American Whiskey
ebruary 18, 2000 -- Where Old Rip Van Winkle Sleeps

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year-Old Family Reserve

LAWRENCEBURG, KENTUCKY is about an hour and a half, as the crow flies, from our home north of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, today that crow had better know how to swim. All of Kentucky and Southern Ohio is being hit with torrential rainfall. Areas near Lexington and Frankfort got 3 to 5 inches of rain and flash flooding was common. We left home this morning at 7:30, crawling through thick traffic most of the way through Cincinnati. After that, the traffic thinned out and it wasn't so bad except for the heavy rains. We arrived in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky about 10:30 and stopped at a Hardy's for breakfast and to call the Commonwealth Distillery for directions. I spoke to Darlene and she told me how to get there. Commonwealth Distillery  DSP 112We arrived in heavy rain only a few minutes later.

There isn't a whole lot left of the Commonwealth Distillery, where Julian P. Van Winkle III has been bottling his products for nearly twenty years. Unlike most other old distilleries, the couple of remaining buildings here are located smack up against the twisty road which follows the creek. Even if you're looking for it, you can easily pass it by. Darlene met us at the door; Julian had arrived just before us. He showed us around the small bottling room and all through the holding and proofing tanks. The current building had contained the grain processing and storage areas and the filtration and bottling equipment. In a corner sits a bottling machine gathering dust; Julian and his team fill, seal, label, and package each bottle of Van Winkle by hand. If you have a bottle of Old Rip, most likely it was Julian himself who filled it.

Julian P. Van Winkle IIIThere isn't anything left of the old still itself; all that was dismantled long ago. Julian doesn’t distill bourbon here. Nor did his father or grandfather, the legendary Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle. In today’s financial and regulatory world, it would be nearly impossible to start up a new distillery. Even existing ones are getting to be scarce. In fact, of the over 200 licensed bourbon-producing distilleries in Kentucky alone just before prohibition, there are only ten currently in operation (and Jim Beam runs two of those). One of the best-known and most revered of Kentucky’s old distilleries is among those no longer producing, the Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville. It was built by Pappy Van Winkle just after prohibition ended and was the home of Old Fitzgerald, W. L. Weller, Rebel Yell, Cabin Still, and others. Pappy had begun his career in the 1890’s as a salesman for the W. L. Weller company, who processed and re-sold whiskey they had purchased in bulk. As their reputation for quality increased, they became more and more particular about their suppliers. When an opportunity came to purchase one of their chief sources, the A. Ph. Stitzel distillery, they took it, forming Stitzel-Weller. They soon acquired the John E. Fitzgerald distillery and began producing that brand as their main label. When they built the new Stitzel-Weller facility after prohibition, all of the whiskey they sold was made there and they were out of the reselling business completely. Pappy’s son Julian Jr. succeeded him, and ran the distillery until it was sold to Schenley in 1972. Although the plant and the labels, were sold, Julian Jr. purchased some of the old bourbon (which he had produced) and bottled it under the Old Rip Van Winkle label, which the family had used before prohibition and which still belonged to them.

Julian III is now at the helm of the company. As the old stock has become depleted, he has been carefully purchasing high-quality product to bottle as premium bourbon. In this way, he has come full-circle, operating much as his grandfather had done so many years ago. His brands, all of which are very old and very fine, include both the #1 and the #2 rated bourbons in the world (Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-Year-Old Family Reserve and Old Rip Van Winkle 15-Year-Old, respectively).

Julian bought the old Commonwealth Distillery nearly twenty years ago. He showed us an aerial photo of the distillery taken back when it was operative. Most of the buildings are no longer standing. The warehouse is down the road, and Julian would have taken us there, but the rain made that seem like not such an exciting proposition. It’s possible that some of the bourbon he’s bottled began its life here, but  of course he wouldn’t say.

Julian told us that the current stock from which his award-winning Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old is bottled is now depleted. The replacement he has chosen is quite different in flavor, and really good. He’s very proud of it, and he should be. He says it will be released within the next year or two and he isn’t sure yet what he’s going to call it. I joked that he should name it "New Pappy".

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Story and original photography copyright © 2000 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.