On Bourbon, Books, and Writing Your Way Out of Small-Town America
Wright Thompson Considers What It Means to Find Your Craft
For years I drove back and forth between Mississippi and Kentucky to spend time with the bourbon guru Julian Van Winkle III, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes just for a dinner. We talked about our families and about my business and his business and then I’d go back home. The road from his house to mine runs through Lexington, Tennessee, where the children of a barbecue wizard named Ricky Parker carry on his whole hog tradition. I stopped there a lot, considering the work it takes to do something like make a perfect plate of food, or to craft and select a great bottle of whiskey, or even to write a book about all that.
I first fell in love with John McPhee while reading his meditation on craft in the world of birchbark canoes. That story felt like a north star for my time with Julian. There’s a world in which a book about him is all about craft in America, in how our unique national mixture of Catholic guilt and Protestant work ethic combines with the secular myths of hard work and boot-strap futures to spit out people predisposed to craftsmanship. Something to occupy our hyper American ambition and our desire to make something, to find God in our labor and in the fruits of it. Spending so much time talking to him about his family’s craft made me consider my own. I thought about McPhee’s canoe maker and about my day job for ESPN. Writing about sports and the men and women who devote their lives to them is really, at its core, a study of craft. I think that’s why sports writing so often aspires to the literary. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of stories to develop that theory.
For the longest time I lived my early life on a blissfully unaware autopilot until one night in high school, when I read a book called North Towards Home, by the native Mississippian and legendary Harper’s magazine editor Willie Morris. I am from Mississippi, too, and I longed to shed my small town life and self, to run far from what Bill Clinton so perfectly called rural obscurity. In the book, Morris talked about how magazines and journalism and the desire to tell hard truths about new places—and about familiar places we knew too well—gave him his life, and his purpose—his avenue of escape.
When I started that book, I figured I’d go to law school and come home and take over my dad’s small town firm. When I finished, I had a goal and a purpose. I’d be a journalist—a career that aligned with my deepest wants and protective urges, both in how it would let me roam and how it would let me avoid myself by diving into the lives of others. I’ve always been happiest when dreaming of escape. From my earliest memories, my greatest solace and focus came while moving, or planning to move, from small actions like pacing while answering flash cards to planning elaborate road trips I knew I’d never take. When I look back at my early life, everything I read and watched and love and hoped and even feared came from this desire to fly far away.
I had the desire but not the mechanism. Then I read Willie Morris’s book. The next morning—I’d read through the night, locked in and aggressively turning pages—I announced to my parents that his words had given me focus. Turns out, they both knew Morris. He grew up in Yazoo City, the closest real town to the tiny farming community where my dad was born and raised. A few days later, a signed copy of North Towards Home arrived, with a note from Willie that said how glad he was that this book had struck such a chord with me. I am looking at that book right now. It sits on my desk between me and the horse farm outside my office window. When I go outside, the air is still and quiet and I can hear the sound of hooves on grass in the distance. A white horse walks the length of fence. A little rain is beginning to fall out here in the country, and I think I’ll go get some saltine crackers and a wedge of hoop cheese for lunch. My child is at home playing and soon I will join her. That’s the life that emerged from that book.
Willie is actually the one who suggested the University of Missouri for journalism school, where I went to college. During spring break of my junior year, in 2000, I went to New York with my best friend Seth Wickersham to try to make those dreams into something real. We both wanted to be magazine writers, like Dan Jenkins, like Gary Smith, like Willie Morris. Seth had interviews all over town, at ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times. I was more of a tagalong. His meeting at ESPN Mag went pretty well. Mine did not. The editors at the magazine forgot about me, so I sat out there for an hour or two, on a bench by the security guard until someone noticed. On some level I will always feel like that person on that bench. There was a sign above my head that said “Visitors,” and in front of me, through a big glass wall, the world I wanted to enter. The metaphor was unmistakable.
Years later when that New York magazine office closed, a friend got the sign and mailed it to me, as a reminder of the journey. It’s hanging in my office. I’m looking at it right now. Nearby in a box, I keep letters from my dad. He wrote me a lot. Not long ago, mama found a file folder in which he’d stored a copy of every letter he ever sent me. She sent me a photo of one of them, written after I’d been rejected by nearly every newspaper in America for an internship.
Momma told me you did not get the responses you wanted to hear about summer 2000’s internships. Don’t worry or fret too much. The main thing is that one day, they will have wished they could have gotten to know you personally—to witness your talents, your drive, your personality. Hang in there. God has been good to you.
His letters inspired me to try and do the same. I travel a lot for work—or at least I did!—and every night, I write my daughter, Wallace, a postcard or a letter. Some are funny. Some are just dispatches from Rome or Paris or Uruguay, trying to describe and evoke a place with the hope of inspiring wanderlust. When I am feeling insecure or like a failure, I try to be transparent. But what I end up talking about a lot, as I consider these hundreds of letters as a body of work, is the importance of craft. How a fulfilled life must come from that intersection of the mind and the hands, and how a pride in making something is not just its own reward but the foundation of contentment.
I hope Wallace reads this book one day. It’s dedicated to her and the afterward ends with a message to her. There are a lot of stories I want her to know and one comes to mind now, watching the rain run down my office window. One night Julian and I sat around a table at the hotel restaurant in Louisville. I’d eaten a lot of meals with Julian by now and had come to enjoy these long marathons most of all. Julian is at his best at a table, I believe. We talked about ceviche and the beautiful, hyper-violent plays of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Things devolved. We got in the car and listened to The Who on the way home. Everyone sang along. The Doors came on next.
“Were you into the Doors?” I asked.
“Yeah, I got the first Doors 45,” Julian said.
“Did you eat acid?” his son-in-law Ed James asked, laughing.
“Naw,” Julian said. Hello, I Love You was the first stereo 45 and I had it.”
“What’s the first band you saw live?” I asked.
“Probably the Beach Boys or the Stones,” Julian said.
“He loves the Rolling Stones, which must have driven his tank captain father absolutely batshit crazy. “They’ve been here several times,” Julian said. “I saw them from the parking lot at the old Cardinal Stadium at the fairgrounds. I saw them at Churchill Downs.”
We got home. The party wasn’t over. We were at the best bar in the world: Julian’s house. As a rule, I always let him pick what we’re drinking. It feels rude to start shot-calling: uh, yeah, can you get some Stitzel-Weller white dog from when your granddad ran the place? Maybe a 1964 Old Fitz? Maybe some 20-year-old Pappy?I’ve always been happiest when dreaming of escape.
Tonight he pulled out a barrel-aged Nicaraguan rum he likes. If he was going rum then we were following suit, on the rocks with a twist of lemon. Ed got a guitar and we passed it around. He played a beautiful version of Widespread Panic’s “Space Wrangler.”
We drove around the neighborhood on a golf cart, then we dropped Julian off and started talking about getting guns to “shoot shit.” Ed played Widespread’s “Driving Song,” which always leaves me melancholy and nostalgic: “The leaves seen through my window pane. . . Remind me that it’s time to move my life again.”
We drove the cart onto a highway overpass. I leaned out over the concrete railing and looked down. Cars rushed beneath our feet. That’s when Ed started talking about Julian. He told me the real story of Pappy Van Winkle. All those years out in the wilderness, Julian wasn’t breaking even. He went close to a million dollars in debt, taking out loans, spending through his inheritance, doing whatever he took to keep Old Rip in bottles and in stores. The whiskey business cost him nearly everything and yet he endured. And he wasn’t waiting for a boom. He didn’t see the future. That would make him a genius but would also somehow cheapen how far he was willing to go to put out another year of bourbon. Julian is a man willing to go down with the ship.
“This story has got to be told,” Ed said, “because it’s not like he was Pappy’s son and he had it made and he just fell into this. He was beating the machines with a wrench to make them operate. You’ve gotta talk to Aunt Sally about it. Aunt Sally was the one telling stories the other night about him in the flood standing on top of the thing, beating it with a wrench. She told it last night. You’ve gotta have those stories. It’s rags to riches. He’s spent all the money from the sale of the distillery keeping it alive and trying not to drop out of the country club where he’d grown up. They didn’t have any money. Peanut butter and jelly at the club. Sissy will tell you she’d take the kids out to the car to eat sandwiches and bring them back into the pool. This thing didn’t just happen overnight, and my biggest respect for Julian is that.”
I thought about Julian asleep up the hill. He grew up in the house next door to the one where he lives now. His entire adult life has been in the shadow of what his family built and lost. I think about the ultimate Southern act: the keeping up of appearances. During some lean years as a boy and a young man, my own family did the same thing. Something his son, Preston Van Winkle, told me came to mind. Julian loves these big cans of Virginia peanuts a friend mailed him every year for Christmas—“like, guarded them with his life,” Preston said—and after a long day out in Lawrenceburg, Julian used to love coming home and pouring a drink and eating the peanuts. Or, he’d come home and mow the yard with an ice cold can of Budweiser, a pattern his son would find himself emulated himself as a grown man, and then he’d come in to eat his peanuts. And he would always share them with Preston.
In the moment, Preston didn’t understand how much weight his father carried on his shoulders. “As busy as he was trying to keep the lights on in the 80s and 90s,” Preston said, “he always made time for me. Whether it was playing basketball, throwing the football or baseball or going to sporting events and the like. We went to tons of minor league baseball, soccer, and ice hockey games. Airshows, tractor pulls and monster truck rallies. We’d go out to my uncle’s piece of property and shoot mock oranges with shotguns and pistols and find vines to swing on. Because he always made sure to make time, it didn’t occur to me until later how hard he was busting his ass to keep things afloat.”Cars rushed beneath our feet. That’s when Ed started talking about Julian. He told me the real story of Pappy Van Winkle.
I looked back up at the darkened house on the hill. I could imagine Preston and Julian crowded over the big can of peanuts. I could see Julian with bank statements, or going into the bank to get another loan, or moving money around to keep his whiskey on the shelves. He did all of that and then he made it out the other side—not to become whiskey famous, or to get rich, but because he was a craftsman, and his craft was bourbon, and he’d keep doing that as well as he could until the money ran out. That’s a lesson I took away from my time in Pappyland, and one I’d like my daughter to take from the short letters I mail and from this long letter that is this book.
Essay adapted from PAPPYLAND: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and The Things That Last by Wright Thompson. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of the Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Wright Thompson.