Wright Thompson’s Pappyland is a compelling look into how the world’s most sought-after Bourbon came to be.

By Ray Isle
November 16, 2020
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Credit: Amazon / Old Rip Van Winkle

As any Bourbon lover knows, there’s every other Bourbon and then there’s Pappy Van Winkle. But how about something as layered and complex, that goes down just as smooth, and will set you back $27 instead of $2500, which is what a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old Family Reserve sells for these days? Easy: buy a copy of Wright Thompson’s Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and Things That Last.

Thompson, a longtime writer for ESPN, has written a beautiful account of—or meditation on—a number of subjects. Primarily, it’s a biography of Julian Van Winkle III, who brought his family’s legacy of Bourbon-making back from near failure to truly unheard-of cult success. But it’s also a compelling look into what goes into making great Bourbon, and even more than that—and this is where the book rises far above similar accounts—a deeply felt, nuanced look at family, and particularly at the relationships between fathers and sons.

Van Winkle’s grandfather, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr., opened the now-legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery outside Louisville in 1935. He passed away in 1965, and the family lost the distillery in 1972 when Pappy’s son Julian (lots of Julians in this story) was forced to sell it to corporate owners. (Today, Old Fitzgerald, Weller, and other Bourbons made with original Stitzel-Weller spirit—the distillery closed for good in 1992—are hot commodities on the collectible Bourbon market, much quested after by “dusty hunters.”) 

What the book covers is Julian III’s quest to bring back to his family the reputation that his grandfather established, at a time when the Bourbon craze of today was not so much unlikely as unimaginable. In one crucial way, Bourbon’s lengthy out-of-fashion period benefited him enormously. Since not just the distillery but much of its stock—barrels and barrels of extraordinary aged Bourbon—were tossed from corporate owner to corporate owner, eventually Van Winkle received a call from a functionary at United Distillers, asking if he wanted to buy up the remaining barrels for a song. He did; and Pappy Van Winkle was born.

The road to that moment wasn’t smooth, though. It was paved with uncertainty, financial and personal, and the ghost of Julian III’s father, a tough former Army Tank Commander, stoic in the face of adversity but yet in some ways broken by the loss of the family distillery, haunts both son and the story Thompson recounts. “We make fine Bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine Bourbon,” was Pappy Sr.’s mantra, and it seems prescient, for loss was the story for many years after his death; then profit, and a status no other Bourbon remotely commands, became Julian Van Winkle III’s achievement. No Bourbon lover should miss this book, and in truth, anyone interested in family legacies or the way in which a passionate belief in a craft can triumph over seemingly impossible odds will derive deep pleasure from it, too. Even more so, I’d guess, with a glass of good Bourbon at hand.