FORT MITCHELL, Ky. -- Casey and Janine Hill don't have a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey in their house.
But who's to care when you own a Van Winkle house, that of Edwin Van Winkle, Kentucky bourbon icon Pappy's older brother and early resident of Fort Mitchell?
Anybody who drinks bourbon knows the name Pappy Van Winkle. His grandson, Julian Proctor Van Winkle III, elevated the little-known family brand to the throne of American whiskey in the late 1990s when he began selling what would become the industry's standard -- and can be found online priced as high as $3,000.
We'll tell the story of Edwin, Pappy and their oldest brother, Fort Mitchell pioneer Frank, a little later, but this series is about homes, and the Hills have a great one to show off -- and sell at an asking price of $729,000.
Designed and built by undocumented craftsmen in 1920, the five-bedroom, 3,870-square-foot traditional home is, in many ways, the ultimate family home. It sits back from Iris Road in the Old Fort Mitchell Historic District, a tree-lined neighborhood with parks, a centralized school, a country club and a lot of neighbors who walk their children and dogs and stop to talk without hesitation to others sitting on their porches.
It's always been that way, Casey Hill said. His father, James Hill, who lived in the neighborhood, told him so.
"Dad would sit here on the front porch and have lemonade with Mrs. Van Winkle (Frankie). I remember him mentioning what a kind lady she was," Casey said.
"It's kind of like going back in time," Janine said of living in Old Fort Mitchell. "You sit on your front porch, and when the neighbors walk by you invite them up for a drink." If the Hills aren't in such a social mood, they have a more private side porch that's protected by a vaulted ceiling and connects to their two-car garage via a covered breezeway.
Other selling points of the Van Winkle House are its upstairs laundry room, original, barley-twisted staircase, colorful vintage stained-glass window at the landing, upstairs office, large bedrooms and second staircase at the back of the house.
The Hills, who are the fourth owners of the house, bought it 19 years ago and reared a son and daughter there. They turned the unfinished basement into the ultimate kids hangout -- television lounge, kitchenette, half-bathroom, pool table, three green seats from Riverfront Stadium, three vintage video games and the house's original coal-burning stove -- and had Fort Mitchell contractor Bob Arlinghaus expand and remodel the kitchen.
The Hills knocked out a wall to widen access to the adjacent breakfast room and a second wall to increase space off the back of the house. They used an original pine butler's pantry as inspiration for new cabinetry crafted by Michaelson Homes of Milford. Janine designed the tile pattern in the floor that includes a border around the two-seat kitchen island and offset accent tiles that feature images of flowers and the bust of a deer.
The biggest concern Casey said he and Janine had with the remodel was "we didn't want to date it. We were afraid to make anything look new. We tried to keep it as close to the original era as possible."
They needed a lot of hired help to complete the kitchen, but Casey took numerous projects that updated many rooms throughout the rest of the house. Over two winters, he removed 25 iron, steam-heat radiators, installed a new HVAC system, stripped paper and repainted many walls, among other projects.
He also refinished furniture, such as the antique sideboard in the living room that used reside in the Blue Star Restaurant in Park Hills and the Cincinnati-made Wurlitzer Victrola in the dining room -- it was painted green when they bought it.
Janine, meanwhile, became head decorator, culling antiques and collectible furniture and decorative items from outdoor sales in Burlington and Lawrenceburg and local antiques shops and mixing them in with contemporary furnishings and trimmings.
The couple, who were Beechwood High School sweethearts and have been married 34 years, have a lot to show off -- and a lot to sell off when they move out and take off to tour America in their pickup truck and 23-foot mobile home.
They've already sold some artwork and books on the Cincinnati-based auction website Everything But the House and aren't collecting anymore. Casey said he is adamant his truck won't be used to haul any big pieces of wood onto Iris Road. If Janine were to try, he said, "it will not be allowed to come into the house."
A couple of things they'll miss when they're gone are Van Winkle-related.
First and foremost is a small, Prohibition-built bar room that Edwin hid behind a secret door in a wall-long bookshelf when he converted a side porch to a family room. Then there's the stamped top of the first batch of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon presented to the Hills by its maker, Buffalo Trace Distillery of Frankfort. The Hills will pass the barrel top onto the house's new owner as the distillery requested.
The bar room, Casey said, has been the source of a lot of practical joking when his children had sleepovers. Sometimes he would hide in it late at night and surprise them by walking out creepily with a lighted candlestick.
"We had to drive a couple kids home in the middle of the night because they were afraid," he said.
The basement recreation room more than made up for his antics. It became Kids Central for obvious reasons, but receives less use since their children have become adults.
"The reason I built that room is that I figured I'd rather have all the kids here and a way to keep an eye on them," Casey said. "We've also had so many parties down there, and it's wonderful for holidays."
"Yeah," said Janine, "I think our friends are more upset than we are that we are selling."
Their plan is to buy a condominium and spend as much time as they want touring the country. "Some people think we're crazy," Janine said. But, Casey added, they won't miss all the maintenance old homes like theirs require and they're prepared for the change, having spent the last six winters touring east and west Florida's coastlines in their mobile home.
"It's time for another family to enjoy the country club and the park and grow up in this neighborhood," Casey said. "It's time for us to bow out gracefully."
The Hills said they're in no hurry to sell, but hope the next owners of the Van Winkle House appreciate that it's in a great neighborhood and is a balanced blend of old and new.
When the time comes, will they celebrate with a little Pappy on the rocks?
“We had a bottle of 23 then (when it was new), and after that a 10- or 12-year. But I’m happy with Weller,” Janine said of a similar but more affordable Buffalo Trace bourbon.
The Van Winkles and bourbon
Edwin L. Van Winkle (1872-1936) was two years older than his brother Julian Proctor "Pappy" Van Winkle. They had four other brothers -- Frank, John, Ernest and Arthur -- and a baby sister named Mary Louise.
Edwin was the third child born to Kentucky native Louise Dillon and Virginian John Sallee Van Winkle, who was a lawyer, state legislator, Kentucky Secretary of State and businessman in the coal mining industry. The family lived in Danville, Ky., where Edwin and Pappy were born and where 23 Van Winkles are buried in Bellevue Cemetery.
Edwin married Virginia-born Frankie McKinney in 1916. Pappy and his wife, Kate, and oldest brother Frank and his wife, Nellie, attended the wedding in Virginia, according to an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch. A Cincinnati newspaper picked up and published the same story, which attests to the Van Winkles' social status here.
Blueprints owned by Casey and Janine Hill show their house was built for Edwin Van Winkle in 1920, 16 years after his brother, Frank, built his family home around the corner on West Orchard Street during the initial development of Fort Mitchell.
Records indicate Edwin worked in "electric," possibly for the downtown Cincinnati company, Post-Glover Electric, of which Frank was president. Edwin and Frankie might have lived part time in an apartment above the Security Savings Bank at 308 W. Fourth St.; they listed it as their address on the passenger list of an ocean liner that sailed from New York to Southampton, England, in July 1925.
The Van Winkles, who never had children, were listed in the 1930 Census as living on Iris Road with Frankie's 80-year-old mother. After Edwin's death in 1936, Census records show a servant lived with Frankie. Edwin’s wife is buried in the family plot in Danville.
Other than family, Edwin seemingly had no connection to Kentucky bourbon. Surely he followed his little brother's career ascension, but the full extent of that rise didn't occur for about 65 years after Edwin's death and 35 after Pappy's.
Van Winkle whiskey came into prominence around 1999, when its Family Reserve Rye won a liquor industry award under the management of Julian P. Van Winkle III, Pappy's grandson. Van Winkle whiskeys won numerous international awards over the next decade, including a few coveted double golds, and are the most sought-after and expensive whiskeys -- up to $3,000 for a bottle of 23-year-old Pappy -- made in Kentucky today.
Pappy started his career in whiskey as a traveling salesmen for Louisville wholesaler William L. Weller and Sons in 1893. Weller distributed Stitzel Distillery products. The two merged and Pappy became president of Stitzel-Weller. The recipes developed there are used today in Old Rip Van Winkle bourbons and rye that Julian Van Winkle II revived after he had sold the distillery and his father had died at age 90.
Today, the Sazerac Company of New Orleans owns and makes the Van Winkle whiskey at its Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. A fourth-generation Van Winkle, Julian III's son Preston, works side-by-side with his father and plans to keep the Pappy brands in the family.