Few distilleries hold such mythical measure as Pappy Van Winkle’s Stitzel-Weller Distillery, located in Shively, Kentucky (just a short drive south of downtown Louisville). There is a whole story behind the man, the spirits and the lore that was bigger-than-life Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. If you’re interested in learning the story behind Stitzel-Weller and the Pappy story, there’s no better way to get a behind-the-scenes peek, complete with family photographs, than with the wonderfully written Always Fine Bourbon written by granddaughter to Pappy – Sally Van Winkle Campbell. I’ve enjoyed this book on a couple of occasions already and plan to revisit it again.
Today, the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery houses the Bulleit Experience, which opened in 2014. The original Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company opened on Derby Day in 1935 with the merger of distributor W.L. Weller & Sons and the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery. Full control of operations ultimately fell to Van Winkle Sr. in 1947 and to his son, Julian Van Winkle Jr. in 1965. Family disputes and a downturn in dark spirts forced a sale in 1972 under the condition that Pappy’s son could still access the bourbon continuing to age in the warehouses and market under the Van Winkle name.
When built in 1935, the two warehouses on site could store over 25,000 barrels. Over time, storage capacity increased to 18 warehouses with storage for 300,000 barrels. After passing from Norton-Simon, Guinness PLC, and United Distillers, the site formally passed to Diageo in 1997. While distillation at the facility ceased in 1992, part of the interest in the old site was its storage warehouses.
Today, Bulleit (owned by Diageo) has its own distillation facility, opened in 2019, in Shelbyville, Kentucky, Similar to Beam and Heaven Hill, Bulleit offers tours of its primary distilleries as well as an experience.
As we pulled off the interstate, I was quickly wondering, “Are we in the right spot?”. This is an urban distillery and warehouse complex, far from the more typical Bluegrass tour through picturesque rolling hills. Soon enough, though, we were greeted by the gatehouse and parking lot. We enjoyed a self-guided tour of the Main Office Building which houses the gift shop as well as offices that spotlighted Pappy Van Winkle and Tom Bulleit. You’ll also be exposed to the history of the site and the brands comprising the tour, including Bulleit, Blade and Bow, and IW Harper.
The tour is a short one. Our guide led us outside under the shade of a nearby tree as we looked on the rows of warehouses to share the history of Stitzel-Weller. I wasn’t sure what to expect as, while the site is a historic one, Bulleit’s history is relatively short and wondered how the two brands would intertwine. Our guide didn’t disappoint, and he was well-versed in the rich history of the site.
It’s always interesting to consider the fact that when a distillery closes, oftentimes, locks are placed on the gates and staff walk away, leaving stocks of whiskeys to continue aging in warehouses. Such was the case of the closure of Stitzel-Weller. If you’re wanting to snag a taste of what some of the original juice might have been like, your best bet (other than a very, very dusty bottle) might be to snag a bottle of Orphan Barrel. These special releases aren’t cheap, nor will they last forever, but do contain blends of older, rarer, original stocks from the Stitzel-Weller days.
After a glance at the rows of warehouses, our guide led us into a building that at one time housed the workout facility. Today, it is filled with memorabilia and artifacts from the distillery’s earliest days. One fun-filled fact: a young Louisville local used to come and take advantage of the gymnasium – Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. You might know him better as Muhammad Ali. Small world!
While major distilling operations aren’t taking place at the former Stitzel-Weller site, there is a small still that allows distillers to experiment and craft distillate. That explains why, when we did slip inside an aging warehouse for a big whiff of angel’s share, there were new barrels bearing the Stitzel-Weller name. A final stop on the tour took us to a cooper’s shed where we saw barrels in all states of repair and could take into account the intricacies of assembling these entrusted vessels from a handful of staves and steel hoops.
It was back to quiet area inside the Main Office for our tasting. We sampled 4 Diageo brands – Bulleit, Bulleit 10-Year, IW Harper and Blade & Bow.
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey: The Bulleit recipe uses a mash bill of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley. This would be considered a “high rye” expression for a bourbon. In the glass, this is light-amber in color. On the nose, there is a lot of oak and rye spice. On the tongue, this is spicy and the high-rye offers quite a punch. It is sharp, and to me, seems a little rough around the edges. This may be less of a sipper and more suited for a cocktail.
Bulleit Frontier Whiskey 10-Year: I’ve sampled the regular Bulleit before and found it a little rough to my liking; I wondered if a little more age would round out this expression. Carrying the same mash bill as our first sample, to the eye, this was much darker than its younger sibling. On the nose there were notes of caramel and fruit with oak. On the palate, the rye and oak are front and center, rounded out by fruit notes, vanilla-caramel and cinnamon spice. A little more age definitely helps and this one was very pleasant (even my wife said this one was much better).
IW Harper: The IW Harper brand has been around since 1879 and was made by the Bernheim Brothers Distillery in Louisville. This may be a brand that doesn’t strike a chord, as similar to Four Roses, it was pulled from the U.S. market in the early 1990s as it had been reduced to a bottom-shelfer. Reintroduced in 2016, this expression is made from 73% corn, 18% rye and 9% malted barley. There is a light copper color in the glass followed by wafts of sweet corn, honey and vanilla with lighter floral notes. This is light in the mouthfeel, but very flavorful for an 82-proof bourbon, including vanilla and corn sweetness with stone fruit flavors.
Blade and Bow: The final taste we enjoyed was this expression made by the solera system with some of the original Stitzel-Weller hooch. If you’re familiar with the solera system for wine, it works the same for bourbon. Basically, the barrel containing original Stitzel-Weller is never fully emptied; rather it is dumped until about half-empty and then refilled with contents from another barrel. In that manner, bottles of Blade and Bow will contain a small, undisclosed amount of some of the original SW stock. While the mashbill isn’t disclosed, this is thought to contain bourbons at least 6 years old.
On the nose, this is light with honey and fruit notes. On the palate, there is vanilla, light fruit, and woody notes with a slight spice. The finish is fruity with vanilla and oak. Overall, this is one that I definitely enjoy. While the $50 price tag is a little steep, solera aging is a rarity in the bourbon world and knowing that I’m enjoying a small amount – even if it’s a trace – of some of the original Stitzel-Weller distillate is worth the price.
The history of this sacred ground is incredible. Diageo has done an admirable job retaining focus on the Stitzel-Weller name while highlighting a diverse selection of its own brands. This tour can easily be added to other Louisville tours, including Evan Williams, Old Forester’s Whiskey Row, and Michter’s at Fort Nelson. It is always touching to see homage paid to Pappy on the plaque adorning the Tax House at Stitzel-Weller:
We make fine bourbon
at a profit if we can
at a loss if must