Pappy Van Winkle

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Who was Pappy Van Winkle? 

Julian Prentice “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1874. William Larue Weller hired Pappy Van Winkle Sr. in 1893 as a traveling salesman for his company, William L. Weller & Sons. Weller’s company was a whiskey wholesaler, contracting with established distilleries to produce their brands. It was prevalent for wholesales to have their own whiskey brands, which they would market and sell. Van Winkle Sr. sold two top brands, W.L. Weller and Old Fitzgerald, by horse and buggy. He sold whiskey directly to taverns, saloons, and other retailers in Kentucky and Indiana. The W.L. Weller brand was owned by William L. Weller & Sons, but the original Stitzel Brothers Distillery produced the whiskey in Lousiville, Kentucky. The distillery was owned by the Stitzel Family members, who also owned the Old Fitzgerald Brand that Pappy sold.

William Larue Weller retired in 1896. In 1903, Pappy Van Winkle Sr. and his fellow salesman, Alex T. Farnsley, bought a controlling interest in William L. Weller & Sons. A few years later, he purchased a controlling interest in the Stitzel Distillery. Pappy Van Winkle Sr. operated both of these two businesses interdependently until the start of Prohibition in 1919. Once Prohibition began, Pappy Van Winkle Sr. dissolved the William L. Weller & Sons company since there was no longer a need to have a wholesale whiskey company during Prohibition.

The A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery was one of six distilleries during Prohibition that was permitted to operate with a medicinal whiskey license. Before Prohibition, there were two-hundred and eleven registered distilleries in Kentucky, and by the end, only six remained. When Prohibition ended in 1933, W.L. Weller and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery officially merged into one company. Together they built a new distillery called the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which opened in May 1935 on Derby Day. Pappy Van Winkle, Sr. was 61 years old. They sold off the original A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery on Story Avenue to the Frankfort Distillery and focused all their energy on producing bourbon at their new distillery. The thirteen years of Prohibition had left the bourbon industry in ruins. There was a real bourbon shortage, and the remaining distilleries did not have any stocks of aged bourbon, because of the production limitations placed on distilleries.

Farnsley died in 1941, and Stitzel died in 1948, leaving the distillery entirely in control of Pappy Van Winkle Sr. The new Stitzel-Weller Distillery continued to produce wheated bourbon under the brands Old Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell. In 1965, at the age of 91, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle died, and the distillery's operation passed on to his son Julian Van Winkle Jr.

he Van Winkle Family Legacy

In 1972, Norton-Simon, a predecessor of United Distillers, now Diageo, made Van Winkle Jr. an offer to buy the distillery. At the time, the bourbon category was in a sheep decline, but Van Winkle Jr. still did not want to sell. Other family members were non-active shareholders, and they forced Van Winke Jr. into selling. As part of the deal, the family sold the distillery and four brands: W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, and Rebel Yell.

One brand that Van Winke Jr. decided not to sell was a pre-prohibition brand that he acquired from a friend in the 1950s called Old Rip Van Winkle. This brand was originally a four-grain bourbon named after the 1819 short story by Washington Irving. Norton-Simon agreed to continue to produce and bottle the Old Rip Van Winkle brand on contract for Van Winkle Jr. At the time, the brand was a seven-year-old bourbon with two expressions, 90 proof (45% ABV) and 107 (53.5% ABV).

Van Winkle Jr.’s son Julian Van Winkle III joined the company in 1977. His son Preston was born the same year. The brand shifted the age statement from 7 to 10 years-old. Four years later, in 1981, Julian Van Winkle Jr., the famous son of Pappy Van Winkle, died. The company and it’s one brand, Old Van Winkle, was solely in the hands of Julian Van Winkle III, who was the third generation of Van Winkle to be involved in the bourbon industry.

Norton-Simon notified Van Winkle III that they would continue to produce their Bourbon on contract, but they would no longer bottle it. Van Winkle III shifted the barrel storage and bottling to Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, thirty minutes south of Frankfort. Just a few months later, though, this distillery went bankrupt. In 1983, Van Winkle III decided to buy the old, dilapidated distillery for $80,000. He later sold that same distillery in 2002 for around the same price.

Over the next 15 to 20 years, Julian Van Winkle III filled every company role, including CEO, president, warehouse manager, whiskey processor, bottling facility operator, and even truck driver. He even convinced local retired women to help with the labeling of the bottles. Julian’s son Preston, a fourth-generation Van Winkle, joined the company in 2001 and took over many of his father's production roles. This allowed Julian to take on a traveling sales role because the brand was not very popular, and the father and son company had to beg people to buy the brand.

After many mergers, Diageo came to own the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and decided to shut it down in 1992. This meant that the Winkle Family needed to find a new distillery to produce their brand, Old Rip Van Winkle. They wanted a high-quality producer, but also someone with experience distilling using a wheated recipe. The brand transitioned production to the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, now owned by Heaven Hill. Later, Mark Brown, the President of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfurt, approached Julian about a joint venture and partnership between his distillery and Julian’s family brand. Buffalo Trace purchased the W.L.Weller brand in 1999, a wheated bourbon, with nearly the same recipe as Old Van Winkle. Julian turned down Brown’s offer initially. Mark Brown came back to Julian in September 2001 at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and this time Julian agreed to the partnership with Buffalo Trace. In May of 2002, the association was official, and the Buffalo Trace Distillery handled all production from grain to bottle. The partnership gave the small brand access to Buffalo Trace’s national sales force and allowed the family to maintain their strict quality standards while slowly growing the brand. Pappy Van Winkle Sr. never worked as a distiller and never produced a bourbon with his name on it. There has never been a Van Winkle who has worked as a Master Distiller, and according to Preston Van Winkle, “the family has always had the good sense to pay the experts to do that job for us.”


Every expression from the Van Winkle brand is a wheated bourbon, similar to W.L. Weller, except for the Reserve Rye 13-Year-Old. This means that wheat, instead of rye, is used as the small secondary grain in the mash bill. According to Julian Van Winkle III, wheat aged more gracefully than rye. Many consumers wonder what the difference is between W.L. Weller and the Van Winkle since they’re both made using Red Winter Wheat and produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Several significant differences will separate the Van Winkle expressions from the Weller expressions. All Van Winkle bourbons are aged on the lower floors of the rackhouse. This means that the temperature will be consistently cooler. The interaction of aging whiskey and wood from the barrel will be slower, allowing the whiskey to be aged considerably longer. The second important production point to consider is the batch size of Van Winkle compared to Weller. According to Julian Van Winkle III, his brand is bottled in 5 to 6 barrel batches. Each barrel of bourbon used for the Van Winkle brand is personally tasted by Julian Van Winkle, Preston Van Winkle, and several key employees from Buffalo Trace. The mingle, or combination of the content from different barrels, for the Van Winkle brand is extremely small, compared to the hundreds of barrels used for the Weller brand. Finally, according to Julian Van Winkle, they’re producing only around 2-3% more bourbon each year, which is a minimal production growth compared to most major commercial brands. The point is control, quality, and sustainable growth.

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  • Eric P Westbrook

    That’s a cool story

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