“Maybe whiskey is so fragile because once the cap comes off, the past rushes out of the bottle and is gone forever,” Wright Thompson explains in one of his incredible passages that captures what makes bourbon so transcendent. Unfortunately, caps do not often come off bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, arguably the most sought-after bourbon brand in existence. A sealed bottle preserves the exorbitant secondary value for its owner, but unfortunately, the past remains locked up as well.
There are a lot of things said about Pappy Van Winkle and the family members behind it. The bourbon is often called “overrated.” The real Pappy bourbon ran out years ago and people are now just chasing Buffalo Trace whiskey with fancy labels. They could sell a lot more, but they want to create artificial scarcity to maintain the illusion of rarity. Julian Van Winkle III (Julian) and his son Preston got incredibly lucky and don’t deserve the success they are enjoying. Pappy is all marketing. If you’re reading this review, then most likely you’ve heard them too.
The feelings are so pervasive that some have derided this book as a “puff piece” even without reading it. It’s too bad, because Wright, a sportswriter for ESPN, has delivered something truly meaningful. Pappyland is not only the story of the bourbon, but it is the story of the people behind the bourbon. Wright didn’t sit down and interview the Van Winkles; He lived with them. He dined with them. He traveled with them. He tasted with them. While examining his own life in the process, Wright captures Julian Van Winkle’s reflections and thoughts. These contemplations and insights about the past are what make Pappy Van Winkle special. They’re what makes the experience of sharing bourbon special.
In many ways this is the story of redemption. Julian’s father was forced to sell a crumbling whiskey empire shortly after he inherited it. Few people realize that Julian worked tirelessly bottling whiskey for other people just to make ends meet, which he often didn’t. He built a brand from select whiskey that was available until it wasn’t. Then he had to find more somewhere else that measured up. Many snooty bourbon geeks who dismiss current Pappy releases as “not Stitzel-Weller” are likely unaware that the famous 20-year Pappy that scored a 99 rating in 2008 from the Beverage Tasting Institute (and set the bourbon world on fire) wasn’t Stitzel-Weller either. It was Old Boone.
No, Old Rip Van Winkle is not a distillery. Yes, Buffalo Trace uses its own wheated mash bill for Pappy Van Winkle. But what we see and feel reading Pappyland is that these are silly and irrelevant footnotes. It has always been Julian Van Winkle, who grew up at Stitzel-Weller with the magic of that bourbon dancing in his memory. He and his palate have been working hard to recreate that flavor since the day the distillery closed, maintaining that special connection to his father. This father-son bond is one that Thompson and Van Winkle share and it comes through powerfully in the writing. Bourbon isn’t supposed to be about sealed bottles in locked cabinets. It is about experiences, about relationships, about the past.
Pappyland is a quick and enjoyable read. One note I feel compelled to share is that some artistic license was clearly taken with the timing of at least one event. Wright describes one tasting he joined Julian and Preston for as the first time they tried the 100% Buffalo Trace-produced 15-year Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. It was definitely tasted prior to that. It’s a minor detail overall, but one that will catch the attention of certain eagle-eyed bourbon nerds.
This book may not change your opinions about the way Pappy is allocated or whether it is worth thousands of dollars per bottle (even though suggested retail pricing is less than comparable bottles on shelves today). The Van Winkle backstory has all the elements that make us love Kentucky and marvel at the history. During his time spent with Julian, Thompson contemplates his relationships, his family, his work and his life. Briefly interwoven with the main story, we see the themes of love and loss, of stumbles and comebacks through the author’s eyes. Pappyland is the story of the Van Winkles that is not told, but shared- just as anything involving fine bourbon should be.