A lot of people will try to give you advice on life, but if you ask Carrie Van Winkle Greener, her Pappy pretty much nailed it: “No chemists allowed.”
Carrie recalls seeing photos of a sign that once hung on one of the buildings at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery —Pappy's distillery which was sold in the early 70's—that read “No chemist allowed.” And on face value, it’s a head scratcher in terms of life advice, but for Carrie, it means “we're making a great product, but let's not overthink it.” Bourbon — like life — shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
And that same principle is what she uses to guide the new family business: Pappy & Company, a line of Bourbon-inspired products, all made with the taste, quality and style that their great grandfather’s original vision embodied.
We sat down with Carrie to talk a bit about how Pappy & Co. came to fruition, her favorite Bourbon-inspired product and what it was like growing up as a Van Winkle.
Carrie: I started this business almost seven years ago with my two sisters. We're based out of Louisville, Kentucky, and our family is in the Bourbon business. Our Bourbon is Pappy Van Winkle, which is really well known, but it's actually a small family-run business. And so seven years ago, we realized that there was no merchandise associated with this famous Bourbon brand, and that's how we got into business. We started creating merchandise branded with the Bourbon. And then it's just evolved from there.
Tell us more about Pappy & Co.
We have such a special Bourbon brand, the last thing we want to do is dilute or cheapen the brand.
As a family, this was our way of getting involved because we didn't work directly with the distillery. For us, this is a really fun way to be a part of it and also create our own business.
What kinds of Bourbon-inspired products do you offer?Carrie: We started with more promotional items like hats and t-shirts, things that most brands want to offer their fans. It’s really evolved from there to all types of lifestyle products.
The first product we ever made was our Bourbon balls, which is chocolate with sugar, butter, Bourbon and pecans.
We have a line of barrel-aged specialty food, which is one of our most popular categories. Our bestseller is probably the Bourbon barrel-aged pure maple syrup, where we age pure maple syrup in our freshly dumped Bourbon barrels for at least six months. But we also have other things like a barrel-aged pepper sauce and chocolates made with our Bourbon. We also have chocolate nib brittle, where we age the cacao nibs in our barrels and they pick up that Bourbon flavor.
And then there’s men's wear. We have accessories and some home goods. Another big category are our cigars.
Carrie: It happens really organically and naturally. We have such a special Bourbon brand, the last thing we want to do is dilute or cheapen the brand. That’s something we think about a lot.
How do you choose what kinds of products to develop, in order not to stretch the brand too thin?
But naturally, being a part of the family, all we know is to work with other companies who care about quality and our value-driven company. It somehow works out, because we are so closely related to the brand — we don't have to worry about that too much. But we’re drawn to other companies who have similar values and that seems to be the driving force.
Can you tell us about some of your best-selling products?Carrie: I have to say, it’s the cigars. If you look at our Bourbon brand, the most famous labels are Pappy Van Winkle, which features our great-grandfather smoking a cigar on the label. It just fits so closely with our Bourbon business. And there are so many parallels that work — there's that lifestyle aspect of smoking a cigar with a cocktail or, specifically, Bourbon. Because that was one of Pappy's pastimes, it just works with our Whiskey brand in general.
We had a blast in the bottling plant and just had the best childhood, watching my dad build this Bourbon business.
But I think that's potentially why it’s one of our bestsellers. Also, the quality of the cigar produced by one of our partners — Drew Estate. They're definitely tops of the premium cigar industry and are doing really amazingly innovative things with cigars without jeopardizing quality or likeability.
What’s one of your favorite products that you can’t live without?Carrie: In the food category, it's the hot sauce and the syrup. The hot sauce is like an everyday hot sauce — it's good for anything.
But outside the food category, I'd have to say it’s our barrel stave cutting boards. I have one sitting out on my counter and it always looks gorgeous. It’s especially useful right now, because I’m home all the time, cooking for my children, eating snacks and cutting fruit all day.
I think what I've learned in the long run is to just hold true to what you believe in.
It’s inspired by the butcher block cutting boards, and it's just really neat, practical and attractive. We take the skinny staves of the barrel and turn them on their side. Jason Cohen a Bourbon barrel artisan in Louisville takes the skinny staves of the barrel and glues the staves together on their sides. That's where you get that distinct, organic striped look from the black char from the interior of the barrel.
Where/how do you sell the products?Carrie: Pappyco.com is our website and that's how we started our business.
We also have a wholesale business and love to hear from other stores around the country that want to carry our products. Anything from specialty food stores to party source type liquor stores to small boutiques. We also have a retail store in Louisville, which is the front end of our offices and fulfillment. We have everything in-house in Louisville, in one old historic building.
What role did the family business play in your life?Carrie: Well, growing up, we honestly had no legitimate role in the Bourbon business. But we were always a part of it, working with our dad on the weekends and seeing how hard he was working. And I mean, we had a blast in the bottling plant and just had the best childhood, watching my dad build this Bourbon business.
I think seeing that work ethic and watching him stay true to what he knew and who he was and not letting other people dictate who he should be or what he should try to build really influenced me. He still gets that, you know. Daily. People have ideas like, "This is the way you should be doing it and why aren't you doing it this way?" But I think what I've learned in the long run is to just hold true to what you believe in. And I think that's going to give you long-term success because there are so many things you can do daily, as we all know, that ebb and flow — “I should do it this way today because this is what would work.” But in 10 years, is that going to work? Not necessarily.
I think you can really be successful if you are slow and steady and true and have something real that you're building.
We have no interest in ever selling our family businesses — we don't have a short-term perspective. We've learned that from our dad. And obviously, he learned it from his dad and his dad learned it from Pappy. That's how we are and that's the kind of businesses we want to run, being honest and true to who we are and what our products are.
I think for one, family comes first. And then a great family business right behind it.
In a world where all people think about is building and selling, I think this offers people a different perspective. And I think you can really be successful if you are slow and steady and true and have something real that you're building.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
2. How would you explain Pappy & Co. in three words?
Heritage, quality, innovation.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
It’s not my favorite, but right now, reggae and a margarita because I'm ready for some sunshine and the beach.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
That's a tough one for me because I like so many things. Maybe just chips, salsa and a margarita.
5. Assuming Pappy van Winkle is your favorite, what's your second favorite Bourbon?
I'll just say W.L. Weller or Buffalo Trace, just because I don't explore a lot of Bourbons, sadly enough.
What are some lessons that you learned from the family business and your great grandfather? How is that influencing how you’re building Pappy & Co.?Carrie: Without knowing Pappy, but learning about his character and who he was, I’d say it’s not to take yourself too seriously. And I see that through my dad. There are a lot of Bourbon geeks out there in the world, which is great — more power to them for really learning and perfecting their craft. But at the same time, whatever you like and whatever feels right for you, is also great. It says a lot to not take yourself, or what you're doing, completely too seriously.
We're really into this barrel aging aspect, which works.
I think for one, family comes first. And then a great family business right behind it. But yeah, Pappy always had funny, quirky sayings. One of the quotes that hung on a sign at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery said, "No chemist allowed." Which says to me, we're making a great product, but let's not overthink it. You have great grains, you've got great limestone water and you do all the right things in regards to the ingredients and you let the Kentucky seasons do its thing in those warehouses. You'll be fine.
Do you use Pappy Van Winkle for your Bourbon-infused products?Carrie: The first product we ever made was our Bourbon balls, which is chocolate with sugar, butter, Bourbon and pecans. And yes, we used our 10-year. Very quickly, we were like, "Oh my God.” We had just started out and didn't do a whole lot of volume and it all worked. And then as we grew that product, we were like, "Oh my gosh, you know, we can't scale this.”
We are definitely inspired by these amazing collaborations with other like-minded brands.
We don't even have it to drink ourselves. So we actually do not make any other products with actual Bourbon. That's the only one. We're really into this barrel aging aspect, which works. Like with the syrup, you're picking up all that Bourbon flavor, but we're not necessarily using actual Bourbon. I think that goes to show the quality of a barrel and what that can do. We find our barrel-aged food products are exceptional because of the quality of the barrel, where you have so many years of flavor from that longer aging than you can't find with most barrels.