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.