Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last (Hardcover)
The story of how Julian Van Winkle III, the caretaker of the most coveted cult Kentucky Bourbon whiskey in the world, fought to protect his family's heritage and preserve the taste of his forebears, in a world where authenticity, like his product, is in very short supply.
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.
About the Author
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family.
“An amiable journey, courtesy of ESPN sportswriter Thompson, into the arcana of American whiskey [. . .] If you’re a fan of the magic that is an artful bourbon, this is just the book for you.” —Kirkus
“A fast-paced and colorful history of 20th-century Southern culture, told through the story of charismatic cult-bourbon maker Julian P. Van Winkle III. . . . ‘Being Southern,’ Thompson writes, ‘means carrying a responsibility to shake off the comforting blanket of myth and see ourselves clearly.’ Thompson more than fulfills that burden with insight and eloquence.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“One of Wright Thompson’s many gifts is his ability to give language to those intangibles of life that are, to the rest of us, indescribable. So his account of the Van Winkle family and its elusive, masterful bourbon is justly rendered in profound, utterly compelling fashion. Success and failure; legacy and sacrifice; the commitments to family and the fight to reclaim something lost to time—Pappyland fits neatly alongside the traditions and scope of great Southern literature and, like the bourbon at the center of the story, captures a special kind of lightning in a bottle.” —Ashley Christensen, James Beard Award–Winning chef, fan of brown water on ice with a lemon twist
“In Wright Thompson’s beautifully written and delightful book, Julian Van Winkle’s odyssey to make whiskey in the spirit of his beloved Pappy becomes a story about how we keep faith with the past—with our ancestors and with the legacy of a great craft—and how we move on from it. Pappyland is a beautiful antidote to false sentiment; I cherished it.” —Walter Isaacson
“A bourbon-laced Book of Hours heady with history, soul-searching, southern shrines, and meditations on fatherhood. Thompson goes in search of Kentucky’s most potent heritage and slowly circles round to his own. It’s a story meant for sipping, rough and sweet on the tongue.” —Burkhard Bilger
“Frankly I don’t give a damn about bourbon. But I do care greatly about family and children, about fathers and sons, and about tradition and legacy, and it’s out of these ingredients that Wright Thompson distills this beautiful and life-loving book. Pappyland is the story of bourbon master Julian Van Winkle, told by a master writer reaching across generations for meaning. Which means it is nothing less than the story of mastery itself.” —Tom Junod
“Only Wright Thompson could tell the story of something as beloved as Pappy and make me admire it more. This is a profound book that is every bit as nuanced and lasting as the whiskey it’s about. It made me reconsider the power of mythology, history, family legacy, and the stories we tell ourselves. I also learned a lot about fine bourbon.” —Eli Saslow, winner of the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Rising out of Hatred
“In Pappyland Wright Thompson takes his reader on a journey, indeed a pilgrimage, across times, places, and generations all deeply rooted in the bluegrass country of Kentucky in search of the almost mythical Pappy Van Winkle. In elegant prose Thompson embarks on an odyssey which, like all such endeavors, ultimately returns the hero to home, both for his subject, Julian Van Winkle III, and for the author.” —Dr. Paul M. Pearson, Director of the Thomas Merton Center