Three generations of the Van Winkle collect on their family's back porch.
Words: Jess Graves | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
Born from deep roots in bourbon, Pappy & Co. is a new branch on the established Van Winkle family tree–a branch that reaches every fan of the coveted Kentucky bottle, whether he or she can get their hands on one or not. You can thank a set of fourth-generation triplets for that. Here's their story.
I'm sure you already know about Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. You know how rare it is, how sought-after, how special. So I don't really need to go into all of that, because that isn't what we're here to talk about. Further, I feel sure that the last thing Mr. Julian Van Winkle needs is any more media prattling on about it, because you probably can't get your hands on a bottle anyway, and no, I'm not here to tell you how or when you can.
The Van Winkle clan had us out to Louisville a few months back and made us feel like a part of their big, boisterous family right away. We sat down to a delicious home-cooked meal filled with belly laughs and lots of adult beverages, but not one of them was Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. I think it stands to be noted that at no point did anyone bust out a bottle and start pouring willy-nilly. This clan respects the family business, and more importantly, the fans of their bourbon, to whom they think every spare bottle should go out to.
Those same passionate, ravenous fans are what inspired a new leg of the Pappy brand, started by Julian's triplet daughters; Carrie, Chenault and Louise (fourth-generation Van Winkles). They're running a heritage business they started two years ago called Pappy & Company, which both builds on that legacy and offers a readily-available piece of their family's eponymous brand to its (notoriously thirsty) following.
Chenault Van Winkle James, Louise Van Winkle Breen, and Carrie Van Winkle Greener.
"I remember exactly where we were [when we had the idea]" says Chenault. "At my parents' house up on Lake Michigan when we were there for Christmas in 2012. Louise had recently moved back to Louisville from Sun Valley and was a stay-at-home Mom..."
Julian Van Winkle and a little fan.
Carrie continues, "Our brother, Preston always had a handful of shirts or hats on hand with the Old Rip Van Winkle logo, mainly for [he and Dad] to wear at industry events. Friends would always want the random hat or shirt, so eventually, we knew with the growing popularity of the brand that we should do something about it.
"What popular brand doesn't have merchandise? It was a way to fill the requests of all these customers and fans and also a way for us to get involved in the family business. That lead into what Pappy & Company is today. A bourbon lifestyle brand where we can get creative and offer well-made, high-end products for bourbon drinkers."
Mixing up cocktails for thirsty guests.
Chenault, her children, and her Mother, Sissy.
"We even had some t-shirts that Billy Reid had made that really got people interested" says Chenault. "We pestered our brother for years to really get the merchandise going, but he never really took much interest in it.
"Standing at the kitchen island [at the Lake Michigan house], Louise and I were talking about what she wanted to do career-wise, since she was newly back home. I remember saying, 'This is what you should do! Lets start a merchandise business on our own and you can run it. This should be your New Years' resolution ... to start this business!' And she did. She hit the ground running immediately. Louise headed up the start of the business initially, but Carrie soon came on, and they've been going full-steam ahead ever since."
"I've realized as I've come of age that the bourbon industry is quite intriguing, with so much history and nostalgia, but as children, we were clueless, and till kind of are" Carrie recalls. "Our Grandfather sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery before we were born, and he died when we were two. We just knew Dad worked hard and was carrying on the family tradition.
A beautiful Kentucky dinner table, appropriately set with julep cups.
"The romantic, 'fancy' era that of that past life that we saw in old family photos was only present when we would go to our Grandmothers' house. She was beautiful and put together all day, every day. China and silver were used, even at lunch ... to serve tuna fish sandwiches on white Pepperidge farm bread! She still had Samella who cooked, Sara who cleaned and ironed, and Rara (who originally started working for Pappy) was the driver, the gardener, the bartender, the co-host, the all-around man of the house, the best storyteller ... and Grandfather figure. Very different from our everyday life, being one of four kids eating a lot of Kraft mac and cheese off of plastic plates!
"Some of our favorite memories that I know we all share are going to work on the weekends with dad to the bottling plant in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. We'd wear our rattiest clothes, pack a bunch of junk food and get to drink Pepsi. We had free reign of the place..."
Sissy shows off Pappy & Co. swag.
"We would spend weekends there 'helping' my Dad run basically what was a one-man show" says Louise. "He had employees that would run the bottling line part-time, but he did all the transporting of barrels ... dumping them, maintaining everything himself. I'll never forget the smell there. I loved it! We spent hours playing in the creek in the back and once put a dead frog on the steering wheel of our van to scare my Dad.
"The rickety bottling line made for a fun surfing game and the box chute made for an awesome slide. I think we all remember my Dad coming home with various injuries he would incur from rolling barrels ... twisting his ankle or constantly gashing his head on low beams in the warehouse. While my Dad was in the Pappy & Company office with my daughter and I over the weekend, helping us haul out the recycling, I was thinking about how my daughter is creating similar memories of being at work on the weekends (but staying a little cleaner) and it made me happy. Just being with family working feels good."
Carrie, Sissy and Louise in the kitchen.
"Louise and I run the company, (which is owned by us, not the distillery) day-to-day" says Louise. "Chenault is too busy with her interior design business right now to contribute daily, but its great to have three minds when we're working on new designs and business decisions! We make an effort to run new products by our Dad. We respect his opinion, but at the same time, he trusts us, so as long as we keep our standards high and practice what our family always has, which is quality over quantity, what we are doing can only be a positive addition to the bourbon brand.
The whole gang at the dinner table, plus yours truly... hope whatever I was saying was funny!
"When we first started up, it was definitely confusing and overwhelming trying to think how we would manage from different cities ... how to be the 'Jack of all trades' when we hadn't worked in any aspect of this business before ... but over the course of two years, it's all worked out naturally based on what we do best. I have more of a design eye, so I head up all the product development, collaborative partnerships, working with vendors etc., while Louise is a self-taught pro at the back end. She oversees everything from bookkeeping and fulfillment to inventory and employees. Everything else in-between gets divvied up ..."
"I would love to be more involved," says Chenault. "It's been such a struggle of wanting to be, but not having an extra second in the day as I try to run my growing interior design business. For now, I am just involved in the creative decisions. When we were ready to move forward with a hot sauce, I knew I wanted to collaborate with our friends down here in Columbus, Georgia [where I currently live], so I got that relationship going."
"All of our collaborations come about naturally, out of friendships or mutual respect for one anothers' product" Carrie goes on. "Our husbands are all hot sauce obsessed, and Chenault's husband Ed in particular would bring up his 'Midland Ghost' hot sauce from the Lemieux family in Georgia whenever we got together in Louisville. He had the whole family hooked. Naturally, when we wanted to create a hot sauce we went to [them].
"They started making their pepper sauce as a hobby, growing pepper plants on their property in Midland, Georgia from ghost pepper seeds given to them by a friend from Hawaii. It is not uncommon for hot sauce to be aged in used charred oak barrels, so we didn't reinvent anything, but we created something with a story between two families, that is handmade from the source, which wouldn't be possible were it not for the partnership of two small family businesses.
"Same goes for our barrel aged maple syrup and bourbon balls. Our syrup comes from the Bissell's maple farm in Ohio, and is aged in our oldest bourbon barrels. Our bourbon balls are made locally by our good friend Maggie who owns Sugar Mama's Bakeshop [here in Louisville]. Our maple syrup is as good as it gets. We have been able to share it with all kinds of chef friends. Sean Brock said its the best maple syrup he's ever had, which is a huge compliment ... but we kind of already new that! We are maple syrup snobs, growing up on the real stuff, so we were beyond thrilled when our first sample batch came back better than we could have ever expected. It picked up the buttery, oaky, vanilla flavors of the 23 year Pappy."
"I can't wait until one day, when our two businesses can start collaborating on a home furnishings line" says Chenault. "For now, it is fun to be able to use our products in some of my interiors shoots, such as the stave cutting board, which is a great prop."
Louise finishes her thought, "we feel really lucky to have created something that we can do together."