Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last

Pappyland: The Story of Our Family, written by Wright Thompson

A few years ago my dad casually mentioned - as is his style - that this guy,Wright Thompson, was going to be writing a book about his life. So I followed his laid back approach to it and didn’t give it much initial thought. In general our dad tends to be pretty reserved and fairly unassuming. Even in the recent rise of his (what we still find to be hilarious) “celebrity status” among bourbon enthusiasts, and as he earns nicknames like the “bourbon buddha'' from Wright, he has never fully settled into this role.

To us, he is just dad. Our role model, an often quiet and down to earth guy who is more humble than most even - with unarguable success in business and life. As I've gotten older and entered into his business orbit, I have come to appreciate that his innate nature and his approach to success was inherited from his dad and grandfather, Pappy. It was passed down from generation to generation along with the family business. Our dad was never told expressly how to succeed in business, rather, as most people would understand to be the more fruitful method, he was shown. He only knew how to do business with integrity, hard work and perseverance. It wasn’t until my sisters and I set out to found our own business, Pappy & Company, that we truly understood the role that these values had naturally always played in our lives and how they were proving to be the same tenets that we would build into the foundation of our own future ventures. Like our dad, it is the only way we know how to do business, from the ground up, with principles as our guiding force. 

I first met Wright at my parents house in 2017. He and my dad had already spent some time together, and on this night he was simply joining us in a family gathering around the dinner table. No pomp, no show, just food, conversation, family, friends and of course...bourbon, as Wright joined us for our usual family nightcap. Afterwards, as I retreated to my childhood bed while Wright settled in just down the hall in the guest room, it felt as if he was a returning family friend who had been doing so all his life.  That was the moment I realized that this book held more significance than Dad had originally let on. 

It’s the reason I am sure Wright spent several years working with Dad. It had become more of a personal project to him. It was the joining forces of two authentic, down to earth people, who truly don’t know how to be anyone other than themselves. It wasn’t just a book about the subject of “Pappy Van Winkle” or the spinning of a business success into a how-to tale. It was two friends telling a story - together. Our family has never set out to be “private,” it is just part of who we are naturally. So it speaks volumes to Wright as a person, not just as a writer, that our dad felt comfortable to share such a personal story with him. It sometimes feels that the narrative of our family’s business is often told for us. So this opportunity to share the story of our family's legacy in a way that feels true to us, is something we are grateful for. 

And to our Dad, although with your trademark humility you always say you had a lot of help, and a lot of luck, along the way, it is a privilege to appreciate and honor the path you paved before us. We are proud to share this moment with you. Because we have seen the blood (for real), the sweat, and the tears you shed as you worked tirelessly to resurrect our family’s business. Because we wouldn’t have this opportunity for our own success without the example you set for us. Because we wouldn't be able to share with our own children what it means to work hard and do things the right way. Thank you for passing along these family values and cherished traditions as we usher in the 5th generation of Pappy’s legacy. Thank you Wright for seeing the man and the family behind this story and for bringing it to life the way no one else could. We are so excited to be introducing this book that we hope will be as inspiring personally and professionally to others, as it has been to us.

We don't want to spoil the book for you, but here is a brief synopsis for those of you looking to learn more about Pappyland and the story that it tells.

The story of how Julian Van Winkle III, the caretaker of the most coveted cult Kentucky Bourbon whiskey in the world, fought to protect his family's heritage and preserve the taste of his forebears, in a world where authenticity, like his product, is in very short supply.

As a journalist said of Pappy Van Winkle, You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium. Julian Van Winkle, the third-generation head of his family's business, is now thought of as something like the Buddha of Bourbon - Booze Yoda, as Wright Thompson calls him. He is swarmed wherever he goes, and people stand in long lines to get him to sign their bottles of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, the whiskey he created to honor his grandfather, the founder of the family concern. A bottle of the 23-year-old Pappy starts at $3000 on the internet. As Julian is the first to say, things have gone completely nuts.

Forty years ago, Julian would have laughed in astonishment if you'd told him what lay ahead. He'd just stepped in to try to save the business after his father had died, partly of heartbreak, having been forced to sell the old distillery in a brutal downturn in the market for whiskey. Julian's grandfather had presided over a magical kingdom of craft and connoisseurship, a genteel outfit whose family ethos generated good will throughout Kentucky and far beyond. There's always a certain amount of romance to the marketing of spirits, but Pappy's mission statement captured something real: We make fine bourbon - at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon. But now the business had hit the wilderness years, and Julian could only hang on for dear life, stubbornly committed to preserving his namesake's legacy or going down with the ship.

Then something like a miracle happened: it turned out that hundreds of very special barrels of whiskey from the Van Winkle family distillery had been saved by the multinational conglomerate that bought it. With no idea what they had, they offered to sell it to Julian, who scrambled to beg and borrow the funds. Now he could bottle a whiskey whose taste captured his family's legacy. The result would immediately be hailed as the greatest whiskey in the world - and would soon be the hardest to find.

But now, those old barrels were used up, and Julian Van Winkle faced the challenge of his lifetime: how to preserve the taste of Pappy, the taste of his family's heritage, in a new age? The amazing Wright Thompson was invited to be his wingman as he set about to try. The result is an extraordinary testimony to the challenge of living up to your legacy and the rewards that come from knowing and honoring your people and your craft. Wright learned those lessons from Julian as they applied to the honest work of making a great bourbon whiskey in Kentucky, but he couldn't help applying them to his own craft, writing, and his upbringing in Mississippi, as he and his wife contemplated the birth of their first child. May we all be lucky enough to find some of ourselves, as Wright Thompson did, in Julian Van Winkle, and in Pappyland.