A knowledge and love of good bourbon flows through the Van Winkle family’s veins. It’s practically a given when you’re a descendent of the charismatic “Pappy” Van Winkle, for whom the renowned bourbon brand is named. The young Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle got into the bourbon game in his early twenties, working as a traveling salesman for W. L. Weller & Sons. He later became president of Stitzel-Weller Distillery before starting his own Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. His work associated the Van Winkle name with a promise of quality bourbon. Today, the starting retail price for the elusive Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve is about $120, and bars will charge anywhere from $75 upwards for a neat pour.
The Van Winkle family still runs the distillery and celebrates Pappy’s premium bourbon line. The four generations of Van Winkle sons and grandsons have dedicated their lives to carrying on the family legacy. The Van Winkle triplets, however, are making their own mark on the brand.
Sisters Carrie Greener, Louise Breen, and Chenault James grew up in the family’s bourbon-based heritage. As adults, they each pursued their own paths, but a desire to round out other facets of the Van Winkle brand called them back to their roots. They saw a need for accompanying merchandise and swag. When their brother Preston took an initial step and created a few hats and sweatshirts to gauge customer response, the products flew out the door. The sister began a serious discussion about how to tap into this demand.
In a lull in their careers at the time, Greener and Breen created a new venture for themselves. They started brainstorming and manufacturing bourbon-inspired merchandise to complement their family’s bourbon line, and James joined as a partner in the new business.
Pappy & Co. started small, with two types of Pappy hats, t-shirts, sets of glasses, and can koozies. Greener frequently traveled from her home in Idaho to Louisville, where the sisters collaborated out of Breen’s basement. Greener worked on product development and marketing and Breen handled fulfillment.
The bourbon-inspired line quickly evolved to incorporate food, starting first with a bourbon ball. “It was a no-brainer,” Greener says. “We weren’t necessarily thinking about a food category, but it was all so organic.”
Experiments began, collaborating with other small, family-based companies to create bourbon-infused foodstuffs, including their wildly popular maple syrup and hot sauce. Both are aged in retired bourbon barrels, which gives them a signature smoky richness. Greener says of the bourbon barrel aged maple syrup, “it’s like they’re made for each other. I still haven’t found another maple syrup with the same flavor profile.” It happens to be one of her favorite products––she uses it as a sweetener for cocktails and as an elevated addition to breakfast dishes. Beyond food products, Pappy & Co. also uses Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon barrels to craft cutting boards, fountain pens, and old fashioned mix, chocolates, and coffee.
The strategy of repurposing the retired barrels for the accompanying Pappy brand resonates with Greener. “I love the idea of taking something old from the barrels and making it new again,” she says. Through their business, the Van Winkle sisters give new life to their family’s timeless bourbon and tap into a different side of the spirit’s utility.