BOURBON MASTER, JULIAN VAN WINKLE
Julian Van Winkle, is a superhero. No really, he is. Just like the rest of the world, we obsess over his bourbons. My personal favorite is the Pappy Van Winkle 20 year. As much as we like his bourbon, that’s not the reason we enjoy his, or his family’s, company as much as we do. We’ve always found Julian, his wife Sissy and their son Preston to be incredibly down to earth, kind and always the life of the party. Not to mention, sometimes (if you’re lucky), when you run into one of the Van Winkle’s at an event or festival they just might be concealing a flask filled with liquid gold. One that he likes to generously share with friends.
The first time I met Julian, was as Bryan and I were aimlessly wandering around the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival stuffing our faces and sipping wine and he motioned us to the corner of the tasting tent to pull out a crinkled up Ozarka bottle. It just happened to be filled with delicious bourbon. I’m pretty sure a similar situation happened again last fall in Charleston when we were in town for Garden and Gun magazine’s Jubilee. That trip also happened to be the first time I met his lovely wife, Sissy. Y’all just read about her a few weeks ago when I explained how our new puppy, Patsy, found her name.
All this said… my favorite story involving Julian is one he doesn’t even know about… until now. It took place right before he and Sissy arrived in Houston last month for the SFA fundraising events that we hosted with the Van Winkles, Paul Roberts of Colgin Cellars, Dag Zapatero with Big Mustache Productions and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Bryan had asked Julian if he would be interested in participating in our Oui, Chef feature. He said that he was happy to join in, without even really having much of an idea about what we were up to. I emailed him to set up the meeting and I also sent my phone number if he or Sissy were to need any assistance during the weekend.
Julian emailed me back to confirm and in that email was his cell phone number. Holy Toledo Batman! Being the start struck bourbon girl that I am, I might have been a little too excited to text Bryan and tell him that I had the King of Bourbon’s phone number.
Wait for it…
Bryan answered back, “But… I don’t even have his number.”
And there you have it folks! Keep reading to discover more about one the best and most charitable people in the business. The man and the family behind one of the world’s most coveted bourbons.
Q & A
Your Business, Old Rip Van Winkle, is a family business that you were born into. I know from experience that working with family can lead to it’s own unique set of challenges. Has that been the case for you?
It’s family in that my grandfather started the business and my father worked for him. We sold our original distillery but we still make our same formula of bourbon whiskey that we have for 125 years. So, the bourbon is what I believe in and what I like and a lot of people seem to like it too. I have sisters, but they went another way with their lives. I was handed the business which was nothing back in the day and I brought it back from nowhere… we got really lucky and it worked out. My son, Preston, works with me too… and we have good partners in Buffalo Trace.
Were you and your grandfather close?
Well, I was 15 when he died. So mostly what I remember is going over to their house and him sitting in his chair and smoking a cigar. We hunted together a little bit too. He was always around just kinda being the grandfather figure. We’d go over to his house and play and all that good stuff. Then I went away to school and he died in 65, so I had been away a year or two at school.
What was the best piece of advice that your dad gave you?
Follow your heart… which is what I’ve always done. Like with our bourbon, I had to believe in it. When you just really believe… it’ll work. I’ve heard that time and time again, whether it was in sports or you know, whatever.
Is that similar advice that you would give someone else?
Yeah, I would say to forget about the money and just produce a really good product. If the accountants say that you should produce it a certain way that makes more money but it hurts the quality of the product, that’s not the way you want to go. So believe in your heart. For me bourbon was the only thing I knew how to do so I had no choice to do anything else for business. Stick with producing quality and hopefully the money will come.
Following your heart has definitely been good for you. You have a massive cult following, but it wasn’t always like that and I’m sure it was gradual…
It has been very gradual and people always say, when did all of this happen and I can’t nail it down. It just keeps increasing. About five or six years ago was when it became really crazy. It’s been on the upslope for years. I don’t know where it started and how it started but nothing in particular did it. It seems that when a few famous people start talking about something, then people tend to latch on to that product. A lot of chefs, like Sean Brock talked about it and then magazines, like garden and gun, did and it just started to pick it up. Just a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
When people find out that Bryan and I know you, they sometimes ask us if we can just call you up for a bottle… usually it happens when someone is asking for charity donations and we always say “absolutely not!” Do you have a lot of people stalking you and asking for your bourbon?
Oh it’s amazing. From it being in TV shows and movies, sometimes we know about when it’s featured, sometimes we don’t… that’s something Preston takes care of. A lot of people are looking for it and most are embarrassed to ask us. I have a good friend in Louisville and people ask him if they know me and he usually just says, “well, I’ve heard of him, but I really don’t know him that well…” Because he knows they’re just looking for a bottle of whiskey.
Always… we have our nice little stash and we keep it under lock and key. Only opening it when we’re celebrating. We tend to drink it over just one big rock. How do you prefer your bourbon?
Usually on the rocks with a twist of lemon. People say, “twist of lemon!? But you’re ruining it!” But I say try it.
I know y’all travel a lot, we got to see you and Sissy when y’all stopped through Houston on your way back home from New Zealand. What has been the most interesting trip you’ve gone on due to your bourbon?
Last weekend, we played golf at Sea Island with a couple golf professionals.
Fantastic! Who’d you play with?
Davis Love III, who’s from Sea Island and lives there. Zach Johnson was there and we were drinking our whiskey out of the Claret Jug that he won at the British open last year. It was all for charity and to raise money for First Tee. The charity part and donations of our whiskey have really brought us into some nice situations.
Yes, y’all do a lot of philanthropy work, don’t you?
Yes, that’s why we’re here this weekend. It seems like, pretty much anything we directly do is related to charity.
I know y’all do a lot of the SFA, Southern Foodways Alliance, too. Like the event at Blackberry Farms, which auctioned off the events that we’re holding this weekend in Houston including a Colign dinner with Paul Roberts and a Pappy tasting with you.
Yes, we’re there every January to help fundraise. Great organization.
In your spare time, not that you have a ton of that with everything that you do, what do you do for fun?
Hang at home, play golf. I’m not a great golfer but I like it. We also have a place in Michigan and we have a boat there that we like to tool around on. Most of the tooling around is at cocktail speed I guess you could say… basically just idling.
Ah… a booze cruize! We do that sometimes, but I have a feeling your boat booze is much better than ours!
Yeah, exactly. we love to do that and hang out on the water and spend time with family.
Speaking of family, I adore your wife, Sissy. How long have y’all been married?
41 years this year.
Wonderful, so tell me… How’d y’all meet?
She’s from Louisville and her brother and I were best friends. We’ve known each other pretty much our whole lives.
Oh! I love that. Does Sissy ever help out in the business?
Only just to bounce stuff off her. She has a great palate. With the Rye Whiskey, when I brought that in, I had no idea what it was. I brought a sample in and she was one of the people who said, “you’ve got to do this!” Even though she’s not a big whiskey drinker, she can recognize the good stuff because she has such a great palate.
Other than whiskey what else do you like to drink?
I like wine, probably more than anything…
Me too, your favorite wine?
I don’t have one… I’m not going to go there…
Ha! That’s like me asking Bryan what’s your favorite food, which I made the mistake of doing when we first met…
Exactly… I like all of it! Except if it’s white wine, it can’t be too buttery or oaky. But red wine, I’m usually good.
Yeah, I’m more of a red wine drinker myself
Oh and anything rose is great too.
Agreed. Much like the glass we’re drinking now, that Dag picked, during our lunch here at Pax!
Julian, thank you so much for taking the time to sit and chat with me when you and Sissy were in Houston last month! We had a lovely time hanging out with you and the rest of the SFA crew. Learning about the history of your bourbon and how you create it was one of the highlights of that weekend.
If y’all want to watch a beautiful documentary by the Southern Foodways Alliance please be sure to check out Asleep in the Wood, a film by Joe York. I promise you will not regret clicking on that link and spending a few minutes learning about the history behind the Van Winkle legacy. Next up in the Oui, Chef series is Paul Roberts, the brilliant wine maker at Colgin Cellars. Paul was the youngest to ever achieve the Master Sommelier title and he’s a Houston boy. Can’t wait to share it with y’all!