On the afternoon of the Kentucky Oaks, I searched the grandstand at Churchill Downs for Julian P. Van Winkle III. It was Friday, the day before the Derby, and it looked like it might just stay beautiful and clear, a miracle this time of year in the humid South. As I made my way through a crowd of people with a sheen on their faces and seersucker stuck to their thighs, I thought of an old friend who once said that existing at our latitude felt like living inside someone's mouth. The breath of racehorses, summer humidity, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey-the South has many forms of heat, by-products of a place perched delicately on the edge between romance and hypocrisy. The Ole Miss band used to play a slow version of "Dixie" before the game, and even as I winced at the Confederate nostalgia, I also teared up because the song reminded me of my father. That's what Patterson Hood called the "Duality of the Southern Thing." The Derby distills those feelings. When horses turn for home, we are all wild and free, sweating and cheering, the dream on our breath and clutched in our fists. I admit I love that blood-sport rush.
The pageant of the big race swirled around me. The old Louisville families gathered in boxes along the stretch, gripping drinks and pari-mutuel tickets. I was at the track to write racing columns for my magazine and Julian was here, living another day in what seemed to be the endless spring break of his life. I didn't know him yet. We had met several times before to discuss a book about bourbon we wanted to write together. I was to help him tell the story of his bourbon, the mythical and rare Pappy Van Winkle, but it became clear that there was no way to separate the bourbon's mythology from his personal history. But that clarity lay before me. At the moment, I just needed to find the man in the madness at Churchill Downs.
I finally found him holding court in a box about halfway up the grandstand surrounded by old friends, a well-tailored blue-and-white-striped sport coat draped across his shoulders and reading glasses dangling from his neck beneath a peach-colored, whiskey barrel-patterned bow tie. Julian kept on-brand with his Pappy ball cap, and a lifetime of May afternoons in Kentucky had taught him to put on duck boots before heading to the track. He smiled when he saw me and handed me his flask of Weller 12. The whiskey went down smooth, with enough burn to let you know it was working, which was what my father used to say when he'd disinfect my cuts with hydrogen peroxide. Julian loves the 12-year-old Weller. He's got a storage facility full of it-and a bourbon club's fantasy of other rare bourbons. If you ask him where he keeps it, he'll wink and laugh and dissemble, but he won't give out the coordinates. "I went to the shed," he said. "My whiskey shed, the storage shed, whose location will remain anonymous. I'll show you a picture of it."
His wife, Sissy, saw me and waved. I think I might be in love with her. She's pretty, with a great laugh. Her smile is an invitation to pull up a seat. I had stepped into a party that had been raging for a generation or two. They had a bag of chocolates and a Seven Seas salad dressing bottle filled with bourbon. Julian often travels with his own booze. Wouldn't you? He is famous among friends for showing up at parties with half-pints of Pappy-used for tasting and testing barrels-and passing them around. They're called blue caps. I love the blue caps. Once, before I was about to give a speech, his son, Preston, handed me one to take onstage. I have this memory of Julian at a food and wine festival after-party-it was at a local Indian restaurant that had been turned into a Bollywood dance club-and he was floating around the dance floor, hands in the air, pausing only to give anyone who wanted a pull of the Pappy he kept in his pocket. In that moment, I wanted to know how someone got to be so free and if that freedom created his perfect whiskey, or the other way around. That night exists as a kind of psychedelic dream to me, the feeling of being whisked away in a black Suburban and ending up with streaky images of dancing and music and Pappy.
Julian looks more and more like Pappy every day. He's got a silver cuff of hair around his bald head and is quick with a joke, usually on himself. On his right hand, he wears a family ring just like the one his grandfather and father wore. The Van Winkles have a large number of traditions, the most famous of which is their whiskey. That fame doesn't make it any more or less important than the others. They are all just the things this old Southern family does in the course of being itself.
Among Julian's many quirks: wearing fake rotten teeth, which he and Sissy sported each time they first met a set of future in-laws of one of their three daughters; searching for records to fit his old-timey jukebox in the basement; listening to music while cleaning out the big silver pots after frying Thanksgiving turkeys; setting mole traps for going on forty years now, without ever successfully catching a mole; and firing a paintball gun at the deer on his property that want to tear up his plants. One night, deep into two open bottles of bourbon, he grabbed a flashlight and I grabbed the paintball assault rifle and we went out into the neighborhood. I kept the weapon up like they do in the war movies and he swung the light through the trees. We didn't see anything. I was bummed. He was stoic, as usual.
Julian almost never complains-few people know, for instance, that he's just on the other side of cancer treatment that could have ended very differently. Normally a private man, he allowed his closest friends to see the fear in his eyes; to share in his vulnerability. His illness made him newly reflective, which would have a cascade of repercussions in his life. He'd reached the point when he had to take dying seriously. Everyone passes through that valley and everyone emerges changed. His bourbon is passing through a valley, too. In the coming months, he will taste the new liquor that will fill his bottles. The whiskey that built his success had run out, and the "new whiskey," distilled and laid up many years ago, is now finally ready to be tasted and, with luck, bottled. I would come to appreciate the challenge of dealing with market trends when your product gets made as many as twenty-five years in the past. When I met Julian this is what loomed largest; soon it would be time for him to test the first ever Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve made from whiskey distilled by his partner Buffalo Trace. Whiskey is marketed as an antidote to change, so the spell is especially vulnerable during times of transition. That tension ran through my mind during this otherwise carefree day at the nation's most famous racetrack. Julian was looking far into the future, to see how this brand and whiskey would be passed from one generation to the next. The Van Winkles have done most things very well, except for that: the last time the baton pass got seriously fucked up.
But on this afternoon Julian was in good humor: passing around whiskey, cracking jokes, waiting on the bugle to blow, being Julian Van Winkle. From our box seats, the crowd around us kept an eye on the infield scoreboard, counting down the minutes until post for the next race. People killed time with liquor and stories. A local doctor juggled apples, taking the occasional bite without missing a rotation as we cheered him on.
Finally the next race began with a thunder of hooves. There's a word that describes that sound, rataplan, which evokes the incredible noise a dozen running horses can make and the way you feel that noise in your chest, loud-not like something in nature but like standing next to a tower of speakers at an Allman Brothers show. The sound takes on physical form and lives on as psychic echo. The crowd roared and leaned in. We stopped to look down at the track as the horses left the gate and came bounding past. It took less than two minutes, the crowd swaying, clutching the white betting slips, matching numbers to silks, standing and screaming beneath the roof of the grandstand. Oh, glorious afternoon!
Churchill Downs has been expanded over the years, the luxury suites rising high above the spires-an unintentional and dark metaphor about the change that has come to this track. This new-money Derby attracts people who seem desperate for the lifestyle. The day-trippers wear gangster suits and outlandish patterns and hats inappropriate to the latitude, temperature, or setting. It's amateur hour. They hold liquor like ninth graders. The homogenization of America has left people wandering the land in search of a place to belong. We are a tribeless nation hungry for tribes. That longing and loneliness are especially on display in early May in Kentucky.
From these seats, it felt possible to ignore all that change. Ignoring can be intoxicating. The view before us was the view people saw one hundred years ago. We couldn't make out the big battleship bridge behind us that dwarfed the spires. We only saw the flash of the silks and the splashes of dirt and the blur of whip hands banging away for one more burst of speed. The race ended, and Julian pulled a Cohiba out of his pocket and lit it. "My victory cigar," he said. A grin flashed across his face. "I didn't bet on the race," he said. "So I won."
Copyright © 2020 by Wright Thompson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.