A friend calls me weekly to tell me about his efforts to see, buy and ultimately to taste Pappy Van Winkle Whiskey. The apparent limited supplies of this bourbon, some of it shown above, has occasioned what some journalists have called a “craze” to own a bottle. The hubbub is all very well but it has raised in my mind the question: “Who the heck was Pappy Van Winkle?” So I found out.
Born in the town of Danville, Boyle County, Kentucky in 1874, Pappy, shown above, was christened Julian Procter Van Winkle. His was a distinguished family. Originating in Holland, the Van Winkles had come to the New World with Peter Stuyvesant in 1647. A relatively common name in New York State, theirs was used by Author Washington Irving as the title of a short story published in 1819 as well as the name of the chief character, Rip Van Winkle.
Following the movement of Americans ever westward, Pappy’s grandfather, Abraham Van Winkle, moved to Kentucky during the late 18th Century. His son was Miciah Van Winkle who married a woman named Mary Phillips. Among their children was Pappy’s father, John S. Winkle, and an uncle, Ephraim. Both of those Van Winkles would come into prominence in Kentucky. Although Miciah was a farmer, he apparently was a successful and prosperous one, able to exempt two sons from working the land and help provide them with advanced education.
After receiving primary and secondary schooling in Monticello, Kentucky, John Van Winkle began working as a salesman in a local store. Then, with brother Ephraim, he studied law, graduating from the Law Department of the University of Louisville. In 1854 he was admitted to the Kentucky bar. John practiced in Wayne County and was elected to the state legislature in 1861. Meanwhile Ephraim Van Winkle, shown right, was rising in the political and legal circles of the Blue Grass State, culminating in his being appointed Secretary of State in 1863. Despite being a Democrat in politics, Ephraim was a staunch emancipationist, quoted as “believing that the institution of slavery was a blot on the Nation.” John Van Winkle, it can be assumed, had similar views. When Ephraim died in office after the end of the Civil War, the governor appointed John to serve out the term.
In January 1858 John had married Mary Buster of Wayne County. With her death several years later — and no children — he married Louise Dillion in January 1867. From an old and well known Kentucky family, she was 11 years his junior. The couple would produce seven children, six sons and one daughter. Among the Van Winkle sons was Julian Procter. The 1880 census found the family living in Danville. The future “Pappy” was six years old and at school. As a lawyer with considerable assets, John Van Winkle may not have pleased with Julian’s decision, as the boy matured, to eschew the legal profession and about the age of 19 to become a “commercial traveler.”
Julian/Pappy may have sensed that his home town was on a downward spiral. After its establishment in 1783, Danville had assumed a place of importance in Kentucky. Centrally located in the state, between 1784 and 1792 it hard been the scene of ten conventions to petition for better governance and ultimately to secure independence from Virginia. After a state constitution was adopted and separation occurred, as one history put it: “The town ceased to be of statewide importance and its leading citizens moved elsewhere.” In Pappy’s case the move was 80 miles north and west to Louisville, a booming town, a whiskey town.
In 1893 he sought work as a salesman from William Weller, who at the time was at the helm of a company called William L. Weller & Sons. Weller was a liquor wholesaler, purchasing whiskey on the open market and contracting for large lots from distillers, principally the Stitzel Brothers Distillery in Louisville. Pappy’s job was to travel around the state by horse and buggy peddling Weller’s liquor to saloons and other retail outlets. Pappy later recounted that Weller once gave him some “on the road advice” about not drinking with customers: “If you want a drink, you’ve got samples in your bag and you can drink in your room.”
After Weller died, his sons continued to manage the business until 1909 when they sold out to their star salesman, Pappy Van Winkle, and another employee, Alex F. Farnsley. In order to insure a more secure supply of raw whiskey, the partners saw the need to own at least a part interest in a distillery and invested in the Stitzel plant. Initially Van Winkle was president of W.L. Weller and Sons and secretary/treasurer of Stitzel Distillery. Stitzel was the president of the distillery and secretary/treasurer of W. L. Weller and Sons, and Farnsley was the vice president of both companies. Eventually the firms were consolidated and incorporated under the name, Stitzel-Weller Distillery, with Pappy as the head man.
Shown above is a letterhead that demonstrated that management structure and carried a picture of the plant in Louisville. The ability of Pappy and his partners to receive a regular supply of whiskey from that facility permitted the company to merchandise a number of brands. Those included nationally recognized names such as “Old Fitzgerald,” “Cabin Still,” and “Old Elk.” Lesser known were “Old Mock,” “Belle of Bourbon,” “Old W.L. Weller, “Mammoth Cave,” “Old Rip Van Winkle,” and “Billie Burke,” the latter named for a well-known actress of the time. Many of these whiskeys were bottled with well-designed and attractive labels. Shown here are examples of containers for Old Mock, Old Elk and Mammoth Cave, the last a colorful back of the bar bottle.
Meanwhile Pappy was becoming family man. About 1904 at age 29 he had married a woman he called Katie, who like himself was Kentucky born. Of Katie a descendent later commented: “My grandmother was a strong woman and kept Pappy reined in pretty well….” The 1910 census found the couple, married six years and still with no children, living in Louisville’s Seven Ward. Pappy’s occupation was given as “wholesale whiskey — employer.” A daughter, Mary, would be born two years later, and two years after that a son, Julian Procter Jr.
The coming of National Prohibition in 1920 did not strike Pappy and his partners as hard as other distiller/wholesalers. The Stitzel-Weller firm was licensed by the Federal Government to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes” and during the 13 “dry” years kept busy providing product to satisfy the skyrocketing number of prescriptions written by the medical fraternity. Pappy, however, cannily gave his occupation to the 1930 census taker as “real estate.”
Despite the passage of time, Pappy was still a whiskey man. When Repeal came, at age 61 in 1935 he quickly opened a new Stitzel-Weller distillery in South Louisville on Derby Day. As Julian Proctor Jr. matured he was taken into the company, along with Pappy’s son-in-law, King McClure. Shown here is Pappy in a family photo with his son and grandson, Julian Proctor Van Winkle III. The young heir apparently is sticking his tongue out at the camera.
This grandson in maturity was interviewed and asked to talk about what Pappy had been like. Julian III’s memory was hazy but he recalled that his grandfather even at an advanced age was often absorbed in the work of running his whiskey empire: “He was the oldest active distiller, so he was serious about his business and then, you know, turn that off and be a great grandfather when we’d be together.” Pappy also apparently had time for recreation. Shown here is a photo of the elderly Van Winkle playing golf. He had rigged up his dog to be the caddy, harnessed to the golf bag. Presumably no squirrels were on the course.
Although Pappy had a reputation as a story teller, Julian III also was vague about specifics. He helpfully noted, however, that during the 1950s Pappy regularly had written an advertising column in Time magazine. In that forum, Julian III said, his grandfather would recount a lot of his old stories and relate them to selling bourbon. Re-publication of those columns for the benefit of Van Winkle bourbon fans might be a worthy project.
Directing the fortunes of his whiskey empire until almost the very end, Pappy Van Winkle died in February 1965 and was buried in Section 30, Plot 5, of Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, the graveyard where rest so many Kentucky whiskey greats. He was joined there by Katie three years later. Their gravesite is marked by a simple cross and at the base “Van Winkle.”
Son Julian took over the distillery operations until he was forced to sell by stockholders in 1972. The rights to all the Van Winkle brands were either sold with the distillery or to other distillers. But the family kept the rights to one brand name, Old Rip Van Winkle. Like Washington Irving’s fictional character, the Old Rip label arose from a slumber — this time of a half century — to become the vehicle for Julian Jr. and Julian III to continue Pappy’s tradition of making fine bourbon. Family members currently are in a joint venture with the Buffalo Trace Distillery that produces all Van Winkle brands in limited amounts under their guidelines.
A great-grandson (Preston, not another Julian) joined the firm in 2001 and Van Winkles are expected to carry on the family tradition for generations to come. Pappy will be ever present. Not only in his recipe for making fine wheat bourbon but in the cigar-smoking portrait that graces many bottles of his highly sought after whiskey.