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Wright Thompson: Pappyland

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

If you have any contact at all with whiskey and the many types and brands of it, you've probably heard of a bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle. When someone gave me this book for Christmas of 2020, "heard of it" was all I could say--I recognized the name, and was aware that it is absurdly expensive, running into the thousands of dollars per bottle. I assume that bottle is at most a liter, maybe only 750 milliliters. (I would prefer that it still be quarts and pints. That's not a view that I can defend rationally, but I like the old quirky measures.)

That's not the manufacturer's price, which is high but not really out of line with other top-shelf brands--from $70 to $300. But the distillery doesn't make very much of it, and there is an insane secondary market, in which those same bottles go for multiple thousands.

I don't believe "insane" is an exaggeration. To object that it can't be worth that much is irrelevant. Where money is concerned, "worth" is purely a matter of what someone is willing to pay, and that is probably not, or not only, a direct correlative of anything that could be considered an objective quality. Whether the taste of this whiskey is vastly better than that of other similar ones is probably not the determiner of that number. There are clearly elements of status, conspicuous consumption, and Rene Girard's "mimetic desire" involved.

But anyway: this book is the story of the family that produces Pappy Van Winkle, and it's an interesting one. The family have been making whiskey for generations, and they are actually named Van Winkle: this is no bogus corporate personality invented by marketers. In 1893 "Pappy" himself, Julian Proctor Van Winkle Sr., went to work for a distillery which he eventually bought. The enterprise had a hard time of it for part of the 20th century when big corporations started buying out all the smaller distilleries. There was an interim when the family had been defeated and were out of the business altogether, but the third generation, Julian III, got back into it and took it to its present place in the sun.

It's a story of craft, tradition, and family, not necessarily in that order, and especially appealing to anyone who cares about the effort to preserve the integrity and quality of a craft against commercial profit-above-all pressure. It's not a dry narrative, but a personal and almost memoir-ish picture of the Van Winkle family, especially Julian III, the culture surrounding Kentucky whiskey, and the author's own story, his family and their troubles. (It won't surprise anyone that I did not recognize his name, but Wright Thompson is a well-known sports writer.) I won't claim that it's great literature, but it's well-written, and I think even someone with little interest in the subject of whiskey would find it enjoyable.

And naturally it has a good bit to say about the nature and pleasures of good bourbon. Along with the book, I was given a bottle of very good bourbon called Larceny. Coincidentally, someone else gave me another good bourbon, this one having another crime-related name: Conviction, because the distillery is housed in a former prison. These gifts--the whiskeys themselves, and the lore in the book--caused me to pay attention to bourbon in a way that I never had before. I've been pretty much indifferent to the quality of whiskey, and in fact for many years the only one I kept on hand was Old Crow, which is near, though not at, the bottom of the list of quality in bourbon. That was partly for sentimental reasons, as my father drank it.

Well, now I know that there really is a difference, and that I really like the good stuff. Here's what I've learned to do: pour a small amount, a shot glass or so, of bourbon, and dilute it with a little water: a splash, as they say, or, if you want to be more precise, maybe a tablespoon. You want just enough water to reduce the immediate burning sensation, which gets in the way of the taste. It doesn't take much water, and too much will ruin it. Well, ok, maybe "ruin" is overstating it, but the result will be...watery. Puny. It won't work in the way I'm about to describe. Take a sip and just let it sit there in your mouth. Swish it around a bit. The flavor sort of blooms into this delicious golden vaguely sweet, vaguely spicy sensation--I always think of vanilla--and when you breath that flavor floats all the way up into your sinuses, deliciously. I can't go into the kind of detail about the taste that connoisseurs do--notes of this and that, finish, etc.; my palate is not that refined, nor is my vocabulary. Suffice to say that it's very pleasurable, and not all bourbons give the same pleasure.

I never could decide whether I liked Larceny or Conviction better, but both did far better in the above procedure than Old Crow or even Jim Beam. After Maker's Mark was discussed here a few weeks ago, I decided to try it, and bought a 375ml bottle, which represented a fairly small investment. I still have a little of the Larceny left, so I did a comparison. I like Larceny better, and it's around the same price as Maker's. But I don't think it's as widely distributed. It's only been intermittently available here.

And by the way: maybe the best whiskey I've ever had, certainly that I've had recently, is Jameson Black Barrel. Jameson is Irish whiskey, one of the two big names, along with Bushmills. I've heard that Jameson is favored by Catholics, Bushmills by Protestants. I don't know if that's true or not, and I don't care. I tried both a while back and wasn't enthusiastic about either. Jameson Black Barrel, though, is a higher-quality Jameson, too expensive for everyday, but my wife gave me a bottle last Christmas. It's really something--even richer than the good bourbons I mentioned, and with a quality that my wife, not a whiskey enthusiast, described accurately as "buttery."


That was only meant to be 500 words or so, and then I was going to say more about the Vatican II question (failure or not?). But I'll have to postpone that again.


It was the week after Thanksgiving when I saw him again. The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk....

--Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 1953

I sure wish they still waited that long.



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You must have a way with language, Mac. My mouth started to water while I was reading your instructions on tasting bourbons correctly. :-)
I was making Manhattans this past weekend. I almost always buy Wild Turkey (80 proof) because it's about 21.99 a liter (I think I'm talking about a liter, the relatively standard sized bottle). I had the bottle in my hand when I noticed that Maker's Mark, same size, was 23.99. I decided to splurge and walked up to the counter with MM. The cashier told me I had to buy six to get that price LOL. I took it back and got my Wild Turkey instead.
So I believe you have stated that you prefer bourbons to single malts, and Jameson is neither. So it seems that you prefer Irish to both bourbon or single malt, but only if it is the fancy black barrel? Jameson have suddenly expanded their arsenal. Forever they just had the one type, and now there are four or five. I think I like all the ones I have tried.
I sort of like all whiskeys to some varying degree. I was even in Southern Utah visiting a family member a few years ago, and he had Old Crow, that he pours into a glass adding a little water and sips every night. I was happy to join him in this, and it seemed just fine.
Maybe not for a Manhattan though...

Looks like I can comment on this post, but I can't on the Halloween Mania post. It shows the "Post a comment" line and the "Your Information" form, but no text box. Anybody else see that?

Anyway: I'm not sure I've ever had a Manhattan. I've never gone in for cocktails all that much. Not by decision, just inertia. And some of them require ingredients that aren't of much use otherwise. I would definitely not turn up my nose at Old Crow. But now I understand why the more expensive ones are worth it.

"So it seems that you prefer Irish to both bourbon or single malt, but only if it is the fancy black barrel? " Well, that seems to be the state of the question at the moment. :-) If I remember correctly, my opinion on first trying Irish whiskey several years ago was that it was somewhere between Scotch and bourbon, and I wasn't especially taken with it. But yeah, this Jameson Black Barrel was really, really good. I wouldn't want to have to give up bourbon for it, so it's not like an absolute preference. I definitely prefer bourbon to Scotch in general.

Oh, and by the way: I recently got a bottle of Basil Hayden dark rye (another gift, which seems to be the only way I get to try the more expensive stuff--too cheap to experiment with my own money :-)). It's *really* good, too. Pretty different from bourbon. I don't remember thinking that on the few previous occasions when I've had rye, so maybe it's just this one.

I've never been a big fan of Maker's Mark. I've tried about 10 bourbons or so but have largely settled on Bulleit and Knob Creek, in the sense that I'm not actively seeking to try new ones. KC and MM became popular at about the same time, but I've long preferred the former. For a mid-priced bourbon I've always thought Jim Beam Black Label was pretty good.

I don't really like Irish whisky but I haven't tried the Jameson Black, so will have to do so at some point. I like single malts better than bourbon, especially the Islay malts, which tend to be very peaty/smoky.

A well-made Manhattan is a thing of beauty!

The most "buttery" liquor I've ever had is a tequila called El Mayor. I'm not a huge tequila guy, but this one is fantastic -- tasty and super smooth.

There was a point where I preferred the dryness of Scotch to the sweetness of bourbon, but that was with pretty cheap bourbons. And I’ve never really been enthusiastic about the “peaty” flavor.

Yeah, it changes things if you don't like the peat. I'm not as keen on many of the "standard" non-peaty Scotches and would just as easily go for a good bourbon. The two reasonably priced Scotches (non-peaty) that I like a lot are Old Pulteney and Highland Park. I have to get the former in Ohio though, as they don't sell it in Pa. for some reason. Fortunately I'm close to the state line.

Thanks to you two, I decided to try a Manhattan, which required buying a bottle of sweet vermouth, which as far as I remember I'd never tasted. Now I have a bottle of sweet vermouth, minus about half an ounce, to give away. :-)

LOL. Well, you can also do a Manhattan with dry vermouth, or even with half sweet and half dry, which I think is called a "perfect" Manhattan. I know that some people drink vermouth on the rocks but I've never tried it.

I generally try to balance the bourbon and the vermouth, in the sense that if it's a sweeter bourbon I'll do it with dry, but if it's a drier or more "peppery" bourbon I'll go for the sweet.

There's also an old variation of the Manhattan called the "Old Pal," which uses Canadian whisky, and of course the Rob Roy is just a Manhattan made with scotch instead of bourbon.

I was a little surprised at how very sweet the sweet vermouth (Martini & Rossi) is. A little bit treated as a liqueur is sort of nice. But I really didn't much care for the combination with bourbon. It did occur to me to try it with dry vermouth, and I will, but that seems an unlikely combination. I do like dry vermouth alone, by the way, which I think puts me in a minority. In general I'm not that enthusiastic about sweet drinks. I like one now and then but not as a regular thing.

I like a dry vermouth Manhattan with Bulleit.

I tried one with dry vermouth and rather liked it. Somewhat to my surprise as I didn't think the two would mix very well. The bourbon is Evan Williams, decent enough.

I'm not at all sure I would be able to tell a really good bourbon from not so good if it were mixed with anything. I laugh at people who order "Jack and Coke."

I feel the same way about people who order "Crown and Coke." You can't tell me that if you substituted Seagrams 7 for the Crown Royal they'd be able to spot it.

Maybe if it was 2 ounces of liquor and 1/2 ounce of Coke. Maybe. But 2 ounces of liquor and 6 or 8 or more ounces of Coke? Nah, I don't believe it.

There's an anecdote in Pappyland about one of the Van Winkle family going into a bar in NY and ordering an Old Fashioned or something made with Pappy. The bartender refused to do it. The Van Winkle pulled rank on him.


I usually tell my husband about posts I think he would enjoy, but I deliberately didn't mention this one. On the basis of reading about it here, I gave Pappyland to him for Christmas. He's three chapters in and enjoying it, so thank you!

Great! You're welcome

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