If there’s one line of Kentucky bourbon that almost every single whiskey drinker knows by name, it’s Pappy Van Winkle. But besides some vague recognition, actual knowledge of Pappy — his kin, the extent of the line, where it’s made, and by whom — is a lot murkier. The Van Winkles are, at least partly by design, shrouded in mystery. Theirs is a luxury product, like clothes from Supreme, that thrives in a state of scarcity and grows ever more expensive on the aftermarket.
After meeting Julian Van Winkle at a food event, the renowned author and sports journalist Wright Thompson found himself intrigued by the company and the family behind it. So he set out to sate his curiosity, while also diving into the history and culture of Kentucky bourbon. His new book, Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and The Things That Last is out today. It’s highly informative, as any bourbon aficionado would expect, but it’s also deeply human. In vivid, punchy prose, Thompson handles these larger than life figures of whiskey culture with care. In the process, we see gain insight into not only the Van Winkles but the entire bourbon industry and the author himself.
After reading Pappyland early, I jumped on a call this week to talk with Thompson. We touched on his work habits, the increasingly wide world of Kentucky bourbon, and the people behind one of the most sought after bourbons on the market.
Let’s start with your first memory of drinking Kentucky bourbon.
I got into it like so many people who grew up in the Southern United States, I think, stealing it from my father’s liquor cabinet after they’d stolen it from their father’s liquor cabinets. Beer was really hard to get in high school, but bourbon was not. And so, frankly, it started that way.
My friend’s father’s Old Charter was always hanging around the house. It’s thievery.
I can empathize, I promise. This is a very fascinating story — since Pappy has such huge brand recognition but so few people who really know the product. But the book goes well beyond that and really dives into the human side of the family history. Can you walk us through how you first met Julian van Winkle?
I met Julian at an after-party for a food festival, some chef-y thing in Atlanta. So I obviously knew who he was and he had some Pappy in his pocket and was passing it around. It was just a great fun night, but that’s as far as it went. Then we kept getting put together at things.
So how did the book come about?
I would love to take all of the credit, but my agent, a guy named David Black, was really pushing me. At first, it was just going to be a pretty straight forward story of the world’s most sought after bourbon. Then the more and more I went to Kentucky and went around the country with Julian, the more I realized that all of the things I was thinking about in my own box — about how to be a man, how to be a son, and a father — were being influenced by those conversations with Julian. So pretty late in the process, the book became what it is.
I wrote the first third of this without telling anyone at Penguin that that’s what I was doing. I just did it. And I’m like, “Goddamn, I hope they like this!” I thought, “Well if they hate this, I can make this a straightforward story.” But the way my time with Julian has been impacting me to think about life, I imagined that there was some way to transfer that feeling to a reader.
So that’s what the goal became: To make it a book about this quest that all humans at some point, go through. I mean, there’s nothing special about me. I just wrote mine down as a way of maybe articulating things to other people themselves, or sparking conversations or thoughts in other people.
I think one of my favorite humanizing anecdotes is when you’re talking about back in the dark days when nobody was drinking whiskey, much less bourbon, and there’s the story of Julian on top of a still, hitting it with a wrench, trying to get the damn thing to work. How did you go about pulling those stories out of Van Winkle?
Oh, it took forever. I don’t think there’s a single word in the book from the first two trips to go see Julian. That’s not true actually, but there’s not much. It takes a long time. It was interesting. So now, his children and sister have read it and they said that there were things about him they didn’t know.
I felt like if nothing else, I did the thing I came to do. This is the guy on the page.
Then these stories are filtered through your life at the time, making you a conduit for the reader.
I wish I could say that it was some sort of grand unified theory of doing it. I was going to write a draft where I let it go where it wanted to go. And then if everybody hated it, then I could either start over or whatever. There were a lot of false starts on them, where I just couldn’t get the voice right, or the distance the narrator was supposed to stay in, stuff like that. That was a real process. And so I was like, “I’m going to let this thing go where it wants to go, and then we can go back and figure it out.”
So it was a little more stumbling along in the dark, as opposed to having, “I wish I was smart enough to have come up with a strategy.” Maybe next time.
For sure. And, I’m in the booze industry and I go to all of the booze conventions and the foodie bullshit and so on. And it’s the sort of thing where I’ve been to these after-parties and you actually meet the people behind these companies, behind the marketing, and you realize that they’re just people out there trying to get by. It’s so much more real, because you really want to champion those folks because you see the hard work, you see the humanity, you become friends with them, and aware of how much work it actually takes.
I think people will say, “Oh, everybody’s going to buy Pappy anyways.” But that’s a misunderstanding. Presley and Julian van Winkle are out there hitting the streets every day, selling, working, hustling still. Eddie Russell and Jimmy Russell are out there hitting the streets every day…
Oh my God, Jimmy Russell. I mean, these guys are legends. And they aren’t sitting up there as trust fund babies. Do you know what I mean?
Jimmy Russell’s got grease under his fingernails.
Yeah, and that’s one of the things I love about the Kentucky bourbon community. Everybody works and helps each other.
Oh, 100 percent. There’s that thing in the story where Julian had some shitty old bottling line that no one had anymore. And the only people in the world who knew how to fix it were these old men who had worked on the one at Wild Turkey, 30 years earlier — before Wild Turkey had installed whatever the most modern thing in the world at that time was. And Jimmy Russell is sending his guys to fix the bottling line of a competitor because he’d been friends with Julian’s father and grandfather.
That’s real, and that’s how these guys roll.
I love it.
It makes me want to drink Wild Turkey.
Maybe grab a bottle of Russell’s Reserve or something?
Have a word with the bird! A little 101? We drank that shit in high school, man. If somebody got a bottle of Wild Turkey, we thought we were James fucking Dean.
For me, hearing the stories is what makes the difference. And that’s what I dig about this book, the stories add to the experience. For instance, the letters of Julian’s dad writing from being in the Pacific during WWII, where else are you going to get that? How many letters did you have to go through from the family?
I went through all of them. I felt like those were representative. I wasn’t just pulling out the wildest thing. Those in the book felt representative of the guy and that’s what he was doing. All he thought about was killing the enemy and the Stitzel–Weller plant. That’s it.
Another thing you seemed to get across well is explaining the industry. One of the most salient points, which I try to share with people as well is, most of your bourbon comes from one place. Why do you think it’s important that people know that a lot of bourbons are just a label?
Well, just because you should understand it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be loyal to your brand or invest complicated feelings of home in your past with it. But you should interrogate it a little and understand what it is you love. Love the fact that the label is the label that was in your dad’s liquor cabinet. Bourbon’s hold on people is so metaphysical and beyond the technical tasting notes. That felt important to explore.
On some level, this book is just the story of someone who makes whiskey and the story of someone who drinks it. And so let’s talk about it.
It’s tough because people want to put their point of view on every aspect of it, including how you’re supposed to enjoy it.
Well, it’s interesting. At one point we were having dinner and I was being a jerk and going for an easy laugh and making fun of people who obsessively collect whiskey. And Julian was like, “Wait a minute. Who are you to tell someone how to enjoy this? Why is your way of enjoying it the one true way? There is no dowel of whiskey.” And I was like, “Oh, shit. I’m an asshole.” You know what I mean?
But that was really something — there is no one true way.
I like to say, “You do you. You enjoy your whiskey the way you want to enjoy your whiskey.”
Yeah, whatever joy you’re getting from it, good for you.
You also look into the culture of Kentucky, in general, and how it informed bourbon. You talk about the whole “Southern” identity of Kentucky, which is a bit of a sham because Kentucky wasn’t even part of the traditional “South” and most Kentuckians fought for the Union. As somebody from the West Coast, Kentucky never really felt Southern to me in the same way that Mississippi or Georgia does. It always felt borderland to me. I mean, it is interesting.
It is interesting that bourbon comes from a state that pretends it lost a war it actually won. If you start from there, everything about bourbon suddenly makes sense. It is self-defeat in a bottle. It becomes very interesting to me what’s it in context to or what’s it in conversation with.
How do you see the industry dealing with the last nine months? Have people gotten more into their community and their bourbon, or do you see people taking a step back?
I think that once again, bourbon is a proxy. All of these broken and displaced and paused communities that we were a part of before the virus hit, now exists symbolically in these bottles and in drinks alone, and in drinks six feet away from the next person, and drinks with friends over Zoom. I think that if anything, the metaphysical ideas of home and community and tribe that we can invest in something so nakedly commercial as a bottle of bourbon, have grown stronger.
Are you going to do something about Tennessee whiskey next?
I don’t think I’ll do another whiskey book. I was much more interested in what this whiskey meant to Julian and his family and what that made me think about my own family. I think that’s done and done.