What We Learned from Louisville Magazine’s Profile of the Van Winkle Family

Just one shot will run you $65.

Photo: Bourbon Blog

Photo: Bourbon Blog

Kentucky is home to the world’s best bourbon, so it’s only logical that it’s also now home to the definitive profile on the men behind the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, the company that’s not actually a distillery but sells Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, the world’s most sought-after bourbon. This month’s Louisville Magazine takes a look at both the Van Winkles’ family history and the current state of their operation, which produces just 7,000 cases a year to meet a nearly insatiable demand for the product.

Unfortunately, the lengthy profile is only accessible via an unsightly, ungainly PDF-only website. So you don’t have to, we combed through the article to dig up some of its most interesting revelations about the Van Winkle family business, which began almost a hundred years ago with Pappy Van Winkle himself, the grandfather of current proprietor Julian Proctor Van Winkle III. Here’s a look at what Josh Moss unearthed in his exposé on Kentucky’s first family of premium booze:

  • People will do crazy things for a 23-year bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. You thought customers flipping off baristas over a Cronut was bad? Try someone pretending to be Steve Martin’s manager or using a child’s deployment as a guilt-trip tactic just to get their hands on a bottle of bourbon. Unfortunately, there’s nothing the Van Winkles can do to make their supply age faster.
  • Even if customers can find a bottle of Rip Van Winkle bourbon, it’ll set them back. A lot. A local bar near the Distillery’s offices (and its actual distillery, Buffalo Trace) sells shots of Silver Dollar for $65. The owner of one store that received a few cases the last time Van Winkle made its annual fall release sold bottles from $70 (15-year) to $225 (23-year).
  • Pappy Van Winkle himself was quite the character. The president of Stitzel-Weller Distillery (created by a merger in 1933) for over 30 years, Pappy was fond of dropping bon mots like, “If I wanted to drink vodka, I’d find someone who’d sell me a can of alcohol,” eating bunless hot dogs and onion sandwiches on the daily, and using a cane just because he wanted to. He ran the distillery’s day-to-day operations until semi-retiring at age 90.
  • Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve didn’t arrive until the 1990s. Before Pappy’s son Julian Jr. sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the family sold four labels of bourbon: Old Fitzgerald, W.L. Weller, Cabin Still, and Rebel Yell. Family Reserve only came into being after Stitzel-Weller’s merger with the liquor arm of Norton Simon and Julian Proctor took over the company, purchasing his own bottling plant and aging warehouse for the remaining Stitzel-Weller barrels. As for new batches, Julian went through several distilleries before settling on Buffalo Trace eleven years ago.
  • The very last batch of Stitzel-Weller barrels will be bottled in 2015. Purists, get ready for a whole new level of Van Winkle fever. After that, it’s only the Buffalo Trace version.
  • If demand’s so crazy, why not ramp up production? Julian’s amazing answer, presented without comment: “Because who knows what demand will be like 20 years from now? They legalize marijuana, and no one is drinking bourbon anymore.”

[via Louisville Magazine]

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