For over two decades, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon has been one of the most sought-after brands in the world. It is a business built upon a family heritage in the bourbon industry that goes back to Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle opening the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the 1930’s. As the 4th generation of Van Winkles move into the family business, they have expanded it with the launch of Pappy & Company, a bourbon lifestyle brand launched by the three daughters of Julian Van Winkle III. I sat down with the three co-founders / sisters to talk about the inspiration behind Pappy & Co and how the business has grown since launch.
Dave Knox: What is Pappy & Co. and what products do you make?
Carrie Greener: We’re a lifestyle brand inspired by our family’s heritage. Our family has been in the bourbon business for generations. We have created a line of products, all inspired by things that we use in our daily lives or things that are traditional in our family or things that we want our lives. We have a specialty food category with barrel-aged food products. We have Pappy Van Winkle branded merchandise, like hats and t-shirts.We have men’s accessories and barware. And then our biggest category is actually cigars where we partnered with a really special company to make premium cigar.
Knox: What was the inspiration to launch Pappy & Co?
Louise Breen: The Pappy Van Winkle brand is something special and it was something that these fans really wanted a piece of. They wanted to be able to touch and feel the brand. And it occurred to us that we needed to get some merchandise out there for these aficionados and fans. And that’s really what inspired us originally to launch Pappy & Company in 2013. And since then, what was initially just really merchandise and promotional type items has evolved into a line of unique and special products that all are inspired by us and who we are and what our family really is about. It has been a fun way for us to use our own creativity and passions and expand the brand in that way.
Knox: While many brands aspire to be a “lifestyle brand”, Pappy & Co has naturally fallen into the space of the bourbon lifestyle. How do define what this bourbon lifestyle is and how does it impact your product choices?
Greener: For us, the brand is about not taking ourselves too seriously. Pappy & Co is about our family, so the inspiration comes from looking at our day-to-day lives with our families, our parents, our children, and just what we use in our lives. It is about products that are practical, but also things that bring us little bits of joy throughout the day.
Breen: And even the barrel nature of a lot of our products was just an obvious fit for the items that we offer. That has been a really neat way to tie in with the brand itself since we are able to offer many products that either are made with the retired Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels or aged in retired barrels.
Knox: When you look at the Pappy & Company logo, one of the first things you see is the three keys. The heritage is obvious in the brand name itself but how do the keys in the logo pay homage to the legacy of the family business?
Greener: The five keys were originally on Pappy’s distillery door at Stitzel Weller and they represented the five steps in the bourbon. But it also represented his key to hospitality, which was a slogan that he used for his old Fitzgerald brand. It was the perfect icon to really think about when we started our brand. And there are three of us sisters, and so we wanted to do something that was current and innovative and modern and showed that we were taking something old and making it new in our own way. We took that key inspiration, and the logo represents the three sisters with that heritage behind it.
Knox: Pappy & Co often talks about “the Pappy way” as you describe the company and your products. What do you mean by this and how has it impacted your business choices?
Chenault James: Pappy was just known for doing things with integrity. That is a foundation that we always rely on and influences all the things that we do. When we talk about “the Pappy way” it just always doing things with a high level of integrity and in the right way.
Greener: The other thing about Pappy was not take himself too seriously. That is a big part of it with his bourbon business. He made a great product with high quality ingredients. And he wanted to share it with the customers. It is as simple as that. You enjoy it and it is supposed to be a special part of your drinking enjoyment. He was a traditional guy but he also never took himself too seriously and always made whatever it was he was talking about or doing fun and not stuffy or overthought.
Breen: An example of not taking things too seriously is that the products that we are putting out there, you can use it in multitude of ways. We are selling these great crystal rocks glasses, but we are not telling you that you must drink this premium bourbon out of them. You can drink your wine or your margaritas out of them. That is what we are talking about when we say you do not need to be too serious about it. That is what Pappy believed in.
Knox: Recently the author Wright Thompson published a book that was called Pappyland about the family’s journey in the bourbon industry. It’s tough to get any more buzz about Pappy Van Winkle, but what did that book do to the Pappy & Company business?
Greener: Pappyland helped tell our story in the sense of that we are real people behind the brand. People think that because of the popularity of the bourbon and how hard it is that all these stories are made up. People sometimes assume we are creating something that is not real. And this happens with other brands, especially in the world of branding and marketing and storytelling. But at Pappy & Co, we truly have an authentic story to tell. It is the opposite of making something up. And so, I think the book backs that up in a world where so many people are skeptical.
Knox: An important element of Pappy & Co has been your collaborations such as your cigars with Drew Estates. How do you evaluate the right partners for Pappy & Co and the categories that you’d like to explore?
Greener: It sounds kind of cliche, but it’s honestly the simplest of things. With our partners, we start with if they are a value-driven company and if they care about quality. Those are the things that we have set as a foundation of our company and they are obviously inspired by Pappy’s bourbon business, and how my dad then ran the company after that. So it starts with that. And then, it is about the people behind the other company. We just have to naturally feel good about the evolution of the partnership as a friendship in a way. We are obviously not best friends with every partner, but we truly have a great level of communication and respect for each other. Finally, one of things that is really fun with partnerships is the amazing that people can come to us. It is really cool for someone to come to us and let us understand who their company is.
Knox: People often say you should not start a business with family, but Pappy & Co obviously goes against that. With Van Winkle bourbon also being a family business, what has your family learned over the years on how to make business with family work?
Greener: We are still learning a lot. It’s always a progress. For us with day to day, we stay in our lanes, we respect each other’s decisions, and we don’t question each other too much. It starts with a foundation of trust that allows us to get through those situations that do become a little bit more difficult. Regarding the larger family business, we are currently working with a family business consultant to really set ourselves up for success in future generations. Family businesses are few and far between, and as the generations evolve, your likelihood of success goes way down with each generation. And so, for us, that’s very important to protect. We are working hard as a family to set that foundation for success in the future, but with professional help.