When I was speaking with Dan Latimer, the general manager of Husk, for this week's article on the Southern bourbon boom, he told me the story behind the empty bourbon barrel that now adorns the bar at Husk. It's a genuine Pappy Van Winkle barrel, and, no, it did not start off empty.
Back in the fall of 2010, as he was preparing to open Husk, executive chef Sean Brock — a long-time Pappy Van Winkle zealot — got in touch with Julian Van Winkle III to secure a large supply of Van Winkle bourbon for the restaurant. He ended up acquiring a full barrel of the stuff, and even as barrels of Pappy Van Winkle go Husk's is a pretty special one.
When Julian Van Winkle's father, Julian Jr., started the Rip Van Winkle Distillery in the 1970s, he did so with a stash of whiskey that had been produced at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. That was the distillery created by Pappy Van Winkle himself and produced famous brands like W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell before passing out of the family's control. Julian Jr. also bought up old inventory from other Kentucky distilleries and stored it away, using it to create their uniquely long-aged brand of bourbon.
Those old bourbon stocks couldn't last forever, though, and awhile back Julian Van Winkle III contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery to distill the wheated bourbon that now fills the Van Winkle barrels and will be used for the brand going forward.
The barrel that Brock acquired for Husk is one of the few remaining ones from the old Stitzel-Weller stock, making it a particularly historic vintage. Brock and crew bottled it with their own Husk special-edition label. Over the past year they've used up a good bit of it, Latimer says, and they're guarding the rest of it closely. They do, however, break out a bottle or two for a special occasion, and when they do it goes onto the back bar for the general public to order.
So, the next time you're at the bar at Husk, keep your eye out for the special-edition bottle of Pappy. It's quite literally a rare taste of bourbon history.