Production

Short History of Stitzel-Weller

True to the 'human' form of distillation and popularised 'wheated Bourbon'
By Fred Minnick
When Pappy Van Winkle sipped a mint julep on Kentucky Derby day 1935, I wonder if he knew how much his Stitzel-Weller Distillery would change the whiskey world. On that day, they opened the now famous distillery and celebrated with one of Louisville's grandest parties. Soon thereafter, the famous 60 inches in diameter column still fired up and the legendary open-window warehouses started ageing Bourbon, specifically a recipe using wheat as its secondary grain.

The first distiller Will McGill once publicly challenged a Seagram's research director on using chemistry techniques in distilling. McGill thought the human senses made good whiskey, not technology. This style lasted all the way up to the facility's last distiller, Whisky Magazine Hall of Famer Edwin Foote, who lamented 'automation' in distillation. Every Stitzel-Weller master distiller used his palate and nose to make great whiskey. Not a computer.

On the sales and marketing front, Pappy Van Winkle changed the advertising landscape. He wrote advertorials that were published in major US publications and pursued private brands unlike any distiller before or after. Pappy sold to the legendary retailer Macy's and iconic hotel chain Hilton private labels. For a short time, Macy's and Hilton carried private label Stitzel-Weller Bourbon, both of which are collector items.

Their own brands - Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Cabin Still and a few others - would become synonymous with quality, especially if they were distilled between 1935 and 1972, when the Van Winkles owned the distillery.

It was in these 37 glorious distilling years that the Shively facility made its name. Conglomerate Norton Simon purchased Stitzel-Weller in 1972 and renamed it Old Fitzgerald Distillery after its lead product.

Norton Simon's subsidiary Somerset Imports, which managed the distillery, was just another company in the conglomerate that included McCall Publishing, Hunt Foods and Canada Dry. At the time of the Stitzel-Weller acquisition, its reported annual earnings were $1 billion.

The distillery still hummed the same distilling beat, and the Van Winkles worked with the new owners to purchase whiskey for their private label venture and brand, Old Rip Van Winkle, an 1800s era rectified label that was dusted off and brought back to life.

In 1984, Distillers Co, a $1.5 billion liquor company, acquired the Old Fitzgerald Distillery. A year later, Distillers' US subsidiary, the Distillers Somerset Group, aligned its sales forces to sell Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Weller and Cabin Still with Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray and specialty brands.

Despite the changes, Foote says production stayed the same. Old Fitzgerald president Norman Hayden told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "Bourbon whiskey is the purest distilled spirit made."

In fact, under new leadership, they increased production. Between 1987 and 1992, the now named United Distillers pursued the strategy of Rebel Yell competing against Jack Daniel's, especially in Australia. The company had also taken notice in Blanton's exploding in Japan, whose consumer base could not drink enough Bourbon and were responsible for Bourbon's 1980s-era enthusiasm. United Distillers earmarked its I. W. Harper brand for Japan. United Distillers (now Diageo) quadrupled their wheated Bourbon production and planned to build a new distillery, what would become new Bernheim.

In 1990, the company announced a $6 million advertising plan for Australia. "The Bourbon market is growing about 15 per cent and the two major players (Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's) are already well established. So to become a major player, we have to make a large investment. Brands have a value, and being priced about Jim Beam, we see that as the long-term way of going," said Marketing Director David Goss in 1990.

That same year, Japan's stock market had lost more than $2 trillion, in an economic collapse that hurt every major industry doing business in the country. For Bourbon, distillers were forced to change strategies.

Nonetheless, the company doubled down on its American whiskey intent, expanding its existing facilities and purchasing the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro in 1991 for $161 million, giving United Distillers more American whiskey stocks to continue its strategies for foreign markets. Then president of UD North America, James Espey said, "We're significant exporters. We see growth there for Bourbon."

But in 1992, the conglomerate ceased distilling operations at Old Fitzgerald and shifted production to the new Bernheim Distillery.

United Distillers' decisions to discontinue Old Fitzgerald distillation and later divest in Bourbon changed the American whiskey landscape. Throughout the 1990s, United Distillers sold its brands and stocks to competitors, giving Sazerac a good chunk of its award-winning whiskey and Heaven Hill a home in Bernheim after its 1996 Bardstown fire.

They had distilled so much wheated Bourbon that there was much to move. In 1994, an upstart whiskey bottler could purchase a barrel of Stitzel-Weller wheated Bourbon for $200. Today, Stitzel-Weller bottles from this era sell upwards of $10,000 per bottle at auction or in the secondary market.

This wheated Bourbon became the foundation for some Jefferson's products, Pappy Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace's Weller, and many other brands.

Looking back, they were not wrong in downgrading Bourbon, from a short-term financial perspective, but it also unleashed some of the greatest American whiskey ever made to better marketers. "United Distillers didn't understand Bourbon," Morgan says.

Meanwhile, Pappy's name and Stitzel-Weller are household Bourbon names because Pappy's grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, created 'Pappy Van Winkle' in the 1990s using mostly Stitzel-Weller whiskey. Pappy, the brand, took on a life of its own, winning awards and dubbed the 'Bourbon Billionaires Can't Buy.'

Buffalo Trace now makes Pappy Van Winkle, the world's most coveted Bourbon. The Stitzel-Weller whiskey is mostly gone, though, and the facility is used as a Bulleit Bourbon tourist destination. Its grandeur still remains, maybe even improved, and the hollowed grounds offer so much vibrancy that Sally Campbell Van Winkle still sheds a tear when visiting.

It's where she played as a child and is a centerpiece in her book, But Always Fine Bourbon. "It's just great to see the place alive again," Van Winkle told me in 2014. "[Stitzel-Weller] had been dead for such a long time."