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OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: Still waters

by Steve Straessle | May 1, 2021 at 8:21 a.m.

Predicting the future has never been a strong suit for me. Sure, leaders of any organization have to rely on intuition honed by data to make hard decisions. But predicting the tastes and habits of future consumers seems impossible. It's hard to imagine staking one's life work on what will happen 15 years from now.

This swirling thought materialized when a friend gave me a copy of "Pappyland," a book written by Wright Thompson about the Van Winkle family and their legendary bourbon. Thompson tells the story of Julian Van Winkle III, the grandson of the original "Pappy" who created the most sought-after bourbon in the world. Thompson highlights the innate challenge of the whiskey world: distilling spirits that must adequately age to achieve distinct color and unique taste. In the case of Pappy Van Winkle, that means a minimum of 15 years.

Fifteen years. That's longer than most high school freshmen have been alive. That's years of waiting to see if the process worked. That's more than a decade hoping that the world has not lost its desire for bourbon. It means betting on a future that's bright and hopeful--the essence of optimism.

As I read the book, I kept thinking about the Latin phrase "aqua profunda est quieta." In English, loosely, still waters run deep. Sometimes, the silence of planning leads to the wisdom of waiting, which in turn creates the profound thrill of success.

It's an easy metaphor for life. Oftentimes, those more vocal in their advocacies but less serious about their planning and follow-through end up disappointed. Those who take the time for quiet meditation about the right path, and then the diligence to get down to the business of doing the work, more often experience the real joy of accomplishment.

Wright Thompson is an ESPN writer who does a good job of mixing biography with philosophy. The book is more than the story of Julian Van Winkle and his progeny. Instead, it touches the corners of Southernness and thoroughly sweeps the nuances of family while telling a really good story.

I tasted Pappy Van Winkle once. I emphasize the word "taste" because my lifelong friend who had captured a bottle saved only a small draw, the half-thimbleful of whiskey encountering only a handful of taste buds on its way down. Is it really worth the thousands of dollars people pay in the secondary market? Pappy has become a cult classic, as rare as Cold War Cuban cigars or pre-pandemic "Hamilton" tickets. But it wasn't always that way.

Life is not about dwelling on what you can't do. Life is about figuring out what you can. That's what separates those in the arena from those allowing themselves to be bystanders. Julian Van Winkle III resurrected his family's brand after his grandfather passed away and his father sold the distillery. For years, the younger Van Winkle struggled to make ends meet and find places to distill and distribute his whiskey.

Then, luck smiled upon him. The current owners of the original distillery found several barrels from his grandfather's time and agreed to sell them to Julian. He used that whiskey to once again make his family name among the most famous in the whiskey business.

It's just different, people would say. Julian took great care to make sure it stayed that way. Thompson writes, "That's what craft really is. Doing something over and over again without cheating or cutting corners."

Thompson is so good at painting a picture of Julian Van Winkle that it's obvious there was never another vocation the subject of the book could seriously pursue. He writes about the risk Van Winkle endured: "This is an industry that requires peering into the future and determining which America will exist in a decade--for Julian, it requires twice that--and that's nearly an impossible thing to do. We're asking people to predict a national mood; to predict our fears and hopes. ...

"Bourbon booms are tied mostly to a sense of nostalgia and longing--to memory--and when the brown stuff is flying off the shelves, you can bet that we are unsure of where we are going and in need of a vehicle to take us back." Prescient words for this pandemic year.

Thompson sums up this feeling neatly: "Vodka is for the skinny and scotch is for the strivers and bourbon is for the homesick."

Van Winkle quietly labored, coaxing the family brand back to life. His fortitude produced the luck that landed him back in the game. His wisdom required that he do it right, which allowed him to find incredible success.

Still water, whether the kind that is barreled, aged, and consumed or the figurative kind that runs deep in thought, planning, and execution are both vital in this book. They come together to funnel the run of history through a family name.


Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.

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