Julian P. Van Winkle III: The Arbiter of Taste

Joe Pugliese
by Wells Tower - Kentucky - August/September 2012

Go into the tasting room with a third-generation whiskey man

>Get an inside look at where Pappy Van Winkle is distilled

Lots of people are mad at Julian P. Van Winkle III.
Van Winkle is the president of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, whose aged bourbons a growing body of aficionados believe to be the finest whiskeys on Earth. The trouble is that demand for his Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons has lately swollen in exasperating proportion to supply. He releases between 6,000 and 7,000 cases per year, “about what Jim Beam puts out in ten minutes,” Van Winkle says. “We’re the opposite of the Walmart business model: high profit and almost no volume at all.” 

The scarcity is making bourbon lovers desperate, cranky, and poor. On eBay, Van Winkle bourbons routinely command upwards of $500 a bottle. Pappy turns up on bar menus in Van Winkle’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, for as much as $60, usually alongside the caveat “WHEN AVAILABLE.” The bourbons are distributed to liquor stores only twice a year—in spring and fall—and a half dozen, give or take (bottles, not cases), is the average allocation. The bottles rarely touch the shelves, instead going straight to customers whose names have been on waiting lists for months or years. 

So much bother for a sip of whiskey does not endear Van Winkle to the drinking public, or to shopkeepers, one of whom not long ago bodily attacked Van Winkle’s sales agent for showing up with too meager a delivery. “It can get dangerous,” says Van Winkle. “In Michigan, a guy physically ran our sales rep out of a store because he didn’t get but two or three bottles. He was so damn angry about it. Threatened him with a shoe or a gun or something. I’ve never had to deal with that kind of thing face to face, but I’m sure it’s coming someday.”

One does not want to imagine what rashnesses Pappy fans might be moved to if they could see what Julian Van Winkle is doing with his bourbon this morning: He is spitting it out. Pints upon pints, pinging into the spittoon in a practiced, laminar stream.

A visiting journalist is frankly appalled to see greatness treated so brusquely. It’s like watching someone ride a moped through the Louvre. “Hard work, but someone’s gotta do it,” says Van Winkle, sixty-three, whose clear blue eyes and relatively uncreased complexion do not betray a lifelong career of concerted bourbon use. 

The desecration is taking place in the tasting room at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. A decade ago, Buffalo Trace (which also makes such venerable labels as Blanton’s and W. L. Weller) began distilling the Pappy Van Winkle recipe, in partnership with Van Winkle. Today, the first batches of Buffalo Trace Pappy are reaching bottling maturity, and Van Winkle has made the forty-five-minute drive from Louisville to undertake what is in fact momentous spittoon duty: to assay whether Buffalo Trace’s handiwork deserves the family name. 

A flotilla of forty-seven partially filled graduated goblets and half-pint bottles—each drawn from a separate barrel—are arrayed before Van Winkle on a lazy Susan. Each barrel requires individual sampling because barrel aging is not an exact science, but an ineluctable, chaotic passage through which the whiskey grows a soul. Seasoned in a charred oak barrel, bourbon acquires its dark complexion and, as it picks up oak sugars in the caramelized wood, much of its sweetness, too. The ratio of barrel staves made from sapwood to those made from heartwood affects the bourbon’s flavor, as do seemingly trifling considerations such as proximity to a window and altitude. “Whiskey on the top floors ages faster,” Van Winkle explains. “We don’t keep our barrels any higher than the middle floors because it’s going to be there so long. It would pick up too much oak.” 

As the whiskey ages, it evaporates volume through the wood—10 percent the first year and 4 to 5 percent each subsequent year, an attrition known as the angels’ share. On a twenty-three-year-old barrel, the angels’ share is about fifty gallons out of the original fifty-three, which partly explains Van Winkle 23’s heart-stopping expense. “When it comes to our bourbon, the angels are very greedy,” Van Winkle observes.