Media Files
Interview with Julian Van Winkle III, April 20, 2010
Bourbon in Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Oral History Project
Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History
Interviewee Julian Van Winkle III
Interviewer Thomas Troland
created 2010-04-20
cms record id 2010oh059_bik016
accession number 2010OH059 BIK 016
is part of Buffalo Trace Oral History Project (BIK003)
summary Julian Van Winkle III is from Louisville, Kentucky. He is the grandson of Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. and the son of Julian Van Winkle, Jr., who founded the Old Rip Van Winkle Company. In 1977, Julian joined his father at the Old Rip Van Winkle Company and later became owner. In this interview, Van Winkle explains the history of the Van Winkle family and their involvement in distilling. He describes how his father began Old Rip Van Winkle Company and how the company operates. Van Winkle explains why Van Winkle bourbons can be aged longer than other brands. He also talks about the challenges of running a bourbon company which does not own its own distillery and explains Old Rip Van Winkle's business relationship with the Buffalo Trace Distillery. In addition, Julian discusses his company's brands and discusses their place in the market. He talks about the history of the bourbon industry and the consumer trends currently affecting it. In addition, Van Winkle discusses the future of the company.
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Alcohol industry.
local term Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
local term Buffalo Trace Distillery
local term Whiskey industry--Kentucky
local term Whiskey
local term Stitzel-Weller Distillery
local term Van Winkle, Julian P. (Julian Pappy), Sr., 1874-1965
local term Distilleries--Kentucky
local term Bourbon whiskey
local term Branding (Marketing)
local term Family-owned business enterprises.
Rights Statement:
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Source Metadata URI:
00048052 (2010oh059_bik016_vanwinkle_ohm.xml)
Julian P. Van Winkle III is introduced. He gives a brief personal background and talks about how he worked in a clothing store for several years before eventually joining the family whiskey business. He describes his grandfather, "Pappy" Van Winkle, and talks about his experiences as a child visiting the distillery. He talks about his father's personality and his background in the military during World War II.
Partial Transcript: My name is Tom Troland and today we are interviewing Julian P. Van Winkle the Third.
Louisville (Ky.)
United States. Army.
World War, 1939-1945--Veterans.
Bourbon industry
Clothing stores
Fort Campbell (Ky.)
Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr.
Julian Van Winkle II
Princeton University
Purple Heart
Whiskey industry
World War II
Van Winkle talks about his grandfather, Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr., and his personal history. He talks about how he came to own the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and how the Old Rip Van Winkle brand came to be. He talks about his own early days running the distillery, when a large part of their business came from putting whiskey into decanters.
Partial Transcript: Give me just a little bit of background about the family distillery.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Branding (Marketing)
Economic conditions.
Family-owned business enterprises.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Alex Farnsley
Centre College
Clothing industry
Danville (Ky.)
Family distilleries
Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr.
Julian Van Winkle II
Louisville (Ky.)
Old Fitzgerald
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Plant supervisors
Sales meetings
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
W. L. Weller & Sons
Van Winkle talks about what it was like growing up with his father, telling several anecdotes to demonstrate his personality. He talks about what it was like to work for his father. He describes his mother and talks about the life lessons he learned from her.
Partial Transcript: You mentioned earlier you had gone to college. Where did you go to school?
Bourbon whiskey
Family-owned business enterprises.
Bourbon business
Bourbon industry
Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr.
Julian Van Winkle II
Kentucky Derby
Life lessons
Rebel Yell bourbon whiskey
Whiskey business
Whiskey industry
Van Winkle talks more about how the Rip Van Winkle brand was created. He talks about his family's history, and the origins of the family name. He talks more about his early days in the whiskey business and the state of the alcohol market at the time. He talks more about what it was like to work for his father.
Partial Transcript: Let's talk a little bit about the development of the Rip Van Winkle brand.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Economic conditions.
Family-owned business enterprises.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Bourbon business
Bourbon industry
Commonwealth Distillery
Family history
Family names
Family trees
Farnsley family
Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon whiskey
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Premium bourbons
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Working relationships
Van Winkle talks about bourbon's growth in popularity. He talks about the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and their products, from the days of selling decanters, to their use of a bottling facility in Lawrenceburg, and the beginning of the popularity of 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle after it won awards in Chicago. He describes his own role in the business during this time.
Partial Transcript: How did the brand develop between the time you joined the organization and the time your, your dad passed away?
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Economic conditions.
Family-owned business enterprises.
Product demonstrations
Sales promotion.
Small business--Kentucky
Small business--Ownership
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
20 year old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon whiskey
Beverage Tasting Institute
Chicago (Ill.)
Hoffman Distillery
Lawrenceburg (Ky.)
Old Boone Distillery
Old Fitzgerald bottling facility
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Wild Turkey Distillery
Van Winkle describes rye whiskey and how its recipe differs from other types of whiskey. He talks about the popularity of the Old Rip Van Winkle brand rye whiskey.
Partial Transcript: Tell me a little bit about rye whiskey.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Business enterprises, Foreign.
Economic conditions.
Export marketing.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Bourbon Festival
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Gordon Hue
Medley Distillery
Rye whiskey
Van Winkle describes how the business partnership between Old Rip Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Distillery began. He talks about his initial skepticism, and talks about how the deal has ultimately been successful.
Partial Transcript: Let's talk a little bit now about your affiliation with Buffalo Trace Distillery--
Alcohol industry.
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Business relationships
Darlene Gillis
Lawrenceburg (Ky.)
Mark Brown
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Van Winkle describes the difference between wheated bourbons and other types of whiskey. He talks about changing the packaging for Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 year, and discusses its taste.
Partial Transcript: Now you mentioned the term wheated bourbon.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Branding (Marketing)
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
15 year Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve
Barrel proof
Flavor profiles
Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr.
Stitzel Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
W. L. Weller
Wheated bourbon
Van Winkle discusses how aging, barrel char, recipes, and location of barrels in a warehouse can affect the taste of whiskey.
Partial Transcript: Now your line of whiskies, many of them at least, are aged considerably longer than is commonly the case.
Bourbon whiskey
Flavor profiles
Wheated bourbons
Van Winkle talks about how the bourbon industry has changed since his early days in the business. He talks about what he would like to see for the future of the industry, including increasing their product supply.
Partial Transcript: Now you've been in the bourbon industry for over thirty years.
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Economic conditions.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Bourbon business
Bourbon industry
Export market
Single malt scotch
Whiskey business
Van Winkle talks about the aspects of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery that help to create a unique product that is not able to be duplicated elsewhere. He mentions some of his personal interests.
Partial Transcript: Let me ask you a little bit about the ancestral family distillery, Stitzel-Weller.
Family-owned business enterprises.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Family distilleries
Roller mills
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Van Winkle talks about what bourbon he would want with him on a deserted island. He talks about how he likes to drink his bourbon.
Partial Transcript: I'm sure you've been asked this question countless times but if you washed up on a desert island with just one case of--
Alcoholic beverages.
Bourbon whiskey
15 year Old Fitzgerald bourbon whiskey
90 proof Old Fitzgerald bourbon whiskey
Drinking bourbon
Elmer T. Lee
Ice cubes
Old Fashioned (cocktail)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Van Winkle gives more detail on how the business partnership between Old Rip Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Distillery operates. He talks about the recipe they use to create the Old Rip Van Winkle products.
Partial Transcript: Is there anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't asked you?
Alcohol industry.
Bourbon whiskey
Branding (Marketing)
Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Quality of products.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Business deals
Business relationships
Joint ventures
Mash bills
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Van Winkle label
Weller recipe
Van Winkle discusses Old Rip Van Winkle's growth in popularity, their small supply of products, and how those products are allocated to distributors. The interview is concluded.
Partial Transcript: I have another probable(??) question.
Alcohol industry.
Economic conditions.
Quality of products.
Sales promotion.
Whiskey industry--Kentucky
Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr.
Old Rip Van Winkle brand
Old Rip Van Winkle Company
Premium bourbons
TROLAND: My name is Tom Troland, and today we are interviewing Julian
P. Van Winkle, III. The date is April 20, 2010. This is part of the
Buffalo Trace Oral History Project, and we are located here at the
Buffalo Trace Distillery. First of all, Julian, thank you very much
for taking the time to talk with us. Let's begin with a very general
question. Just tell me a little bit about yourself.
VAN WINKLE: Well, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, um, and never
left town except to go to school. I went to college and prep school in
Virginia for several years and, um, came back. Um, I started working,
uh, actually at a clothing store when I left college and, uh, didn't
start working for my dad until, uh, two or three years after that and,
uh, married a girl from Louisville and, um, children were all born
there. They've all moved away but now they're moving back so, um, got
a couple of grandkids. And, um, I've been in the whiskey business--I

joined my dad in 1977 so it's been a while.
TROLAND: How old were you when you joined your dad in the whiskey
VAN WINKLE: Uh, let's see. I would have been, I guess, twenty-
seven/twenty-eight, and as I mentioned I had no desires really to
specifically work with Dad but, um, and that's why I kind of went off
and worked at a clothing store for a while just to, um, do that. And,
uh, it was fun for a while, but I saw that I really wasn't going to
go anywhere in the clothing business as far as, uh--they offered me
a promotion, and I said, "Well, maybe I'll try something else." So at
that time Dad, um, asked me to work for him, and, um, he had an office-
-after he had sold the Stitzel-Weller Distillery he had an office and,
um, started this brand of Old Rip Van Winkle at that time. So that's
what he was selling.
TROLAND: (Van Winkle clears throat) Let's go back a little bit in time.
Obviously you're from a well-known whiskey family, and the
dynasty, I guess, in your family, began with your grandfather?
TROLAND: And you remember your grandfather for sure?
TROLAND: So tell me a little bit about your grandfather, maybe your
grandmother as well--that generation of your family as you remember
VAN WINKLE: Sure. Well, um, Pappy as he was known, um--(clears throat)-
-um, he actually passed away in 1965, so I would have been, I guess,
uh, fifteen or sixteen. So I didn't know him for a long time, but,
um, my memories really of, of my grandmother and grandfather were going
to their house and maybe spending the night, obviously spending the
holidays over there. Christmas was usually held--at some point you'd
end up at their house, and, um, uh, lived in the, in the Crescent Hill
area near Highlands and, uh, had a really nice, uh, house there that
my dad actually grew up. And, uh, they were just great people, you
know, typical grandparents, um, good food. Um, uh,
my grandmother was
a strong woman and kept Pappy reined in pretty well, but he was quite
a character and he, uh, he had a lot of friends in the, in the whiskey
business, the bourbon business around the world. And, um, uh, he was
quite a character and has been described as a character, and, um, uh,
that's what he was known for by his, his, uh, peers in the business.
And, um, uh, you know, we would go, um, on a couple of vacations
together. Uh, I remember going dove hunting with my grandfather and
father, um, and, uh, just, you know, vague, some vague memories; not a
whole lot of memories like that but, um, just really fond memories of
just kind of growing up in that house of theirs.
TROLAND: Did your grandfather ever take you to the distillery?
VAN WINKLE: You know, he never did, but I would go on the weekends with
my father and sometimes, uh, Pappy would be there in his office. And,
um, I would go with my sisters, and we'd hang around the distillery
and just a great place to kind of grow up. Um, I just remember as a
really small child playing around in the office and scooting around on
the chairs on the linoleum floors in the back part of the office and,
um, you know, just being able to run all over the whole place and, uh,
really, really neat. But, uh, Pappy never, I don't really remember
going there with him too much, but he was always around. (clears
TROLAND: Was he someone that you interacted with a lot in that sense?
Was he sort of a doting grandfather or was he more, uh, someone who,
who had his own business and kept it a little bit to himself?
VAN WINKLE: Um, both. I mean, he was obviously a professional man and
he would, at his--when he was running his distillery, Stitzel-Weller,
the Old Fitzgerald distillery, he was the oldest active distiller, so
he was serious about, um, his business and, uh, then could, you know,
turn that off and be a
great grandfather at the same time when, uh, uh,
we'd be together. So it was a little bit of both. Um, he, he was, he
was a lot of fun to be around. I just--(clears throat)--I wish, you
know, I had been a little older when he was around because I couldn't
appreciate him quite as much. I had some cousins and my sisters that
are older than I am and, um, cousins, um, were a little older, and
they, they knew him a little better. And really I would ask them, you
know, after he passed away, I'd have to ask them, "Well, what was Pappy
like in this situation?" or whatever. But unfortunately I didn't, I
was a little young to really, um, be able to enjoy him as far as, uh,
you know, knowing too much about him.
TROLAND: Did you ever hear him tell a story or did some other member of
your family ever recount to you a story about him that you remembered
well over the years?
VAN WINKLE: He had a lot of stories, and, uh, most of his stories he put
into his advertising. Um, uh, he had these third-page,
um, column ads
in Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated and, uh, a third of a column
with his picture up at the top, and my dad did the same thing after
Pappy passed away. But, uh, he would, a lot of his old stories that
he would know about, he would relate that to selling, selling bourbon.
Um, I can't really think of too many right off the top of my head, but
he was, they were very famous columns and, uh, you know, they really
did a good job of, of selling the whole home-town, uh, home-raised
Kentucky boy selling bourbon whiskey. It really went together well.
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about, uh, about your dad. Uh, he was in
the whiskey business also.
VAN WINKLE: (clears throat)
TROLAND: What was his story?
VAN WINKLE: He, um, again born and raised in Louisville, um, went
to Princeton and after Princeton, um, actually joined the Army so
this would have been early forties, and, uh, he was stationed at
Campbell for a while and, um, eventually went into the service
and fought in the Pacific. He was a tank commander over there in,
uh, 1943/44 and, um, was actually wounded over there in, um, in the
Guinea/Philippines area, and, um, that didn't put an end to his career
but he got a purple heart and silver, silver medal for his valor
over there. So he was, he was the consummate Army, Army guy. He
was, um, he brought some of that home sometimes. He was a very stern
individual, and, uh, uh, and I, um, you know, he ran a tight ship at
home, too. And I could always see his--and he did it in business,
too--it was, the Army kind of carried through, uh, through most of his
life as far as, uh, the way he, um, treated people and expected people
to treat him and ran the business and ran the house and so forth. So
he was a, he was a tough guy to work for but, uh, you know, very honest
and very, you know,
a good, good man for sure.
TROLAND: Give me just a little bit of background about the family
distillery; not detailed history but just, uh, sort of, uh, the
highlights that, uh, come to mind.
VAN WINKLE: Well, my pappy, I guess I would start with him. This is
what we usually talk about when we do bourbon dinners or whatever,
but, uh, he started in the business right. Went to Centre College
in Danville and, uh, was from Danville as a matter of fact. His dad,
his dad was Secretary of State in Kentucky, and Pappy went to work in
Louisville, uh, from Centre in, uh, 1873 as a salesman for W.L. Weller
and Sons Wholesale Company. And, uh, the Stitzel Distillery made their
whiskey for them, and eventually they merged to form the Stitzel-Weller
Distillery. So you had the Weller Wholesale Company--(clears throat)-
-and the Stitzel Distillery, uh, merging together; um,
one owning
the label and the Stitzels having their own whiskey also. And then
Prohibition occurred and, um, the Stitzel was one of the few that was
allowed to operate during Prohibition, and after Prohibition in 1935,
Pappy opened up the modern day Stitzel-Weller Distillery here at, or
in Louisville, and, uh, opened up Derby Day in 1935. And, um, he--and
Mr. Stitzel came along with him and a fellow named Alex Farnsley who
was the money operator, and Pappy was the salesman of the, uh, of the
three, Mr. Stitzel being the distiller. And, uh, they operated the
distillery, and, uh, their brands, main brands were Old Fitzgerald
and W.L. Weller, and, uh, Dad, after the war, uh, joined Pappy as a
salesman first and then worked his way up to vice-president and then
president as Pappy got a little older and started to retire. And, um,
uh, operated the business and--another brand they had was Rebel Yell
and Cabin Still were the other two brands they had among the four big
ones, and they
did a lot of contract bottling for a lot of hotels and
restaurants around the country, mostly in the New York/Chicago areas.
(clears throat) And, um, operated the distillery--Pappy passed away
in 1965--and Dad continued to operate the distillery until 1972 when
he, uh, when he sold it, and that's when he started this Old Rip Van
Winkle label at that time actually with some whiskey he had produced
at Stitzel-Weller. So he, you know, to start a bourbon label you have
to have product, so he was lucky enough to be able to get some of the
product that he had actually made himself and, uh, that was the first
whiskey that he put in his Old Rip Van Winkle bottling.
TROLAND: So the first bottlings of Rip Van Winkle came out when?
VAN WINKLE: Uh, probably '74 or '75. It took him a couple of years.
As I said, he sold the distillery in '72 so it took a couple of years
to get it going, and, um, I'm still in the same office that he started
back after he sold the
distillery. We've still got that same office
with my son, but, um, uh, as I say, people want to get in the whiskey
business but to do that you either have a distillery and start making
whiskey and it takes years to obviously get product depending on how
old you want your whiskey to be, your bourbon to be but, uh, he was
lucky enough to already have something to put in the bottles. And it
was a fantastic product. Back then it was a seven-year-old Old Rip Van
Winkle, but, um, that's how he got started back in the business.
TROLAND: So now at this time when he was getting started back in the
business after the family distillery had been sold, you were, I guess,
working in the clothes industry at that time?
VAN WINKLE: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yes. Yeah. Um, uh, exactly. I was doing
something else, and, um, he was kind of doing his own thing. And I
was just kind of looking at it on the periphery and just seeing what
he was doing, and, um, as I say, I didn't have a great, great interest
in it, um, but then as he got more into it, um, I could see that, uh,
you know, he traveled a
lot and I knew a lot of the people. He had
the same, um, wholesalers that he had at Stitzel-Weller. So, uh, I
knew a lot of those people because I had, I actually would do, go on a
couple of sales trips with Dad when we had the big distillery and, um,
you know, so I knew a lot of the people that worked for him, and, uh,
some of them worked for him when they changed to the Old Rip Van Winkle
label and used a lot of the same wholesalers. So, you know, I knew
some of the people in the business and kind of got to be intrigued with
it, and, uh, you know, it was great to, uh, to join in 1977 when I did.
TROLAND: And so what, what did you do after you first joined the family
business? What, uh, what types of duties? What types of duties did you
have at that time?
VAN WINKLE: Well, since there was actually no distillery with our
business, uh, Stitzel-Weller did our bottling for us, so my job was
to say--and at that time, we also were producing a lot of decanters.
Uh, that was a good way to
sell, sell product rather than just in a
regular whiskey bottle. We'd put it in a specialized decanter for,
say, um, different universities or, uh, wildlife decanters or whatever;
just, that was big in the sixties and seventies to a lot of the--all
of the distilleries, uh, had their own, uh, labels on, on the decanters
also because that was a, as I say, a good way to sell their whiskey.
So I would, uh, basically get the production, you know, check on the,
um, production of the bottles and the bottling, and we'd go to the
bottling at Stitzel-Weller. Um, he had one of those old, um, fellows
that worked as the, uh, plant super-, uh, supervisor at Stitzel-Weller.
He worked for us now, so he would help us along as far as getting the
bottling done, making sure it was done right and, um, uh, you know,
getting the right whiskey in the bottles and so forth and just kind
of keeping track of all that and then also, um, actually going out
around the country--uh, mostly in Kentucky and in Louisville in the
first part--but, um, going
to stores and wholesalers and having sales
meetings and, you know, selling the product once we get it bottled.
So that was kind of--it was the office work and then you go out and do
the, the leg work in the, in the field. So those were pretty much what
we did; just basically learned the business from the ground up. I knew
the, knew the distillation part of it, but, um, you know, the actual
selling part of it and the, and the bottling of it was something that I
was very much involved in.
TROLAND: You mentioned earlier you had gone to college. Where did you
go to school?
VAN WINKLE: Uh, went to Woodbury Forest and then Blue Ridge School which
were prep schools in Virginia and then to Randolph Bacon College in
Ashland, Virginia.
TROLAND: When you were going to college or perhaps shortly thereafter,
did you have any thought that you might eventually wish to get into the
whiskey business or were you really, completely uninterested in that at
that time?
Um, it was always a fascinating business, and I, uh, we
sure drank a lot of whiskey in college and everybody did. You know,
it was, um, you start as a freshman, you start drinking bourbon in, uh,
your fraternity house and whatever, but it was always--and people, my
friends were always very interested because we would, mostly back then
we were drinking Rebel Yell which is, uh, only sold in the South. And,
um, people were, my friends were always infatuated by the business and
the brand and, of course, I was, too, but I think probably--(clears
throat)--uh, as I mentioned my dad was a, was a stern individual and
a tough guy to work for, a tough guy to be his son, so maybe I think
probably that had something to do with maybe me putting this thing off
for a while as far as working for him because, um, um, maybe I just
wanted a little space for a while before we joined up together. But
when we did it was fine and, uh, everything worked out great, but, um,
um, that probably had something to do with my delay as far as getting
TROLAND: Tell me about your siblings.
VAN WINKLE: I've got two older sisters, and, um, Kitty, uh, Terry
lives in Coconut Grove, Florida, and they have two girls and four
grandchildren now. Um, she went to school up, uh, near Boston so
she married a guy up there. Um, it's quite, my dad was a staunch
southerner and she married a Yankee, as he described it--as they all
described him--and he had described himself as that, so we all had a
lot of fun with that. And, uh, my older, uh, oldest sister, Sally, um,
lives in Louisville and, uh, has a couple of sons and, um, still, still
there, and, um, uh, they, you know, are not in the business but always
been interested in it and, um, you know, keep track of what I'm doing
all the time. And, um, um, that was, uh, you know, it was fun for them
to also grow up in the whiskey family; it was a great
TROLAND: Can you think of a story about something that happened when you
were a kid at home or, uh, involving family that you remember either
because it was funny or because it was influential in your future?
VAN WINKLE: Oh, gosh. Um, I'm going to say not offhand. Nothing
comes to mind. (laughs) But I'll work on that. I'm sure there is and
something would, uh, pop up, but, um, uh, we, one th-, you know, my
dad, you know, being the president of a, of a nice, big distillery you
would think he would be, uh, you know, cognizant of the fact that, uh,
young people should be careful when they take a drink of whiskey--when
I say young people, I mean college age--and we would, um, we would
always have every so often, we'd have friends come home from college
for the Derby. And one year we're trying to smuggle in
some whiskey
into the infield, and, of course, you can't take any alcohol into the
infield, but my father was right there that morning trying to help us
figure out how to get some whiskey into the infield. And, uh, we found
some old, empty salad dressing bottles I think my mother had down in
the basement that she kept for some reason, um, and filled those up
with, uh, whiskey, and we lined our belt with these skinny, uh, empty
salad dressing bottles with some whiskey, um, bourbon, good bourbon to
take into the infield. So he was, he was right on board with helping
us do that, so that always kind of amazed me and my friends were amazed
also. But it worked out well. (clears throat)
TROLAND: So as a military man, your dad was kind of a play by the rules
type guy except in some circumstances?
VAN WINKLE: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. He was, uh, he had a lot of fun,
you know. He had a great sense of humor, had a bunch of friends and,
um, played golf and tennis and water skied and did everything, wanted
to do everything, so he was, he was quite a piece of
work. (clears
TROLAND: Would you say your dad and you butted heads at times as is very
common in families?
VAN WINKLE: Definitely, um, because I was not, I was not the, um, uh,
you know, I always didn't do what he said and, uh, was not, definitely
not driven toward something to go into the Armed Forces or whatever,
but, um, he, uh, we--I would just, I was not, uh, doing what he wanted
me to do as far as, uh, being a young man and growing up and so forth.
He had his rules and I had my ideas of the way I should do things,
and they were not the same. Let's just put it that way, so, uh, we did
butt heads a little bit.
TROLAND: What, uh, do you think he wanted you to do as he saw you
developing into an adult?
VAN WINKLE: Oh, probably be a little more responsible and pick up a book
every now and then and study, and, um, you know, I was not driven that
way really. Uh, he was. Well, actually he was--he had a hard time in
school, too, but, uh, he was a little more driven than I
was. And, um,
uh, I'm sure he probably, as you do when you have a child, you don't
want--you want them to improve their life, and you don't want to be,
you know, go around like yourself. Maybe if you weren't as good as you
thought you could be you'll want them to do better, so I think that's
probably what he did with me and I was not geared that way. So, uh,
it, uh--(clears throat)--I finally figured it out. (clears throat)
TROLAND: What's something your mother taught you?
VAN WINKLE: Well, she was a classy lady and, um, you know, manners and,
um, uh, you know, a beautiful woman and also great friends, and, uh,
we, our--as it turns out, you know--their friends and their children,
we're now friends with their children. So, um, she just, uh, you
know, as any, uh, a lot of mothers do just teach you manners and how
to behave and how to grow up properly and,
um, how to conduct yourself
properly, and it was, you know, it was a good, good thing. She, um,
she was right on. (clears throat)
TROLAND: And your dad, from your earliest memory throughout your life,
even when you were young, was in the whiskey business I gather?
VAN WINKLE: Yep. Oh, yeah. Forever. He, like, I say, went, joined my
grandfather right out of the Army as he got home after the war so, and
went to work for him at the distillery, and, uh, I'm not sure if he ever
worked there as a young man like I did in the summertimes but, um, he,
he went right at it as soon as, uh, as the war was over. And I grabbed
my son, Preston, right out of college, too, so, uh--because I needed
the help--but, uh, um, as far as I know Dad was always in the business
and that's, that's the only thing he ever did. (clears throat)
TROLAND: Let's talk a little bit about the development of the Rip Van
Winkle brand. We've touched on this already.
Obviously, it's an
operation that your dad began a few years after the family, uh, sold
the Stitzel-Weller distillery.
TROLAND: So tell me just a little bit about how that began and what the
early years were like.
VAN WINKLE: Sure. Well, the label was actually a pre-Prohibition label
that was, um, that he bought from the Farnsley family who were partners
with the distillery. Alex Farnsley's family, um, owned the label, and,
um, Dad bought it in the fifties, um, and tried, never really produced
the label under that name, the Old Rip Van Winkle label, but had some
mockups drawn. So there were all of this kind of stuff and ideas in
the background that you always wanted to do up but just never--I think
it would have happened if, um, if we had kept the distillery but, um,
he always had this idea of starting this Old Rip Van Winkle label.
So again, he owned the rights to this label which was, um, there
are still bottles out there of the old original Old
Rip Van Winkle
bottling which was owned by another family. But, um, started it and,
um, uh, you know, it was, people didn't know what to think of it in
the, in the beginning. Some people--a lot of people have heard of the
legend of Old Rip Van Winkle, and they're always kind of amazed even
today that, you know, "Is that your, is that really your name?" You
know, selling--"How does that work? You've got this, is he related to
this guy, this Old Rip?" And, uh, so it's kind of a fun thing to, you
know, it's a great relationship we have to this legend of Old Rip Van
Winkle by Washington Irving plus that's our name. So, uh, uh, we had
a lot of fun with it, but, uh, it's a catchy name and that's why Dad
really liked it and, um, uh, and went with it and finally got this
label designed. We had a, a fellow who did some artwork with, for us
at Stitzel-Weller, and, um, he worked with us after we sold Stitzel-
Weller. So he's the one that really designed a lot of our labels, um,
that are out there even
today. (clears throat)
TROLAND: What is the origin of the family name Van Winkle?
VAN WINKLE: It's Dutch. Um, it means, um, Van or Van is--means "from"
in Dutch, and winkle is, uh, "shopkeeper", and, um, I've even been to
the town of Winkle in Holland. So, uh, you know, I was traveling to
Europe back in the seventies, but, um, it's a Dutch name and ancestors
came over, landed in New Jersey back in the day. And, um, uh, I'm
not sure how, where our--(clears throat)--my grandfather had several
brothers, and, um, there, obviously with our name being out there now
we hear from Van Winkles, uh, around the country; uh, they're in New
Jersey, Texas, Oklahoma, um, um, Georgia area. So they're still out
there, but basically just a Dutch name, and, um, it's amazing when you,
when you meet someone with a Dutch name they say, "Oh, you're Dutch."
So it's kind of a, it's a proud heritage, I guess, that the Dutch have
because there's not a whole lot, a whole lot of them
TROLAND: Do you have any idea when your family first came to the New
VAN WINKLE: It's, it's, you know, it's 1600s and, um, way back because
we've got a family tree, and, um, you know, there are some strange names
on there--Jecabiah, and, uh, uh, Maciah--and all these really Dutch
names that, um, that were watered down at some point and there are not,
not any of them left. All the, it's all pretty much American or, um,
you know, English-type names now, but, um, we do have a family tree
with some dates on there that, uh, they go way back. (clears throat)
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about the nature of the, uh, Rip Van
Winkle business. When you first joined it your dad had already started
the business and had been in operation for a few years, so how well-
known was the brand and what was the state of operations when you first
began working with your
VAN WINKLE: You know, I'm not sure of the volume. I'd have to check
and see. It was tiny, uh, a few hundred cases a year. I mean, it
was just something to have fun with when it first started out. We had
a wholesaler in Kentucky, um, maybe Tennessee, uh, had a good friend
in Springfield, Illinois, and, um, in Chicago that sold it, so it
was basically his close friend distributors that had distributorships
would sell the product for him. But I don't think it was more than
two or three hundred cases, uh, when I joined him. As I mentioned,
most of the business was sold, uh, the whiskey was sold through
decanters because bourbon at that time--and that's one of the reasons
the distillery was sold because the bourbon business was not very
good in the early seventies, uh, mid-seventies. It was, you know,
it was fighting white whiskey, it was fighting vodkas. Um, vodka was
the main culprit as far as something else to, um, take people's minds
from bourbon, so, um, it was a tough sell. So,
um, we were selling
a premium product, and premium bourbons, there weren't hardly any
around back then. Um, that's what they sold at Stitzel-Weller was
old, uh, ten/twelve/fifteen-year-old whiskey even back in the fifties
and sixties, but, you know, for some reason that wasn't, uh, bourbon
hadn't really caught on at that point. It was just, um, just something
that, uh, you know, another spirit out there. So the decanter was
really a good way to, you're really selling the bottle instead of the
whiskey, uh, which has always kind of bugged me, and, um, we finally
reversed that part of it. But, um, uh, he had the Old Rip Van Winkle
label and another label called Old Commonwealth obviously being here
in Kentucky. Those were our two decanter labels we sold and, uh, did
very well with them. I mean, that was a very profitable business, and,
um, until that--Dad died in 1981--and at that point the decanters were
kind of starting to slow down because the price was getting higher.
We had them made in Japan first, then Taiwan, then we went to
always looking for a cheaper price. Once the retail price of these
decanters got to be about $49.99, that was it. The market just died,
and, uh, you ask (??) Beam or, um, I see an Eagle Rare bottle up there,
you know, all these distilleries that had their own decanters, that's
pretty much where they, where they, when they died off is when they got
to the retail price of about fifty bucks. Mentally it was not, not a
good place to be for just buying a porcelain decanter. Ours were, were
very nice. They were all hand-carved and hand-painted, so they weren't
the spray-painted type, um, cheaper kind. They sold for some good
money, but, um, once that business died, that's when I started focusing
on selling what's inside the bottle because, um, it was a great product
and I knew it was good. And, um, we just, at that point, started to
get people to try the whiskey, and, and, um, that's when the Old Rip
Van Winkle label started to take off a little bit.
TROLAND: What was it like to work with your dad in those years?
Uh, it
was just a brief period of time you, you worked together and you and
he had butted heads a little bit as a, when you were a younger man,
but how did it go, uh, when you and he were now working together in the
same business?
VAN WINKLE: It wasn't, you know, I was still his son and I was--he was
tough to work for. You know, he, uh, ran a tight ship, so, um, he
was very specific about how he--what he wanted me to do and how he
wanted me to do it and if I didn't do something right I would hear
about it. So it was, um, you know, it was a good, good, great learning
experience. I pass that onto my son now who's trying to do the same
thing, and, um, because I didn't have a clue as to how I should be
operating, um, as far as selling whiskey and how to, you know, manage
the process from the barrel, bottling, selling and so forth. You know,
it was a great, uh--he would tell me how to do it and the correct way
to do it, so it was, the learning curve was pretty steep there for a
while when I first joined him but, um, uh,
it was, it was fun. We had
a good time out on the road, and, um, doing, doing--working together.
We were in the same office. We had a two-room office. Secretary,
had a couple of secretaries in the other room who would handle the
paperwork and then Dad and I were in the same, same room, so he was
looking at me every day that I was around. (clears throat)
TROLAND: How did the brand develop between the time you joined the
organization and the time your dad passed away? Was there a, a major
growth period at that time or, or not?
VAN WINKLE: Um, it was getting more popular as people found out about
the, the brand, and as we expanded, um, we were lucky enough to be
able to buy the whiskey that we had made at Stitzel-Weller. We were
able enough to buy it by the barrel. Uh, they would store it for us.
Um, when Dad passed away in '81, uh, Stitzel-Weller, Old Fitzgerald
was doing our bottling for
us, and they kindly asked me to take a
hike as far as, uh, they weren't doing our bottling for us anymore.
So I had to find another place to, um, bottle our whiskey, and there
was a little place in, uh, Lawrenceburg just down the road called
Hoffman Distillery. And they, for a couple of years, bottled--they
owned--it was no distillery there. It was just the bottling house and
the warehouse--so they were doing, they were mainly in the decanters
also, Hoffman Decanters, and big business for them. And they, uh,
were a very reasonable, reasonably priced place to do our bottling
for us, and then in 1983 when the decanter business was just about
shot, they, they wanted to sell me the facility and I had to have
someplace to buy it, I mean, to bottle the whiskey. I had no money
but, um, went to the bank and, um, uh, put up some collateral which
was pretty scary and bought this barrel warehouse and
bottling facility
in Lawrenceburg in, uh, 1983. So that's where I did all the bottling,
and, um, again did a lot of, still did a lot of decanters there. The
decanter business was still hanging on, but, um, even bottled some
for the people that owned it previously; bottled some of their bottles
and, um, again tried to focus on the label and the product and just,
um, would do some bourbon dinners here and there to get people to try
the product. And we'd go out and do whiskey shows or whatever just to
get the whiskey in people's mouths, just to get them to try it because
it's always something, obviously, I believed in. I was familiar with
it from day one, it seemed like, and, um, I just wanted to really
promote the selling of the whiskey. And, uh, it gradually, as anything
does, it, it starts to take hold. Um, we just had a--we went up to a
ten-year-old product after Dad passed away. Then I got hold of some
older whiskey and uh, uh, progressed (??) to a twelve-year-old,
again, I did a fifteen-year-old a few years later and eventually a
twenty and then a twenty-three. So I just kind of, this all progressed
with ideas I had and. as whiskey became available and, um, back then
the--not having our own distillery, there was bulk whiskey available
on the market because the bourbon business still was not very good in
the late eighties and nineties, early nineties. So I was fortunate
enough to buy from a couple of different sources some pretty decent
bourbon to put in these, in my labels, uh, under my bottles. And so,
uh, probably the breakthrough for us was, uh, my sales rep in Chicago
entered our twenty-year-old Pappy Van Winkle into a, um, the beverage
tasting institute, their beverage tasting panel, and it got a ninety-
nine. That was the highest rating that any whiskey, period, had ever
gotten. So then the phone starts ringing off the hook from wholesalers
all over the country, you know, ratings are it.
You know, ratings just
like wine or food or anything else, when people see ratings--
TROLAND: What year was this?
VAN WINKLE: Uh, I'm thinking '96/'95. Yeah. (clears throat) And, um,
that's when the brand started to get a little bit of attention, uh,
when you get a nice rating like that. So it's unfortunate that people
didn't see it for themselves and appreciate the quality of the product
before that, but it sure does help. So, um, that's when things kind of
really started to change for me.
TROLAND: Now at one point your twenty-year-old was, uh, said to come
from what was called the Old Boone Distillery?
VAN WINKLE: Uh-huh. That was the first whiskey in that bottling, right.
TROLAND: Where, where was the Old Boone Distillery?
VAN WINKLE: It was way out Dixie Highway in South Louisville, almost
to Fort Knox, and, um, uh, a really pretty good--you know, there were
hundreds of distilleries in Kentucky before Prohibition. This was
one of them that wa-, continued to operate after Prohibition and, uh,
made a pretty decent whiskey, was in the decanter
business just like
everybody else, but Dad had a, had a relationship, uh, with a fellow
there named Tom Pageant, uh, Bob Pageant, um, who went to Maker's Mark-
-(clears throat)--after he worked for Old Boone. But, um, we bought
some stocks of whiskey from them, and, um, actually they closed down
in the late eighties, but they sold their, their bulk whiskey to Austin
Nichols, Wild Turkey. So it's funny how these barrels travel around
the state to different distilleries from all these sales and purchases,
but, um, so the whiskey I bought to put in the original Pappy I bought
from, um, uh, Wild Turkey there in Lawrenceburg. So that was the
first, um, first whiskey we had in a twenty-year-old. (clears throat)
TROLAND: After your dad died, uh, I guess the operation was just you and
a secretary?
TROLAND: A very small, uh--
VAN WINKLE: It was about as small as you could get, um, and, uh, and
when I couldn't do the bottling at Stitzel-Weller anymore, I had
to do my own bottling. Um, that meant that I was two or three or four
days a week traveling to Lawrenceburg to do the bottling, and they had
some employees there, um, that would do the processing and the, uh, the
labeling and so forth; just some part-time, uh, help. And, um, but I
was, again, was kind of doing the whole thing by myself. Eventually,
a lot of them retired--the people that processed the whiskey--and,
uh, when the barrels would come in on a truck, you know, they would
be there, but I'd have to hire my, uh, secretary down there, hire her
sons to help me out. (laughs) Or my secretaries in Louisville, I'd
hire them to help me out down there, so it was kind of a one-man show.
Then I'd come home at night and, uh, get the billing done and, uh,
with the help of the secretary, so it was, I was, uh, running myself
ragged there starting after 1983. But, um, yeah--it was a pretty small
operation, and we
weren't selling a lot of cases. It was, again, it
was a lot of decanters, but the whiskey business had not, the bourbon
business per se had not really taken off yet.
TROLAND: Were you in some, to some extent optimistic that this
operation, still quite small after a number of years, could grow and
become a, a more major operation?
VAN WINKLE: I, I don't know if I was optimistic or stubborn because
I didn't want to close it down because I'd invested all my time and,
and what little money I had left to keep this thing running, and, um,
you know, I just didn't, I would do anything to keep it going because
obviously I had faith in the brand and I knew it would, would sell
someday. But just, um, just basically just kept it going, um, as well
as I could, uh, for as long as I could and then, um--(clears throat)-
-you know, then eventually started to get some notoriety and then, uh,
that really helped things
TROLAND: Tell me a little bit about rye whiskey. In the nineties, your
brand offered for the first time--as far as I know--several bottlings
of rye whiskey just as a product that had not been seen much on the
U.S. market for a long time. What was the origin of your idea to sell
rye whiskey?
VAN WINKLE: Well, again, like everything else in my business I had
help, um, just little inputs from friends. Um, even this bottle that
the fifteen-year-old was in, um, wasn't my idea. I wanted a different
bottle, but, um, uh, a friend of mine who owned a liquor store up in
Covington, uh, was using that bottle for his label and suggested it.
It's just a stock cognac bottle. So I get help from, little bitty
pieces of help as you do, you know, running a business.
TROLAND: Was that Gordon Hugh?
VAN WINKLE: Yeah. Gordon Hugh. Right. It was Gordon's--he was
doing his Hirsch label at that time, um, and, um, which we originally
bottled, and, um, um, again I, I had a--I was selling some whiskey
in Japan, quite a bit actually.
That was a really good market. I
wasn't getting a whole lot for it as usual, but, um, you know, it
was at least--kept the bottling line operational and kept some cash
flow going. Um, but I had a request from my Japanese customer, oddly
enough, that wanted some old rye whiskey. So I said, "Okay. I'll--I
don't know a damn thing about it, but I'll go out and give it a shot."
So I called a few distilleries and finally found some at the Medley
Distillery. Charles Medley had some old rye whiskey. He had also
shut his distillery down in '92, um, also, so he had stocks of bourbon
whiskey that he was selling and, uh, under his Wathen's label but he
wasn't selling any of the rye. So I tried it, and I was blown away by
the, by the quality of this whiskey because I had never tasted anything
like it. (clears throat) Um, my wife, Cissy, has an incredible palate
for whiskey. She likes single malt scotch mostly, but I gave her
some of this rye whiskey and she loved it. Uh, and I let a couple of
friends try it, and they were blown away by it and these were
people. And, again, I didn't know anything about rye whiskey, so we
made a, the whiskey was twelve years old, thirteen years old, and, uh,
I designed two different labels; an Old Rip Van Winkle twelve-year-old
and a Van Winkle Family Reserve thirteen-year-old and sold them in
Japan exclusively. So I'm at the Bourbon Festival one year, and Gary
Regan and Paul Pacult were sitting at a table having a drink or a beer
or something. And I walked by and I said, "Hey, guys. How are you
doing? Uh, look at this new label I've got." And they're from up East,
I call it--New York, New Jersey, New England area--and, of course,
being a rye, rye whiskey area, um, said, "Well, what are you going to
do with this? You're going to sell it in the states aren't you?" And
I said, "I've got no idea. I don't, you know, is there any popularity
of rye here? Does anybody know about it?" They say, "Oh, yeah. There's
all kinds of rye whiskey labels out there." And they're all four-years-
old; Pikesville, you know, and Overholt and whatever. There was--Beam
always had one, and Wild Turkey
did. So they said, "Well, you've got
to start producing this in the U.S." So I started selling it in the
U.S. at their, uh, again, the help, at their, uh, uh, suggestion, and,
um, and it took off and, um, you know, got all kinds of tasting awards.
And I only had a limited amount of it is the problem, and now, today,
um, we're stuck with what I bought years ago and we're producing new
whiskey here at Buffalo Trace for it but, uh, it's going to be a while
before it comes to market. But, um, it was a phenomenal product, and,
uh, it would be the best selling whiskey we had if we had a lot of it
because it really was exceptional.
TROLAND: Rye whiskey has become much more popular in the last decade or
TROLAND: --uh, than it was prior to that time although it's still, as I
understand it, a very small fraction of the whiskey market. Um, would
it be fair to say you had played some role in bringing rye whiskey back
to, uh, to the
market as a, a top shelf item?
VAN WINKLE: I guess so because I had the first aged rye whiskey out
there. As I mentioned, everything was four or five years old--no age
on the label--so I had the first, uh, old rye whiskey. Um, Buffalo
Trace put out Sazerac eighteen-year-old after mine came out, so they
obviously had the same idea. Um, I think they saw that rye was, you
know, something that could be sold. They had stocks of it and it just
happened to be eighteen years old. Um, you know, we do these things
that, um, you think we think long and hard about them for years and
years, but sometimes if you have a product that's already aged and
ready to go, well, let's create a label for it, and it just happened
to take off. So I guess having the first aged rye whiskey was, um,
was kind of really when this whole rye thing started, I think. There
was a lot of them that popped up as, uh, because rye whiskey was
available sitting in the warehouses. Um, they were maybe selling it
to the Canadians to put in some,
um, Canadian blended whiskey and, um,
or putting it in blended whiskey here in the states or whatever, but,
um, um, it really was quite a phenomenon to see the rye whiskey take
off. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun selling it--(coughs)-
-because it makes incredible cocktails--obviously the Sazerac--but the
original Manhattan was made with rye. It was the original whiskey
sold in this country by the Europeans--started making rye up in
Pennsylvania/Maryland, so it's, um, it's good to see it come full
circle back to, to the popularity of rye.
TROLAND: Let's talk a little bit now about your, uh, affiliation with
Buffalo Trace Distillery which you began sometime ago. Um, tell me a
little bit about how you got the idea to pursue that. [Whistle blows.]
TROLAND: How did you get the idea to pursue that particular initiative?
VAN WINKLE: Um, I guess it was 2001 and I had been still in
operating the bottling operation there, and, um, the whiskeys were
starting to take off a little bit. Obviously the, I was selling some
of the oldest premium whiskey out there, and, um, the ratings were
getting great; you know, getting very good ratings and a lot of press.
And, uh, I think Mark Brown obviously noticed something about that,
so he called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to do a little
joint venture. And I, you know, I said, "Well, I'll think about it,
but I'm perfectly fine by myself. I've been doing this thing by myself
for twenty-something years." And, um, I thought that would be, you
know, continue on like that, but then I'd go home and realize that,
uh, well, let's see. I'm not making a new whiskey. I'm not putting
any whiskey away. Um, I'm buying some whiskey that Stitzel-Weller
was making for me and had a good arrangement with them, but they had
shut down in 1992. Diageo had shut that
distillery down. They were
still warehousing whiskey there, but there was no new production. So I
needed new production. Um, Buffalo Trace bought the Weller label, our
old label at Stitzel-Weller, back in 1999. They bought that label, so
they were probably producing a wheated bourbon whiskey which is what
our formula was. And finally, Mark called me again and said, um, "What
do you think?" And I said, "Well, let's talk. This, this sounds pretty
good." And the more I thought about it, I'd love to get rid of that
little bottling operation in Lawrenceburg that was wearing me out and,
um, love to not, uh, be on the road between Louisville and Lawrenceburg
every day, so, um, in 2002 we struck up a deal and, um, the rest is
history as they say.
So it's been a great, great relationship. Um, they do all the heavy
lifting as far as the production, the warehousing, uh, the paperwork,
the invoicing,
bottling. I'm thankful. I was getting ready to get,
happy to get rid of that although on a nice spring day down there in
the country rolling some barrels and driving that old truck from the
warehouse to the bottling house it was, you know, I had a little creek
right there. It was--and my son has said the same thing. Preston
says, "You know, I miss that. It was really nice." But not every day.
(laughs) So, uh, but it was, um, you know, there was parts of it that
was great, but, um, getting up on the roof when it was raining and
fixing the leak and stuff like that was, uh, got a little old so this
was a great relationship. So it, I finally came to my senses, and, um,
it's worked out very well.
TROLAND: So you no longer have the facility at all in Lawrenceburg?
VAN WINKLE: Right. Sold that back in--well, it took a while to sell
it, but, about a year or so--but, uh, I did sell it in 2003 I think,
and, uh, the barrel warehouse has since been torn down. And I think
they are selling the wood, um, actually on their website somewhere in
North Carolina is the wood that actually aged Pappy Van
Winkle bourbon.
(laughs) You know, you can buy it for your floor or make a table out
of it or whatever, but, um, they tore that building down. But the
old bottling house is still there. I think there's a sign company in
there now, but it's still around. And, uh, the girl who did my work
for me, Darlene Gillis, she was the secretary down there for thirty-
something years because she worked for the people that owned the Hoffman
Distillery, uh, the Wortheimer family--they were from Cincinnati--she
worked for them for years, and, uh, she's still around. So we're still
good friends. We talk all the time, and, um, um, so we still have
a few ties with Lawrenceburg but, um, that's all gone as far as the
facility thankfully.
TROLAND: Now you mentioned the term wheated bourbon. Can you remind us
a little bit about what that term means compared to others?
VAN WINKLE: Sure. We're not sure of the origin of wheated bourbon
completely because, uh, when Pappy joined W.L. Weller, Stitzel
Distillery was
making bourbon made with wheat; in other words, bourbon
obviously has to have mostly corn as your main ingredient but your
second grain can be either wheat or rye if you so choose to pick one of
them and then malted barley is your third grain. Pappy, uh, we believe
the Stitzels were using wheat at that time instead of rye for at least
one of their formulas, and when Pappy, when they merged Stitzel-Weller
together back before Prohibition, um, he only sold the wheated bourbon
whiskey and that was his favorite. And when he started the production
at the modern-day Stitzel-Weller plant in, in 1935, all the whiskeys
were the same distillation, but they're all wheated bourbon whiskey.
Same, same formula, just different age and different proof, um,
and again that's--you like wheated bourbon or bourbon made with rye,
they're both great. It's just your own, uh, flavor preference, I guess
you'd call it, what you might like. Pappy always enjoyed the wheated
bourbon. It's what I grew up on.
It's what my dad grew up on, so it's
something that we're used to. And I think what I've seen in our label
that people have really maybe tried bourbon made with rye then they
try an aged, wheated bourbon, and they see a huge difference and, uh,
really get attached to the wheated profile. So I think that's why we've
gotten to be so popular because it's really different than what's out
there, but, um, so again there are only five of them out there; um, Van
Winkle, Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald, um, Weller and, uh, Maker's Mark.
TROLAND: Tell us a little bit about the bourbon in that bottle that
you're sitting next to.
VAN WINKLE: This is one that actually started out--it's a fifteen-
year-old, 107 proof--and, um, it started out as an Old Rip Van Winkle
package. Um, we have a ten-year-old 107 proof in a
squat bottle and we
had a fifteen-year-old 107 proof, and they were confusing on the shelf.
It was confusing, and people, you know, why--that one's twenty-two
dollars and that one's thirty-five dollars. What's the difference? Oh,
there's a different age. Okay. I just decided to change the product,
um--the packaging, and I don't have a whole lot of pictures of Pappy
but this one on the back is a picture of him at eighteen years old when
he started working for the Wellers. So I said, "I'd love to use that
picture in a package." So I changed the package and, uh, to the Pappy
Van Winkle which is the most famous label we have, so we had a--we have
a fifteen, a twenty and a twenty-three. But this fifteen-year-old for
some reason, um, our formula--um, bourbon really changes as it matures
obviously, and you get different flavor profiles as it gets older.
Um, it's kind of like this. You know, at twelve years old--at ten
years old, it's pretty good. At twelve years old,
it's really good.
Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen it kind of has a little flat--I mean,
thirteen fourteen--a little flat, but when it gets to be fifteen years
old, um, this, this whiskey has incredible vanilla and caramel in it
and it's got little, some orange notes in there, um, that are just,
it's just incredible whiskey. It really is. Um, a lot of people really
enjoy this fifteen-year-old. It just for some reason is a really nice
age, and the 107 proof is something that our family has always used.
Um, we had a--back with Stitzel-Weller--we had a seven-year-old 107
proof, um, W.L. Weller, and it was called "barrel proof" because it
was put in the barrel at that proof and, uh, very little water was
added. As the whiskey went up in proof in the warehouse very little
water was added to bring it back down to 107 proof, so it was really
smoother. The less water you add to these, some of these bourbons as
you age them when you--as you get ready to bottle them, the smoother
it will be. So if you add a lot of water to it, sometimes it gives
it some
harshness. Um, so this 107 proof is what we call pretty much
a "barrel proof", and, um, and it really is--that would be our most
popular label if we had enough of that whiskey. Um, like the rye it
would be very popular. We just have very little of it, but, um, it's
my favorite and it's my son's favorite; a lot of people's favorites.
I think it's your favorite as far as, um, the wheated bourbon whiskeys
but, um, it's just right, really is, an amazing level of flavor to it.
TROLAND: Now your line of whiskeys, many of them at least, are aged
considerably longer than is commonly the case. Um, if I understand
correctly, over the years in the industry aging times of five/six years
or so and maybe seven years have been considered, uh, uh, normal and,
and perhaps in some people's view optimum. Obviously, the whiskey
changes when it gets much older than that. How would
you compare young
versus old bourbons?
VAN WINKLE: They're really different. Um, obviously I like older
whiskey, um, older bourbons. Um, the wheated recipe really doesn't
take off until it gets older. Um, the younger wheated, wheated
bourbons are a little rawer. Um, they just don't have the finesse
of the older bourbons. Um, you can produce a young rye whiskey and
it might be a, a little more pleasing to some, but really until the
wheated recipe bourbons age at least ten years, hits about ten years
then it starts to really take off. Um, the idea about a wheated
recipe is that the wheat in the formula doesn't pick up as much of
the oak and as much of the char in the charred, new oak barrel, so
it ages more gracefully as we like to describe it. And that's what's
going on, uh, with this whiskey when it's in the barrel.
Um, as it
gets older it gets smoother. When we do these tastings, we usually
have four different flights of different ages, and people realize as
it gets older, as you get up to the twenty-year-old, uh, we call it
butter whiskey because it's so soft on the tongue and so smooth. Uh,
it does not pick up as much of the wood, um, as a, as a bourbon made
with rye. If you aged a rye recipe and a wheated recipe together in
the same warehouse right next to each other and tried them in twenty
years, you'd see the difference. It's very obvious. The rye bourbon
tends to pick up more of the wood, a little bit harsher, obviously
a lot more spicy. Um, this one's softer on your tongue. It's like
rye bread versus wheat bread; same idea as far as the grains we use
in the whiskey. So it's the, um, uh, that's, that's what--because
again, bourbon made with rye is great, but, uh, our flavor profile, we
prefer the wheated recipe and it seems to be what a lot of people have
noticed and, uh, really enjoy. (clears throat) But, uh, as it does get
older it doesn't pick
up quite as much of that wood. Now, as with any
bourbon, it's going to hit a point where it starts--we call it--going
over the hill, where it gets too woody, and that's why you don't really
see too many bourbons over, uh, twenty-three/twenty-five/twenty-seven
years old I think is oldest one out there now. I've tried a thirty-
year-old before, and it's--I don't care who made it--it's not going to
make it. It's not going to make the trip very, very gracefully.
TROLAND: Where would you want in a warehouse to store your barrels if
your plan is to age them for more than twenty years?
VAN WINKLE: We, we get Ronnie here at Buffalo Trace to put ours in the
first two or three floors, middle floor at the highest, um, because
we want it to age slower. Uh, our entry proof is lower. We put less
alcohol in each barrel. Uh, our proof is lower than the rye recipes
they use around here. We've always done that. We did that at Stitzel-
Weller. We--entry proof was really low, so you'd have less alcohol in
contact with the wood at a cooler temperature for those many years.
So, uh, we, we like to keep it on the cooler floors and let it just
kind of, uh, not get too hot; not get too much wood.
TROLAND: Now you've been in the bourbon industry for thirty years. What
would you say are one or two of the biggest changes you've seen in the
industry over that time?
VAN WINKLE: I guess the, uh, it's got to be the popularity of the
product. Um, I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but it seemed to-
-for some reason single malt scotches in this country have always been
popular, um, and got--they get a lot of money for it and bourbon has
always taken a back seat. Um, these single malt enjoyers--I call them-
-um, they, I think, started to notice the bourbon whiskeys, the aged
bourbon whiskeys
that are out there, and, uh, and at that point the
popularity took off and then the distilleries met the demand to produce
older whiskeys. You see more older whiskeys now than--older bourbons
than, you know, obviously before, and that seems to be what people, um,
really the flavor profile of the not only American public but all around
the world really enjoys the aged, uh, aged bourbons. There's obviously
a lot more finesse, a lot more character than the younger ones. So
they just, uh, they just kind of gradually-- word of mouth spread and,
uh, became more popular, and now most distilleries are short of stock,
um, uh, which is too bad for the consumer; good for us, though, because
it keeps the demand up. And, um, um, it's, it's going well.
TROLAND: What do you see as the future of bourbon if you could look
ahead, let's say, ten to twenty years,
how would you, uh, imagine the
future to be or how would you like it to be?
VAN WINKLE: I think that as far as our product that we, we sell--the
demand is so high and there's so many markets we haven't hit yet. Um,
you know, we had to take our whiskey out of Japan because we didn't
have the supply. We sell a little bit in Australia, and that's a
huge export market. So the export market, once we satisfy the U.S.
market, uh, which we'll never do, um, you know, there's always the
world market; uh, the demand for bourbon is getting to be--you know,
we get requests all over the world for, for our product. We can't, you
know, we can't do anything about it. We just tell them, uh, we can't,
don't have the supply right now, so it can only get better. Um, as we
produce more, we'll have more options to produce special batches, um,
different bottlings at different proofs and so forth. We don't have
the supply to do that now, but it would be fun to get into that down
road. Um, I probably won't be around to see too much of it, but,
um, you know, hopefully my children will. (clears throat) But it's,
uh, it's got a great future as far as bourbon. I think it's, it's nice
that, um--uh, my father and grandfather were doing this back in the
fifties and sixties--so it's nice to see what's going on now. They had
it right back then selling aged, premium bourbon whiskey, and, um, so
it's, it's finally catching on.
TROLAND: Your--(clears throat)--okay. All right. We're pretty close
[Pause in recording.]
TROLAND: Let me ask you a little bit about the ancestral family
distillery, Stitzel-Weller, just going back to that topic briefly.
Among whiskey enthusiasts these days, Stitzel-Weller is, uh, has
iconic status and certainly they produced very fine whiskey, and yet
today, obviously, distilleries such as Buffalo
Trace, uh, using even
more modern technology than was available in those days produce very
good whiskey. Is there something about Stitzel-Weller, is there
something about that place or that technique or the still or the
facilities there that was truly unique in your view and produced a
whiskey unlike any that will be produced in the future?
VAN WINKLE: Yes, um, and it's like that for any distillery. I mean,
all of the above as far as the equipment, the water, the yeast, the
milling methods, the distillation proof, the, you know--they used a
roller mill--and not to say that it was better or worse than what,
what they're doing now, but--(clears throat)--we used a roller mill
to, to mill the grain, uh, which ba-, you know, basically cracked the
grain instead of, um, pulveri-, pulverizing it. Um, the well water
that they used back then, um, which is not available today because it's
probably polluted,
um, the particular still they used, the column still
and the doubler that they used, you know, different equipment makes
different flavors of whiskey; as you may know a single malt scotch, the
shape of the still totally controls the way the flavor of the whiskey
is as does a, um, a doubler which is, um, the final distillation in
a two-distillation method of making bourbon. Um, the yeast that was
used back then, um, we, you know, my grandfather thought those old
cyprus fermenters had something to do with the flavor of whiskey. I
don't think so because we eventually put in stainless steel after they
started to deteriorate, but, um, all those variables came together just
right for that particular whiskey. So it will never be created and
cannot be created anywhere else. Um, so it's, it's nice to try and
get as close as possible and that's what we're doing, and we are. It's
very good whiskey, but, um, it was just,
you know, all the stars were
lined up just right for that, that place as far as I was concerned, and
that's, there's still that whiskey is out there. Um, people notify me.
You see it on eBay or whatever, but, uh, it's around and you can taste
the difference for yourself.
TROLAND: Apart from whiskey which is obviously a major interest in your
life, what's another interest that you have?
VAN WINKLE: Um, just enjoy--I used to go hunting as I say with my dad
and grandfather; um, dove hunting, duck hunting, quail hunting. Um,
we have a, a place on a lake which is nice for boating and water skiing
and snow skiing. My, I had a couple of children live in Sun Valley for
a while. One of them's still there--a daughter's still there--so we
go skiing. So just basically outdoor stuff. Golf, I'm terrible at it,
but I sure do like it. Um, and, uh, you know, and just, um, hiking,
did some hiking for a while, uh, mountain climbing and so forth, so
outdoor things. I really enjoy it.
TROLAND: I'm sure you've been asked this question countless times, but
if you washed up on a desert island with just one case of whiskey what
would that case contain?
VAN WINKLE: (laughs) Hm. Probably some very extra old fifteen-year-old
90 proof Old Fitzgerald. Best stuff on the planet. Um, we did some
bottling of some old Stitzel-Weller barrels when I had the Lawrenceburg
place, and I've still got some nineteen- and twenty-year-old that's
really good, too, of that old whiskey. But, um, I'd say that fifteen-
year-old would probably be what I'd like to, like to go out on. (laughs)
TROLAND: Now I was recently told that Elmer T. Lee enjoys often his
bourbon with Sprite, and so I
ask you the same question. Uh, how do
you enjoy your bourbon?
VAN WINKLE: (laughs) It's not with Sprite. Um, normally just on some
ice, good ice. I've become an ice snob now because, uh, there are
people who say, "I like really cold ice." And they say, "What are you
talking about 'cold ice'?" Ice is cold. Well, there's ice, um, and
there's cold ice. You know, the more air in there it's going to melt
faster is what I'm talking about. So, um, just probably a little
twelve- or fifteen-year-old normally on a few ice cubes and, uh, just
let that ice gradually melt and enjoy it that way. Um, nothing better
than a good old fashioned, too, if you don't mind doing a little work,
but, um, normally it's going to be on some ice because that's what I'm
used to. And my dad used to put a twist of lemon around the rim, too.
He'd occasionally do that just to jazz it up. Um, some people think
that, think that's blasphemy, but, uh, you know, whatever you grow up
on, that's what you enjoy.
TROLAND: I've heard it said that there's only one way to
enjoy bourbon
and that's exactly the way you like it.
VAN WINKLE: Exactly. Exactly. (laughs) I agree. I agree. I started
out drinking it with Coca Cola just like everybody else, so, um--
(clears throat)--it's, um, you gradually learn to, uh, enjoy just the
product itself. But, uh, exactly; just enjoy it any way you want to.
That's the best way.
TROLAND: Is there anything else that you'd like to say that I haven't
asked you?
VAN WINKLE: I think you've covered about everything. That's, uh, I
couldn't think of another thing that, uh, I could expound upon to make
this more interesting or more informative.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a question. Can I interrupt?
TROLAND: Please do.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could you explain a little bit more about the
business relationship between Buffalo Trace and your company?
VAN WINKLE: Um-hm. Yeah. Um, our relationship with Buffalo Trace as of
2002, it's a joint venture, and, um, without getting too specific
we share a percentage of our Van Winkle label. Um, as I mentioned,
they do all the heavy lifting as far as the production. Uh, they store
all the whiskey. They age all the whiskey, um, rye and bourbons and,
um, do all the billing, and, um, once a year if there's any money to
be made we just, we split it up. Um, I still have ownership of the
label as far as, um, major stockholder in the company, but it's a, it's
a great relationship. And, um, they, you know, it's a, it's a nice
feather in their cap to have our brand, and it's a feather in my cap
to be associated with this distillery just because of the, the quality
of the people and the quality of the brands here. I mean, obviously
they are the--in the business--they are the ones that, um, are doing
the best job as far as getting the brands out there, innovative brands,
and, um, producing a quality product--that's obvious with the awards
they've won and so forth. But, um, our deal is pretty simple. It's

just basically, um, produce as good a whiskey, as good a bourbon as we
can and, uh, split the prof-, uh, profits up at the end of the day.
TROLAND: Now--(clears throat)--Buffalo Trace normally, as I understand
it, have several different mash bills--
TROLAND: --that they use for their various products. Do they undertake
a special distillation for you and a special mash bill or how do they
treat the products to be bottled under your label?
VAN WINKLE: We are basically still using the Weller recipe. Um, our
barrels, again, are stored in a different area than the Weller, so
you're going to have a little different product at the end of the day.
And our relationship also with Buffalo Trace is we, Preston and I, get
the pick of the, of the best of the barrels. We have first pick of the
wheated whiskeys, so obviously we taste every barrel before we bottle
it. So we'll, we'll pick our group of barrels that
we want. If there
are any dogs in that bunch of whiskey barrels, we'll just throw those
out, and, um, they may use them in another product or a Weller product
or, you know, whatever they so cho-, choose to do. But, um, we get the
first pick of all that production. But again, basically it's just the,
um, uh, the barrel aging is different. Um, we've experimented with
some different entry proofs and distillation proofs also, so that's,
that's going to be some, that's going to be fun to see what that's
like someday. So we're always, you know, this is the experimental
distillery, so we're always tinkering around to find the, to try and
improve it. But that's, it's basically the Weller recipe.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have another question. You mentioned in, you
mentioned in the mid-eighties you were selling a couple of hundred
cases a year. So where are you now?
VAN WINKLE: Oh, that's classified.
VAN WINKLE: (laughs)
No. We're probably, uh, you know, we're at about
five or six thousand cases which doesn't go very far at all. Um,
I guess I should explain how our allocation works, but we, every
year--there's a lady here at Buffalo Trace named Christy Hill who's a
genius, um, and she has this barrel model. And, um, our business plan
is twenty-three years long so take that in mind when you start to do a
business, um, because our whiskey is anywhere from ten to twenty-three
years. So, um, she knows how many barrels we can bottle, say, next
year. So we'll, once we get that bottled, let's say we have three
hundred cases of ten-year to sell, we have to chop that up into--say
we have thirty distributers--we'll chop that up and say, Okay, this
distributor in Kentucky gets so many cases. This one in New Jersey
gets so many cases. And we do that twice a year. The major part comes
out in the fall, and a smaller allocation goes out in the spring just
released. So the distributors immediately call us up and say, "Is
this all we got?" Um, and we say, "Yes, that's all you get. Sorry,
but, um, we have to"--that's, that's the hard part really is deciding
who gets what because I kind of feel guilty because I don't, you know,
I want to send more to this good customer but that's all I have, and
I only have so much to go around. And that's the frustrating part of
it with, with just, uh, six thousand cases to go around. Now we're
producing more whiskey, but it'll be ten to twenty-three years before
it comes to market. So, um, I won't be around to see it, I guess, but,
um, hopefully we'll be up around--we may produce fifteen thousand cases
some year--but we'll never be that--we'll never be, uh, big. We, uh,
my grandfather always said, "Produce a really premium product and keep
it in seemingly short supply," which is good for your profit line and
good for your demand. Uh, we're not having to keep it in short supply.
It is in short supply, but we never want
to have this product be
available all over. That's where a lot of brands have stepped on their
foot doing that. It's, um, uh, it's, it's, you might--the accountant
might love it, but, uh, the quality and the prestige of your product is
going to go downhill if you do that, if you meet the demand. So keep
that in mind if you ever get into business and want to sell something.
[End of interview.]