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As a journalist said of Pappy Van Winkle, “You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium.” Julian Van Winkle, the third-generation head of his family’s business, is now thought of as something like the Buddha of Bourbon – Booze Yoda, as Wright Thompson calls him. He is swarmed wherever he goes, and people stand in long lines to get him to sign their bottles of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, the whiskey he created to honor his grandfather, the founder of the family concern. A bottle of the 23-year-old Pappy starts at $3000 on the internet. As Julian is the first to say, things have gone completely nuts.
Forty years ago, Julian would have laughed in astonishment if you’d told him what lay ahead. He’d just stepped in to try to save the business after his father had died, partly of heartbreak, having been forced to sell the old distillery in a brutal downturn in the market for whiskey. Julian’s grandfather had presided over a magical kingdom of craft and connoisseurship, a genteel outfit whose family ethos generated good will throughout Kentucky and far beyond. There’s always a certain amount of romance to the marketing of spirits, but Pappy’s mission statement captured something real: “We make fine bourbon – at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” But now the business had hit the wilderness years, and Julian could only hang on for dear life, stubbornly committed to preserving his namesake’s legacy or going down with the ship.
Then something like a miracle happened: it turned out that hundreds of very special barrels of whiskey from the Van Winkle family distillery had been saved by the multinational conglomerate that bought it. With no idea what they had, they offered to sell it to Julian, who scrambled to beg and borrow the funds. Now he could bottle a whiskey whose taste captured his family’s legacy. The result would immediately be hailed as the greatest whiskey in the world – and would soon be the hardest to find.
But now, those old barrels were used up, and Julian Van Winkle faced the challenge of his lifetime: how to preserve the taste of Pappy, the taste of his family’s heritage, in a new age? The amazing Wright Thompson was invited to be his wingman as he set about to try. The result is an extraordinary testimony to the challenge of living up to your legacy and the rewards that come from knowing and honoring your people and your craft. Wright learned those lessons from Julian as they applied to the honest work of making a great bourbon whiskey in Kentucky, but he couldn’t help applying them to his own craft, writing, and his upbringing in Mississippi, as he and his wife contemplated the birth of their first child. May we all be lucky enough to find some of ourselves, as Wright Thompson did, in Julian Van Winkle, and in Pappyland.
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