing, exclusively?
W: No. I think anybody should be able to make anything, you know? I understand the lobbying interest desire to make it a monopoly. You know? And you got to look on those labels because Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is made in Ohio or Indiana a lot. And so you gotta look. The weather is perfect in Kentucky. It can age less in Kentucky. It’s so interesting that bourbon ages match the age of Scotches. And I just think that’s because it’s what 10 and 12 and 15 year old are ages that Scotch drinkers are used to seeing, and they denote quality. But what’s so interesting is that the Scottish seasons are so much milder than the Kentucky seasons, that a 12-year-old Scotch is about the same in terms of being aged as a four-year-old bourbon. So these 12-year-old bourbons have gone through as much of the processes of aging and the barrels breathing the liquor in and out of the woods as a 36-year-old Scotch. And so it’s really crazy the degree to which the marketing — a four-year-old bourbon is good bourbon. Maker’s Mark is good. And sometimes it feels like we’re trying to compare things to Scotch.
Z: OK. I have one last question for you, and this might be a difficult one, so I apologize in advance. But in the process of working on this book or, or even maybe afterwards hanging out with Julian, is there a singular bourbon experience, like one that you had that still is at the top of the list?
W: Matter of fact, I’ve had a couple. We went to his basement one time, and he had an old, they call them blue caps — they’re the tasting half pints or quarter pints, whatever, they are half pints probably, but he had an old Stitzel-Weller blue cap of White Dog from the ’60s off of the Stitzel-Weller still. And that was unbelievable because, I don’t want to name names and be a jerk, but there are very expensive modern bourbons that are not as smooth as that White Dog. I had some Stitzel-Weller bottled in ‘68. I’ve had some ‘63 Stitzel-Weller, Pappy did. One of the coolest is they’re like five bottles in the world of that 1997 20 year old got the 99 score. And we were at Julian’s house one day, and he pulled one out and he goes, “This is it. You want to open it?” And I was just like, “We can’t open it. You got to save this for your kids or something. Don’t open it”. And he was like, “No, you’re probably right.” But I had this moment where I was like, “I’ve gone too far!” Like, I have carte blanche to raid this guy’s unbelievable whiskey collection, and I’ve gone too far now, and I have to stop. And so, those are pretty great. And, it’s just a lot, I’ve drank a lot of Rip Van Winkle.
Z: That’s an occupational hazard, I guess.
W: It really is. I mean the joke is, I’m really glad we couldn’t go on a book tour, ‘cause some part of me thinks that this is a book tour that if you go on, and some part of you never comes home. So I’m very pleased that I got to stay home and not die.
Z: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. You walk into any bar with Julian, and it’s probably not going to end early I’m betting.
W: It doesn’t.
Z: Yeah. Well Wright, thank you so much. It’s a really wonderful book. Like I said, it’s a lot of fun for anyone who is interested in bourbon and also I think there’s a lot of emotion in it, which is really cool. Like I said, I was surprised at how much emotion and pathos there is in the book. Shouldn’t have been surprised, given the subject matter, but it’s really more than just a straight history of the brand and of the family.
W: Well, I appreciate that. I wanted it to reflect what it’s like to drink bourbon, not just to be a static, boring story of how one particular bourbon is made. I wanted it to have that entire universe and the evening, the way it is when you share a really nice bourbon with people. So that’s what we were going for.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity