Production

The spirit of independence

Damian Riley-Smith visits the home of Julian Van Winkle III, a nam dedicated to producing quality bourbon and adhering to traditional, family values.
By Damian Riley-Smith
Waiting more than a decade for a bourbon is the exception rather than the rule. Yet for the Van Winkle family it has become their trademark. There is no full production distillery, the 'family' is currently Julian Van Winkle III and he is an independent bottler.The name Van Winkle has been associated with bourbon whiskey since 1893 when Pappy Van Winkle started as a salesman for W.L.Weller. A passionate yet quiet man, Pappy became as linked to bourbon production as the Browns or Samuels. He set out to become a distiller of the finest bourbon and within a decade had achieved this.Van Winkle is now associated with the oldest bourbons in the world, some of the richest flavours in the taste spectrum and some of the most uniquely named products you can find. As Julian states: “At the moment aged whiskies are available and younger whiskies are more difficult to come by.” An unusual twist of fate and one playing to the Van Winkle's advantage.The heart of the range is the Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon; the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, both the 20 and 23-year-old are incredibly rich, soothing and almost cognac like in their sophistication; the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and strange bespoke incarnations such as Twisted Spoke Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and 16 Years of Sucking Wood & Waiting, which is made exclusively for a biker’s bar in Illinois.Although not technically a distiller, Julian Van Winkle does own a distillery. In 1983 he bought the Old Commonwealth Distillery (or the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery as he prefers to call it), just off Highway #44, Lawrenceburg. It’s tucked away amidst the maple, oak, sycamore, dogwood, walnut and redbud trees of the surrounding woods. Julian and I drive up to the distillery and we arrive to find his favourite possession, a red 1970 Dodge truck, has been drained, yet again, of its petrol. Julian's response is symptomatic of his relaxed approach to life, work and whiskey. “These things happen, and I always have a spare can just in case.”The distillery complex has three parts. The tin-clad warehouse (a few windows missing due to the ravages of winter storms), the distillery tower in which Julian can occasionally be found chill-filtering and the bottling line, a throwback to the early days of bottling whiskey. Here we find Darleene Gillis reaching forward to paste a label to a bottle of Pappy, with the ever prevalant smell of glue in the air. Julian’s set up is truly home-spun, bringing real meaning to the phrase Momma and Papa. This has become his trademark. Well aged bourbon, with a low distillation proof to ease the ageing process, a great name and the personal touch. Julian can truly claim that “every bottle has passed through my hands”, and he may even have labelled it. Darleene mans the phones, labels the bottles, packs the crates, organises the shipping and takes the orders. Although Julian often helps on the bottling line he is more often seen criss-crossing the country schmoozing, or as Pappy used to call it “selling the sizzle with the steak.” And in his understated, friendly and passionate way he sells some fantastic steak with excellent sizzle.When Julian’s grandfather bought the controlling interest in the Weller Distillery in 1909 he could not have foreseen the commercial horrors of Prohibition, eventually leading to the company’s merger with A. Ph. Stitzel Co. in 1933. But Pappy’s commercial skills could not be held back and with the building of a new distillery in Shively, Louisville, came the company’s next surge of growth and the acquisition of the Old Fitzgerald bourbon whiskey. The family charm you encounter today has always been in the family. History records that Pappy Van Winkle gave Bill Samuels Sr. the “yeast, recipe and encouragement” for Maker's Mark and Bill Samuels Jr. says that “the best advice Pappy ever gave my father was to make a premium product and to keep it in short supply.”This concept is one in which Julian Van Winkle III has found himself utterly absorbed. In 1972, following differences of family opinion about the future returns from bourbon, the Stitzel-Weller family business was sold to Norton Simon Inc, a conglomerate. As part of the sale the Van Winkles secured the rights to an unused label called Old Rip Van Winkle and were able to negotiate the rights to buy whiskey which had been distilled when they had run Stitzel-Weller. Until 1996 this whiskey was used to fill hand-painted ceramic decanters with such delightful subjects as the Universities of Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia and Alabama, fireman decanters, duck hunter and wildlife decanters, and leprechaun decanters for St. Patrick’s Day.As the 1980s matured so demand for the decanters waned. Simultaneously, and fortunately, the malt whisky craze burst on to the scene and Julian was in the ideal position to take advantage. His whiskeys were all aged 10 years or more and many had been used for bespoke bottlings. The opportunity arose for the Van Winkles to develop their own brands once again, starting with the Van Winkle Reserve. Pappy's motto, "we make fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon", seems ever prevalent in the Old Commonwealth Distillery today. Such care, and the occasional modern expletive as the bottling line shudders along, are all part of what makes the Van Winkle range such truly unique, memorable whiskeys.Every bottle has been hand labelled and the old process of moving the barrels from the top of the tin-clad warehouse, where it is hottest, towards the bottom, where it is cooler, is all part of creating the distinctive, rich flavour. The rye has been one of the stars of the last few years and has sparked the revival in rye whiskeys. And this revival in the Van Winkle name continues as the next generation steps forward. Julian’s son, Preston, shows all the signs of the family's enthusiasm and the triplets, Louise, Carolyn and Chenault, may all yet seek to develop the business further. The love of the Van Winkle history has been most elegantly perpetuated by Julian’s sister, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, who wrote the memorable But Always Fine Bourbon. And her son, Van, shows all the signs of the Van Winkle passion for bourbon too.As I sit on the Van Winkle porch, listening to Julian and his wife Sissy debating the business and the future, the passion that all the family has for the finest bourbon is unwavering. For fear of repeating history, today’s generation of Van Winkles understand the key to the success of their whiskey is “to make a premium product, and to keep it in short supply.” The final drop of Pappy 20-year-old slips down the throat as the cicadas continue their chattering in the distance, and we agree that long may theses traditions continue.