Sunday, December 06, 2020

Pappyland by Wright Thompson

 Pappyland by Wright Thompson is an excellent book subtitled A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Thompson is a writer for ESPN whose work I've posted on many times and in the book he covers Julian Van Winkle III, maker of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Along with writing about the person who would become his friend in Van Winkle, Thompson writes about his own life and family, with both men from the South, Thompson raised and living in Mississippi and Van Winkle in Kentucky. 

Thompson details how Van Winkle's grandfather started in whiskey in 1893 with a job at W.L. Weller & Sons distillery. He then made Old Fitzgerald whiskey at Stitzel-Weller and Van Winkle's father took over the company in 1964. The whiskey business went through a decline and the Van Winkle family sold Stitzel-Weller in 1972. 

The family didn't leave the business entirely, with mention of Julian Van Winkle III's friend Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey helping him keep things afloat. Thompson notes how a conglomerate that owned old barrels of Van Winkle whiskey didn't realize their value and sold to Van Winkle a large amount of what would turn into widely acclaimed bourbon. Buffalo Trace then reached out and formed a partnership to jointly make Pappy Van Winkle Private Reserve. It's also covered in the book how bourbon has to be made. The ingredients, or mash bill, have to be least 51% corn, and beyond this, most bourbon makers use rye or barley, but Van Winkle uses wheat.

As Thompson tells the story of Van Winkle and his friendship with him, he also writes personal narrative about his own life. He covers living in the South with all the connotations that carries, his father who he wrote about in the ESPN piece Holy Ground, and the pending birth of his daughter. The book is a powerful read about fine bourbon, place, family, meaning, and myth. Related to myth, one part of the book that struck me was about how in Van Winkle, Thompson writes of someone with a tremendous amount of mythology associated, but that doesn't let it consume him and overshadow living and enjoying life with those dear to him.