Van Winkle Rounds Out 2016 Derby Museum Legends Series
All photos by Maggie Kimberl.
In 1972, Julian P. Van Winkle III was just getting out of college, unsure what he would be doing for the rest of his life. His father had been forced to sell the family distillery, Stitzel-Weller, which his grandfather had built along with Alex Farnsley and Arthur Stitzel after Prohibition. “We really didn’t know anything about it other than it about killed him,” Van Winkle recalled at the Derby Museum’s Legends Series program on April 14th. His father was able to keep the Van Winkle label, at the time a relatively obscure whiskey label that dates back to the late 1800s by one estimate, in the sale of the distillery. The two began bottling Old Rip Van Winkle shortly thereafter, but the idea for Pappy would come much later after Van Winkle found the iconic photo of his grandfather among family relics.
Over the years Van Winkle owned a bottling operation at The Old Hoffman Distillery in Frankfort where he would bottle whiskey he sourced from Old Boone, Wild Turkey, Glenmore, and Yellowstone distilleries in Kentucky. In fact, the first Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon to receive critical acclaim was a traditional rye recipe distilled at Old Boone which he bought from Wild Turkey. It’s important to note here that traditionally distilleries have bought bulk whiskey from each other for a multitude of reasons. Historically bourbon is a commodity. The wheated bourbon recipe, a concept developed by Van Winkle’s grandfather “Pappy” at Stitzel-Weller after Prohibition, would be bottled later. As for why the first Pappy offerings were 20 and 23 years: He had some 20 year old Old Boone when he came up with the idea for Pappy Van Winkle, and 3 years later he had some more left. Sometimes major advancements are made in the whiskey world quite serendipitously.
There have been rumblings in recent years of scarcity marketing in whiskey, especially with the Van Winkle lines. “I doubt if anyone’s business plan is 23 years like mine,” Van Winkle chuckled during Fred Minnick’s Legends Series program at The Kentucky Derby Museum, noting the only folks in the industry with a longer business plan are the white oak suppliers for bourbon barrels. When Minnick reminded him of Pappy Van Winkle’s marketing plan, never bottle as much as you think you can sell, Van Winkle was very clear: “We’re not trying to hold back inventory. We’re selling everything we have.”
This was the last of three Legends Series events at The Kentucky Derby Museum for 2016. The program is a journalistic-style Q&A session featuring prominent and influential figures in the whiskey world. This year’s lineup included a Whiskey Women panel featuring Marianne Barnes, Pam Heilmann, Andrea Wilson, and Victoria MacRae-Samuels and an evening with Heaven Hill’s Max Shapira. All of the events were filled to max capacity, and the final program boasted a record crowd. As this program continues to grow, expect tickets to get scarce. The 2017 lineup should be announced right before Christmas 2016, so be on the lookout for ticket packages to gift the whiskey lover in your life on the Legends Series page.