My resolutions for the new year are drinking more whiskey and reading more books, so I decided to start the year by reading about whiskey – in particular, the story about Pappy Van Winkle and the distillery he worked for, which was Stitzel-Weller.
Just flipping through the book is a nice experience – it is filled with family photos, pictures of old whiskey labels and distilleries, and little quotes and signs. My favorite is the sign they hung on the whiskey warehouse where the barrels were aging – “Quiet, Whiskey Sleeping.” That conjures up an image of happy little barrels with closed eyes, full and satisfied with their whiskey safe and resting to someday make it into a bottle.
I announced to my husband that if I ever have a baby, that would be a cute sign to hang on the door when it is napping. That prompted a similar look to the one I got when I said if I ever had two kids, wouldn’t it be fun to name them Peat and Barley. Some people want a boy or a girl – I apparently want a barrel of bourbon.
And after reading this book, I want a whole distillery of bourbon.
Not that it sounds like easy work. Not at all. But it sounds like satisfying work. And this particular distillery placed a lot of emphasis on making a product they were proud of. They didn’t cut corners or go for the cheap. The book’s title But Always Fine Bourbon comes from a saying the company used to promote quality over profit.
They made just a few, well-crafted bourbons, one of which was the famed Old Fitzgerald.
It seems a genteel life full of interesting characters – Pappy, in particular, with his one-liners at the ready and always a story to tell. The book is basically a history of one family through the US in the twentieth century – including the wars and the Depression and the rise and fall of bourbon. It’s kind of like looking through someone’s family photo album with them if their family happened to be one of the most influential bourbon-producers of all time.
There would not have been much place for me in that life, though. Although the book was written by Pappy’s granddaughter, Sally Van Winkle Campbell, women were fairly marginal in the whole whiskey business. They were secretaries or worked in the bottling room, and there was one saucy bar owner nicknamed Dirty Helen. But the making, tasting, and selling was all men.
The tale follows a sad arc. The son takes over the company, but the world is changing. Bourbon is less popular and the industry is dominated by big distilleries that have more diverse products. Shareholders get anxious to make more of a profit. The company is sold in 1972, and the distillery is eventually shuttered.
So where does this terribly rare but terribly wonderful Pappy Van Winkle whiskey come from that makes people line up at bars when there is just a rumor it is available? The grandson of Pappy started his own distillery with the family recipe, and – it appears – the family values because the bourbon rose to once again be considered the best. It ends on a good note after all and is my kind of story: good people, failures only on the way to successes, and all about whiskey.