Old Rip Van Winkle – A Story of Another Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle left his nagging wife, drank moonshine, and slept for at least 20 years. When he woke up, the world had changed.

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year

If he were to wake up today, he would find that a "left-for-dead" spirit, bourbon, is taking the world by storm and  his namesake distillery,  Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery produces some of the best 20-year bourbon around.

It's called Pappy Van Winkle and it's quite a treat if you can find it. Old Rip Van Winkle also produces a 15-year and a 23-year that is just as scare -- and tasty.

So what do we know about the "other" Van Winkles? Their story and storied bourbon may be just as legendary as Rip Van Winkle's long nap.

A Tale of Old Rip Van Winkle

Julian P. "Pappy" Van Winkle, Sr. dove into the bourbon trade toward the end of the 1800s. He travelled as a salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons located in Louisville, Ky.  After awhile, Pappy and his buddy, Alex Farnsley, bought the wholesale side of Weller and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made Weller's bourbon. They fused the companies and created Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

Old Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Old Stitzel-Weller Distillery

 A Quick Aside About Stitzel-Weller

Sound familiar. Probably so, as Diageo, the liquor behemoth recently showcased the renovated distillery -- which no longer distills Pappy -- as the new home for Bulleit Bourbon, made by Tom Bulleit. Currently, Diageo is the biggest spirits maker in the world and Bulleit is its best-selling bourbon.

New Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Renovated Stitzel-Weller

The Original Stitzel-Weller Story

Now, back to the old Stitzel-Weller, which produced W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Cabin Still. These brands are all still around, but produced by different distilleries today. Buffalo Trace, which now makes Van Winkle, also distills W.L. Weller. Heaven Hill makes Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald and Cabin Still. (If you've never heard of Cabin Still here's a little of its history.)

Waking Up Old Rip Van Winkle

Pappy opened the doors to the original Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville in 1935. He was 61 years old and for the next 30 years -- until he died at 91 -- he oversaw the operations. Then, Julian, Jr. became the man in charge until stockholders forced a sale in 1972.

When the sale took place, the rights to their brands also were sold. Some were still attached to the distillery, while others shifted to other distilleries.

But...Pappy's son, Julian, (Thank God!) kept one.

Old Rip Van Winkle, which was a label used before prohibition, was reawakened and became Van Winkle's lone remaining brand. The "new" label was made from whiskey stock from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery.

In 1981,  Julian III became Old Rip Van Winkle's headman after his dad died. Twenty-years later his son, Preston also came on board. Both still run the company -- and the Old Rip Van Winkle brand today.

The Whisper of Wheat

Even though they work with the Buffalo Trace Distillery, their recipe and process is still the same as it has always been. Unlike, most other bourbon makers, they use corn, wheat and barley instead of corn, rye and barley.

This so called "whisper" of wheat -- used by Weller way back in 1849 -- helps Pappy Van Winkle "age more gracefully" and gives  it a distinctive smooth taste, which has made it famous as the best bourbon in the world.

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