One of my favorite parts of the whiskey experience is going out and visiting distilleries, hearing the stories behind their craft and how their product is influenced by that history. With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, that isn’t really as much of an option as it used to be… but thankfully Wright Thompson’s new book Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last delivers some of that experience no matter where you are.
The story of the Van Winkle family and their bourbon is one that has been told and re-told over time in whiskey magazines and online forums. It may be well trod territory, but that compelling story of authentic bourbon makers and their drive for excellence is what has skyrocketed the price of Van Winkle branded whiskey in recent years. The challenge for Wright wasn’t necessarily in getting the facts together, but instead on how to present the story in a new way.
Smartly, instead of focusing on the whiskey production, the book is an exploration of the relationship between the eponymous Pappy Van Winkle and his son. It becomes a story about a son trying to escape his father’s shadow while still chasing and holding on to the history of the family — a complicated balancing act, especially in a world where that link to the past is exactly what’s driving the popularity of his own product. Wright contrasts that close relationship between father and son to the almost clean break Diageo made with the family brands when they shuttered the old Van Winkle family distillery in the early 90’s. It’s an effective comparison that really highlights the emotional — if not tangible — effect that legitimate respect for the history of a bourbon has on the product.
The story is told from the perspective of Wright as he joins Julian Van Winkle Jr. on a series of important dates — Kentucky Derby day, watching the launch of a competitor at his old family distillery, and the birth of his new bourbon. Wright’s writing really makes you feel like you are riding shotgun with Julian through the winding roads of Kentucky, sitting next to him while he passes you a sneaky flask of the good stuff. Personally, I liked it because it reminded me of the similar relationships I built as a journalist over the last decade, but you don’t need similar experiences to enjoy this — regardless of readers’ backgrounds, it gives them a taste of that same strangely intimate journalist perspective looking into someone’s life as an outsider.
Wright also uses his own life to investigate the relationship between father and child, talking about his own experiences with his father and using the impending birth of his first child to consider how he wants to build that relationship. It’s generally a good narrative tactic that helps draw the reader in and make the story more approachable (real, normal people instead of monumental pillars of Kentucky whiskey fame); however, I do feel like Wright spends too much of the book on that aspect rather than the “meat and potatoes” of the relationships within the Van Winkle family. I found myself skimming through the last few chapters (which isn’t much — most chapters are only a page or so) rather than really engaging with them.
It’s a great book, a short read (I finished it in three glasses of bourbon), and it absolutely left me with a better understanding and appreciation for the Van Winkle family and their prized bourbon. Well worth the price of admission, and a worthwhile companion to a good glass of bourbon.