Old Rip Van Winkle and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons have become something of a unicorn in the whiskey world, developing a cult-like status for their high quality and impressive age.
The Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons have been distilled and aged at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky since 2002 but they were originally produced at the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.
Julian P “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr was the first in four generations of Bourbon-makers. In 1893, at the age of 19, Van Winkle joined the whiskey industry as a salesman for W L Weller. In 1935, he joined forces with another Weller salesman and Stitzels, a well-known distiller, to create the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Van Winkle was left in control of the distillery – locally known as the Old Fitzgerald Distillery after its main Bourbon – in 1947 following the death of the two owners. By this time, Van Winkle’s son, Julian Jr, had started working at the distillery and was in charge when it and the brands W L Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still and Rebel Yell were sold in 1972. Pappy remained heavily involved in the distillery until his death at the age of 91 in 1965.
As part of the sale agreement, Julian Jr procured old stocks and maintained the Van Winkle name. It was Julian Jr’s idea to resurrect the pre-Prohibition whiskey brand Old Rip Van Winkle using old whiskey stocks. His son, Julian III, assumed control in 1981 after his father’s death and purchased the Old Hoffman Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky for barrel storage and bottling. His son, Preston, joined the family business in 2001.
The following year, an agreement was reached with the Buffalo Trace Distillery to produce the Van Winkle whiskeys using Pappy’s recipe. It was a natural partnership as the distillery had been producing W L Weller since 1999.
Appreciation for Van Winkle whiskeys spread like wildfire after its 20-year-old whiskey scored 99 out of a possible 100 points at the Beverage Testing Institute in 1996. Today, a limited number of bottles – matured for twice the industry standard – are released each year, causing prices on the secondary market to sky-rocket.
One of the reasons for Van Winkle’s popularity is its unusually high wheat content. Whereas most distillers use rye as the secondary grain in their mash bill – any Bourbon should contain a minimum of 51% corn – Van Winkle opts for wheat. This results in a whiskey that is sweet and fruity but remains smooth and well-rounded at high alcohol levels.
There are several age statements on the market today. The original Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve whiskeys were bottled at 15, 20, and 23 years. Since 2011, Buffalo Trace has produced an Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year-old and the Van Winkle Special Reserve – affectionately referred to as “Pappy 10” and “Pappy 12”. The distillery also produces the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and extremely limited Old Rip Van Winkle 25-year-old.
Pappy’s much-quoted philosophy of “We make fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine Bourbon” is still very much a northern star for the whiskey-maker today.