When you hear the name Old Rip Van Winkle, you are probably going to be a little surprised, and then when we tell you it is a phenomenal bourbon, the curiosity is going to be piques further. But if you are a true whiskey lover, we have already got you hooked, because you know Old Rip Van Winkle is so hard to find in the market-- it is basically the unicorn of the whiskey world. Now how did that happen? Even a decade back, you could just walk into any liquor store and get as many bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle as you wanted. We will tell you.
In the amazing world of whiskey, Pappy Van Winkle is a very popular name. The name of course refers to Sr. Julian Van Winkle who started his career as a salesman for W. L. Weller & Sons way back in 1893 when he was only 18 years old. Over the years he gained considerable distilling experience and opened the Stitzel-Weller distillery around 1935 in Shively, a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. But Pappy Van Winkle wasn’t the only one who built the distillery. Alex T. Farnsley of distributor W. L. Weller & Sons and Arthur Philip Stitzel of the existing Stitzel Distillery merged to form the new distillery and Pappy became the president. Together they produced some incredible bourbon, like the Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell.
Pappy Van Winkle himself continued to shape the whiskey industry post Prohibition through his countless endeavors. His mission was to offer mankind fine bourbon, and settle for nothing less. So he did until 1965, till his last breath. The company then passed on to the able hands of Pappy’s son, Jr. Julian Van Winkle. This was the time when the bourbon industry was undergoing a steady decline, people were more inclined to consume vodka instead of whiskey. So, Jr. Van Winkle sold off the distillery and the rights to all its whiskey brands in 1972. But he couldn’t let go of the Old Rip Van Winkle name. Within a few years he bought back some of the Stitzel-Weller bourbon stock and started bottling them under the label of Old Rip Van Winkle in order to preserve his father’s legacy. Since the market had still not warmed up to bourbon, the family only sold in small quantities in a very decorative decanter. The family also sold another brand which was known as the Old Commonwealth. Nearly a decade went by in which he formed the company J.P. Van Winkle and Sons and created the Old Rip Van Winkle label as we recognize it today. In 1981, Jr. Van Winkle passed away and the Van Winkle line, along with the Stitzel-Weller stocks passed on to Julian III, Jr. Van Winkle’s son.
Unfortunately, that was when Stitzel-Weller stopped bottling for the Van Winkle’s. As an alternative, Julian III approached the Hoffman Distillery of Lawrenceburg to bottle and store his liquor. After two years, in 1983, he bought the Hoffman Distillery. By then, America was beginning to embrace bourbon again and Old Rip Van Winkle was winning the hearts of all who appreciated good bourbon. Julian III bought older whiskies from a few distilleries including Stitzel-Weller in bulk and started bottling them. He could soon release premium aged whiskies and his Old Rip Van Winkle 20 Year Old became a hit in the market, ensuring the company’s first big break. There wasn’t much funding to advertise Julian’s bourbon but the liquor itself was so good that not only did it sell itself but made Julian III a recognized figure in the industry.
After Preston Van Winkle joined the distillery in 2001, the sales team doubled in a very short span of time. Soon the distillery was approached by Buffalo Trace, who had acquired the W.L. Weller label way back in 1999 and had been making bourbon with the same recipe as Pappy’s. This was an honour for Julien III. Over the next one year the transition happened and since 2002, Buffalo Trace has been producing Old Rip Van Winkle. Pappy’s recipe has remained, so has his philosophy among all whiskey lovers.
Pappy’s bourbon is a cult phenomenon and because they release their stock once a year, it is not only rare but is usually sold out within the first few days of its arrival at the market. Hence, if you want to sample this beautiful bourbon, we recommend you either visit a popular whiskey festival or speak to your retailer long before October.