Julian P. Van Winkle III: The Arbiter of Taste
“The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.… Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.”
The passage carries Van Winkle into memories of his childhood sickbed when his parents plied him with honeyed bourbon (“good frickin’ bourbon, old Stitzel-Weller, probably made in the forties”), and of young parenthood, when he would serve straight 107 proof to his sick children—a son and a triplet litter of daughters. “We had to knock those kids out, or nobody got any sleep.” We drink the 20-year, the 15-, leaving the spittoon be. A long unremembered moment returns to me: my first drink with my late grandfather. I ordered a bourbon and Coke. He made a face like I’d called him a name. “A bourbon and what?” he said. I have not revisited the barbarism since.
By the end of the day, Van Winkle has made his way through another full program of samples, with better results than he’d expected. Pappy’s future looks sound: out of ninety-four barrels, “only one dog in the bunch.”
On the road back to Louisville, I ask Van Winkle why, with a high-volume distillery in his corner and the public in full ferment for his product, doesn’t he seize this moment to crank the stills to capacity and cash in? “Well, the quality would go down,” he says, as though this is explanation enough. “I don’t need a ton of money. I’m comfortable. Why get bigger? I mean, yeah, I guess I’d like to have a jet to fly around in, but things like that just complicate your life.” He does, however, have some happy news for anyone who has yet to lay hands on a bottle of Pappy: Production is expanding. Not by much, just 2 to 3 percent a year. Not to try to make a killing, Van Winkle says, “just to try not to have quite so many people mad at me.”