When the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced last January that one of its “major distillery events” at the inaugural Bourbon Affair included a tour of the Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville, I absolutely pounced on the opportunity.
The Kentucky Bourbon Affair is a five-day celebration of bourbon, including not only behind-the-scenes distillery tours, but also events at the renowned 21C Museum Hotel, a Bourbon Ball at the Louisville club where the Old-Fashioned was invented, and many other activities, all to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Congress declaring bourbon to be “America’s only native spirit.” (Note for enthusiasts: That’s how the KDA describes it, but it’s not really what Congress stated in 1964. “America’s native spirit” might be the most misquoted line in all of bourbon.)
The Bourbon Affair promoted the Stitzel-Weller tour as “The Bulleit Experience”:
Open to the public for the first time ever, join Bulleit Bourbon Founder Tom Bulleit for an exclusive tour of the Bulleit Experience at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville. Walk the hallowed grounds of this private facility while learning the history of Bulleit Bourbon straight from its founder. Sample famous Bulleit brands, enjoy Bourbon and rye-inspired appetizers and desserts, and leave with your own unique Bulleit rocks glass. This is an incredible opportunity to tour a historic distillery that’s never been opened to the general public.
Other Bourbon Affair events had incredible bonus gifts for guests. Heaven Hill reportedly handed out $250 bottles of Heaven Hill Select Stock; Wild Turkey let participants shoot skeet with Jimmy and Eddie Russell; and Four Roses gave away a copper whisky thief to each participant at a private barrel selection. We received a rocks glass and a julep cup. While that lacks the “bang” of shooting skeet, it’s fine, because I was there to experience Stitzel-Weller itself.
Stitzel-Weller, of course, is holy ground for bourbon enthusiasts. A. Ph. Stitzel formed The Stitzel Distilling Company in Louisville in 1911. He leased his original distillery to W.L. Weller & Sons, thus beginning their long relationship. Stitzel stored whiskey produced by others during National Prohibition, and in 1920, received a license to make “medicinal whiskey.” In 1933, after Repeal, the Stitzels and Wellers formally join together to create Stitzel-Weller Distillery, and moved from downtown Louisville to the then-outskirts of town, in an area known as Shively. In 1934 they started building the distillery that is so famous today, and they opened on Derby Day in 1935.
Stitzel-Weller produced the W. L. Weller line of bourbon (which has found new success and tremendous expansion in recent years as a Buffalo Trace brand), Rebel Yell, Cabin Still, Mammoth Cave and others. Its top-of-the-line bourbon and the brand most associated with Stitzel-Weller – until the Pappy craze – was the Old Fitzgerald line. Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle was integral to the growth, character and spirit of Stitzel-Weller. After Pappy’s death, his son, Julian Van Winkle, Jr., took over. However, he had to sell in 1972, and after subsequent corporate acquisitions and mergers, Stitzel-Weller ceased distilling operations in 1992, sold its brands to various other distillers, but continued to warehouse barrels of quietly-aging bourbon. The Van Winkle family was able to acquire rights to many of those barrels, as did other Non-Distiller Producers, so Stitzel-Weller bourbon has gained fame not just as Van Winkle brands, but also as Jefferson’s Presidential and other rare offerings.
Today, Diageo owns Stitzel-Weller, and houses its offices for Bulleit there. The Bulleit you can buy today was not distilled there, however. Bulleit fans who want to see where their favorite bourbon is made have to go to Four Roses, or for their favorite rye, to MGP in Indiana, assuming they’re in on two of the worst-kept secrets among non-distiller producers. Diageo and Bulleit recently announced, with much fanfare, that Diageo is investing $2 million on renovations at Stitzel-Weller, “to bring to life the history of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery through artifacts from the site’s archives; a whiskey education section; a homage to the people, land and water of Kentucky; and a celebration of the heritage, brands and people behind Diageo’s award-winning collection of American whiskeys.” (Feb. 19, 2014 Press release) Oh, and a gift shop too… but no current plans to distill again.
Diageo’s efforts are evident. New fences, sidewalks, landscaping and windows, along with an incredible renovation of the Jeffersonian administrative offices – now complete with museum-type rooms, an archival collection room and tasting room – are all in place.
That’s a great sign of things to come, but I was fascinated by our chance to see what Stitzel-Weller looked like in 1992 and earlier. Many of the other buildings have been untouched since 1992. The barrel-filling room, for example, still contained distillate in the lines, giving more of sense of sudden abandonment than mere closure. Diageo has since flushed the lines, and we got to smell the white dog from 1992. The filling room looked like it had 20 years-worth of dust on the floor, it still had chalkboard notes written in 1992, and other than having barrels placed for show, the room was just as it was on the day that Stitzel-Weller closed.
The on-site Cooper Shop looked like it had been untouched for even longer. In fact, this 1930’s-era building did not appear to have received any updates during its working life, so it was a pure experience of looking into the past. No other distillery tour can give such an authentic, non-sanitized experience of history.
Other areas on the grounds appeared downright neglected. It wasn’t anywhere near as apocalyptic as places like the James Pepper distillery in Lexington, but there certainly had been some physical plant neglect. Concern for safety was the reason we were not allowed into the still room, or to see the mash tubs, or to see any of the inner-workings of the distillery, which was a big letdown.
Tom Bulleit hosted us at the beginning and at the end for a tasting of Bulleit, Bulleit 10 and Bulleit Rye. He was gregarious, entertaining, funny, and a gracious host; I was glad to have the chance to meet him. Andrea Wilson, Director of Whiskey Supply Strategy for Diageo, accompanied us throughout the tour, and I asked her all kinds of questions about sourcing, the post-Four Roses world, what’s actually being aged at Stitzel-Weller, where Barterhouse and Old Blowhard were distilled and aged (and, it turns out, moved), mash bill percentages, years aged, future plans for any distillation at Stitzel-Weller, and other plans for the distillery. I didn’t get many answers, although I got a few.
Overall it was a great afternoon at a historic distillery. I’m keeping faith that Diageo will honor the heritage that it inherited with Stitzel-Weller, including Pappy’s gentlemanly code:
We will sell fine Bourbon
At a profit if we can
At a loss if we must
But always fine Bourbon.
I’m also hoping for more transparency and a return to distillation at Stitzel-Weller, but all the same, I’m enjoying Bulleit bourbon.