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Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Stitzel-Weller (S-W) Distillery Information (Condensed)

Earlier this week I posted my review of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old bourbon. Later this week I am taking a deeper look at the 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon and comparing it with a 2009 Pappy Van Winkle 15. Why does this matter? Well, it’s complicated, but recently Preston Van Winkle confirmed that the 2011 release was 100% Buffalo Trace produced bourbon and no longer S-W whiskey. I thought it might be important to share why that matters to many enthusiasts. So here’s a bit of light reading on the S-W distillery.

  • The S-W distillery that exists (but is not operational) today was opened post prohibition in 1935 by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. S-W quickly became known for its wheated recipe.  It’s also the same recipe given to Bill Samuels Sr. that started Maker’s Mark.
  • Pappy acquired the original distillery through the purchase of a wholesale whiskey operation and the Stitzel distillery, eventually naming it S-W. The Weller portion of that name came from William Larue Weller, and one of the distillery’s most important labels, W. L. Weller. Weller, the man, was an early bourbon pioneer, who produced the wheated recipe.
  • In addition to W. L. Weller, the distillery also produced a number of other wheated bourbon whiskeys; Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
  • Pappy operated the S-W distillery until his death in the Mid 1960’s
  • After his death, Pappy’s son Julian Van Winkle Jr. was forced to sell the distillery in 1972. Afterwards he decided to resurrect one of the brands that existed in the operation prior to prohibition, Old Rip Van Winkle.
  • While Julian Van Winkle Jr. no longer operated S-W, his Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon made use of S-W bourbon stocks. Van Winkle Jr. passed away in 1981.
  • His son Julian Van Winkle III, who runs the operation today, was responsible for taking his father and grandfather’s vision a step further. He decided to offer older whiskeys from S-W stocks after tasting them and noting just how fantastically the whiskey had aged.  Many don’t realize that Van Winkle III was the first of the trio of Van Winkles to produce the much longer aged Bourbons.
  • In 1991/1992, S-W distillery ceased operations, effectively shutting down. As a result there was a free-for-all of sorts over ownership of the reputable brands/labels that S-W had produced for so many years. Heaven Hill was able to purchase Old Fitzgerald, for which they continue to make today. Buffalo Trace purchased W.L. Weller, which they continue to produce today as well.
  • Even after the sell of S-W, Van Winkle III was still granted access to purchasing the whiskeys that still existed in the distillery‘s aging warehouses. However, with S-W no longer producing whiskey, and the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys increasing yearly, Van Winkle III found himself at a crossroads.
  • In 2002, Julian Van Winkle III made a decision to partner up with another distillery that could keep his growing brand of Van Winkle Whiskeys alive and well. As a result the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey operation entered into an agreement with Buffalo Trace to produce their acclaimed whiskeys.
  • Now things get very cloudy. It is not known for sure at what time the younger labels, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 and Van Winkle 12 became 100% buffalo trace produced whiskey. We can only guess at this point, but it has been a number of years.
  • Reportedly the 20 and 23 year old are still reserves of S-W stocks. However this is not officially confirmed. What is known is that as of Fall 2011′s release, the 15 year old joins its younger brothers (12 year and 10 year) as 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey. Preston Van Winkle confirmed this on a podcast in recent weeks.
  • Today, Diageo owns the S-W distillery. One of Diageo’s brands, Bulleit, has its offices at the once bustling distillery. Apparently much of the original distillation equipment is still intact, but an asbestos clean-up and the tight margins that distillery’s operate under are the kryptonite that keep S-W from resurrecting. Maybe one day…………

Many consider the bourbon produced at S-W to be some of the finest whiskey ever produced. And therein lies the reason for all of the talk and consternation over Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year old. Check back later this week to see how the 2011 release stands up against previous S-W releases.

Cheers!

-Jason

38 Comments

  1. David Markle says:

    I believe that Diageo is also aging Bulleit in the warehouses at Stitzel-Weller, though the distillate is not there. I’m not 100% on this, though….

  2. Josh Scott says:

    Jason, have you read “But Always Fine Bourbon” by Sally Van Winkle? Just finished it two weeks ago. An amazing read…..

  3. Josh,

    Do you know of any sources that sell the book new for less than $150? Amazon is very expensive for it.

    Jason,

    You might want to revise your 2nd to last bullet to state that the 2011 15 year and younger are definitely BT juice, it’s kind of confusing as is.

    Great recap!

    Ryan

  4. Thanks Ryan – corrected. Missed out entering a “15″there.

    Josh, I have seen it online but never read it.

    David, I’ll check that out – it’s quite possible they are. It would make sense.

  5. Unrelated to the Pappy phenomenon, but I just picked up a bottle of 4 year Willett LDI Rye today at 110 proof and it’s awesome. It’s just what the already good Bulleit Rye needed…another 20 proof. If you like LDI prickly, minty young ryes, and at higher more flavorful proofs, it’s fantastic!

    And not to be totally off topic, my opinion on the non SW, BT 15 year juice is that…it’s fantastic! Very similar to SW juice with the character to match it. BT did an excellent job.

  6. Andrew says:

    Andrew,

    Direct from BT:

    http://www.buffalotrace.com/giftshop/detail.asp?MasterID=100154

  7. Thanks Andrew!

  8. David Markle says:

    Guys-

    If you’re interested in “But always Fine Bourbon”, get it at the BT gift shop, which sells it online, for 50 bucks. Or better yet, go to the BT distillery, take the Hard Hat Tour (mandatory!) and then amble down to the gift shop and buy it like I did.

    http://www.buffalotrace.com/giftshop/category_sub.asp?subcatid=15

    My review of the book is that it’s pretty good, and a great coffee table book for the bourbon enthusiast. Get your wives, children, and/or girlfriends to give it to you for Christmas. It delves a bit too deeply into the family history and personal reminiscences for my taste at times, but nevertheless is a great read. If Chairman Mao had his Little Red Book, Julian Van Winkle has “But Always Fine Bourbon”. It’s a must for loyal members of the Party.

  9. Josh Scott says:

    Jason, it is a MUST READ for anyone interested in SW history. It’s all you could ever want to know. Fantastic photos also. Just an awesome book. 5 stars. Highly recommended.

  10. theBitterFig says:

    Any thoughts on the current Old Fitzgerald? A fair number of bourbons never make it to my state (no antique collection, no Van Winkle), and the 12yo O.F. Very Special is the oldest wheater to make it here. There’s a basic, 90 proof Weller which can be found too, but other than that, it’s just Maker’s for wheated bourbon.

  11. Todd Clingman says:

    First,I love your reviews, they’re a good tool for narrowing the search for new bourbons to try as well as comparing notes on familiar bourbons. All of this “talk” about PVW15 and which distillate it is has been worn out on straightbourbon. I am neither in the know nor any form of expect, but, just doing the math raises questions for me. S-W stopped production end’91/early ’92, VW began their partnership with BT in ’02. BT was already producing wheated Weller then, so the VW clock began earlier than ’02 with BT, but when? How much SW stock did Julian possess in ’92? I have read that VW used some Bernheim wheated distillate to bridge the gap so to speak. I would think that there wouldbe a few releases of blends to smooth the transition, flavorwise. EX.- SW, SW+Bernheim, SW+Bernheim+BT, Bernheim+BT,BT. I listened to Preston’s podcast, he says the new stuff -20&23 is BT,but never says the words totally, 100%, completely,etc. All this complaining about the “09 being SW and better than the “11, BT, seems to leave out any blended releases. Maybe I’m off base here, but I find a 100% SW release followed by a 100% BT release improbable. For what it’s worth, I finished my last “09 bottle in the fall of “10 and it was fantastic. I’m a third through my first “11 bottle and it is also fantastic. As far as the price increase, it is what it is, it does nogoodto complain that the ’11isn’tasgood as the ’09 and isn’tworth the $$$. The question is whether or not the ’11is worth the $$$ compared to available bourbons in 2011.

  12. Todd Clingman says:

    *expert*

  13. SteveBM says:

    @Todd, I agree 100%. Quite frankly, I really enjoy the 2011 PVW 15yr. Having my 08 bottle of the same juice expire earlier this year, I really cant compare. Nor do I really care to, honestly. In the end, it’s all about personal preference and how, like you said, it measures up to which of your favorites you might be able to get for an equal dollar.

    “But Always Fine Bourbon” is not only a fantastic book, but a fantastic piece of American History. I’d really love for Jim Rutledge to put out a memoir of his career with Four Roses as that is one hell of an American story as well.

    @Ryan Murphy – I tried the Willet 3yr LDI Rye last week in Seattle and thought it was great!

    Also just got some of the Col. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel on the home bar and it is fast becoming one of my all time favorites.

  14. Joe Serapilio says:

    I also have the book But,always fine Bourbon.I sip one occasionally with my neihebor who is near 80.He told me there was none better than Old Fitzgerald back in the day.When I first got the book I couldn’t put it down!!

  15. sam k says:

    In 1979 I discovered Rebel Yell. It was a watershed moment in my whiskey drinking voyage. We couldn’t get it in PA, as it was only distributed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, so anytime anyone we knew went south, they were asked to import some. (My go-to at the time was Michter’s…REAL Michter’s)

    It wasn’t until years later that I finally understood why that whiskey was so great. It was a 90 proofer then, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to taste the current 80 proof version. I know damn well I’d be disappointed.

  16. Anorak1977 says:

    Fantastic reading Jason. Saves me and a bunch of others a lot of time and research! I don’t know where you find the time, but your work is definitely a great resource for all of us.

    Cheers!

  17. Thanks Anorak1977. There’s so many that have great information out there and have done a good job on Stitzel-Weller. I’m really more of a compiler in that regard, but I’m glad it’s helpful. Have a good one.

    Sam, I’m sure that Rebel Yell was tasty stuff.

    It’s clear to me also guys that i have to get the book immediately. Will do!

  18. Jason,

    Don’t know if you’ve given it a listen or not, but Preston Van Winkle sat down with David Driscoll of K&L for an hour long discussion for the K&L spirits podcast. He delves deeply and openly into what is left of SW distillate, which bottlings it goes into, how much is left, etc.

    http://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/klwinescom-spirits-blog/2011/11/17/kl-spirits-podcast-21-j-preston-van-winkle.html

  19. AC says:

    Jason, I’m trying to date a bottle of PVW 23 that my aunt gave me for Xmas. It’s been sitting in her Lexington basement, sealed, for “who knows how long.” It’s numbered #2983. Any ideas?

    Merry Xmas

  20. Andrew says:

    Of course, this leads to a discussion on Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17 and 18 yo and what it truly is. By all accounts this is SW bottled by McLain & Kyne. The label states, “Aged in Stitzel-Weller Barrels.” Whatever that is worth. Both years say “1991″ on the bottle. Saw a bottle of the 18 yo the other day going for around $90 but did not pull the trigger on the purchase. Have tasted the 17 yo previous and found it good, but not exceptional. Think it may have needed to breathe some as it was a new bottle.

  21. Andrew, my experiences with both the 17 and 18 have been good ones, but I look forward to a more thorough sit down soon. Cheers!

  22. BillM says:

    I worked at Old Fitzgerald Distillery in the mid 70s. Norton Simon had just bought the business and the company was going through the transition from a small family owned business to one that was part of a NY conglomerate. At the time, many employees talked about and distinguished SW bourbon that was made and aged pre-Norton Simon from that made under the new owner. I don’t recall the recipe changing (I worked in QC) and frankly I was too young to appreciate any difference in taste, but I recall vividly that the distillers talked about a differences in taste. I also remember a telltale sign you could use to tell the old SW bourbon from the new, at least in the Old Fitzgerald brand. The shape of the bottle was different. The mid 70s bottle was uniformly round in the body with a long neck. The early 70s and before had a smaller base that grew wider toward the top. I don’t know if this anecdotal information has value to anyone on this board, but I thought I’d pass it along.

  23. BillM – beautiful info man. Thanks so much for the contribution! It is very cool indeed that you were there during that time. Were you able to procure and save any bottles from your time working there?

  24. BillM says:

    Thanks Jason. I saved a few bottles for special occasions. One of those was this weekend. I cracked open a half pint of Old Fitz Prime at my son’s college graduation. My first job out of college was at Old Fitz, so there was a really nice circle of life feel to it.

    Old Fitz Prime was aged 7 years at the time, and for me, that was the perfect amount of time in the barrel. Smooth. Simple. Clean.

  25. Doug A says:

    Jason, I had the privilege of sampling some Old Fitz BIB which was distilled in 1959 and bottled in 1965 in a one gallon decanter. Absolutely some of the finest bourbon I have sampled. Rip VanWinle was probably there when it was distilled. Van Wikle bourbon has been my benchmark for this 1965 bottling ever since. Have tried Old Fitz BIB today…just not the same. Old Fitz Very Special 12 is very good but just doesn’t achieve greatness. Tonight I decided to try Weller 107 Antique. Add a little water and let her air for a bit and now we are talking! Reminds me of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 107 proof. My first choice will always be Van Winkle bourbons, but in a pinch I was surprised at how the Weller 107 opened up. The Van Winkle Bourbons have been hard to find in Louisville this year…go figure…so while I keep searching, Weller 107 with some water will have to do.

  26. RICHARD SCHAEFFER says:

    I HAVE AN UNOPENED BOTTLE OF STITZEL-WELLER’S BOURBON MADE FOR KEELER’S….. ALBANY NY…………..INTERESTED ????PLEASE ADVISE…….RMS

  27. RICHARD SCHAEFFER says:

    PLEASE ADD MY E-MAIL RSCHEFFER@NYCAPRR.COM

  28. Susan Arrowsmith says:

    I have a bottle of Very Old Fitzgerald barreled in 1949 what do you think?

  29. Susan, sounds intriguing. I am not sure what something like that would be like. I’ve certainly never had one, but if you ever crack into it, let us know what you think.

  30. BrienB says:

    I too worked at SW Distillery for two years starting in 1992 or 1993 I believe. It was right after United Distiller purchased it. I was an IT consultant and we were installing an MRP system for them. Of all the companies and sites I have worked at this was my favorite. The people were like family, the surroundings were beautiful and history was all around. One of my best memories occurred when the company historian walked by my desk with a very old looking bottle of bourbon. I asked him about it and he told me the story of how they recently found some bottles from the first batch distilled after prohibition and that he had some journalists in the front room for some tasting. I told him I was jealous and turn back to my computer and continued programming. An hour or so later he walked back thru and asked me if my coffee cup was clean. I looked at him funny and said yes. He proceeded to pour me a double and continued down the hall. I then got up and went into my friend (and boss) office and share the story and shared the bourbon. It was a wonderful and historic moment that I will never forget and I feel very blessed to be in the right place at the right time. The remaining bottles they found were sealed in wax and put away…….I always wondered what happened to them. The bourbon? Well the memory of the event has overshadowed my memory of the taste…..I do remember that I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for letting me share my story.

  31. Brien, great story! Thank you for sharing!

  32. Robert Brooks says:

    By way of introduction, I was born in Louisville, in 1942, grew up in southern Indiana and returned to Louisville in 1960. I am a graduate of Bellarmine University, class of ’65. My Mother, Evelyn Jane Brooks, worked in the office of SW beginning in 1962 until she retired, year unknown. Maybe BillM remembers her. I would be interested in hearing from him. I now reside in Virginia Beach, VA but return to Louisville at least yearly to visit family who still live in the area. Rebel Yell was my preferred whiskey until I discovered Weller Antique in an ABC store in N. Carolina a number of years ago. I have yet to visit Buffalo Trace but will make it a priority on my next visit to KY. I enjoyed reading the above history. Glad I found the web site….R. E. Brooks

  33. BillM says:

    Robt Brooks – I do not remember your mother, but must have met her if she was still there in the mid-70s. I spent most of my time back in the lab (Quality Control) area of the bottling building. I did a short stint in accounting which was located in the front office with the executives. The CEO at the time was Burnside. I’m guessing that is where your mother worked.

    My favorite bourbon at the time was WL Weller, 90 proof, 7 year old. Unfortunately, its not the same product today and I have not found anything that lives up to my memory of it.

  34. ed says:

    I have a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey pic. Stitzel Weller distillery inc Louisville KY.old style sour mash made of plaster, do you think it has value

  35. Ellen Nixon says:

    My folks had a saloon in Elko, Nevada, we had a picture of the old
    distillery very colorful and way back when the rolled the whiskey barrows. Anyway you would need to see it. It is in it’s own frame, and made I beleive of chock (not sure) Down on the bottom it reads. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 91 Proof
    Stitel Weller Distillery Inc. Louisville, KY. This was given to us by
    my parents. We’ve had it now for over 50 years and I don’t know
    how long my parents had it. Have you seen anything like this? A friend offered me $200.00 for it, but I refused I believe it is worth more. Please let me know……..Thank you….

  36. Bauke van Dijk says:

    Hello. I live in the Netherlands. My place of birth is Terschelling, an Island on de north of Holland. What has thuis to do with Bourbon? During winterdays and authom Storms, the people who live on the Island went to the nortern beach, to searche stuf, that comes out of the sea. IT is called “jutten”. Wood for exempel. But than one night, 30 november 1969 the grandpa of my wive, hè found à lot of wooden barrels, 19, on the beach, with Bourbon in it. I am not. shure, but i think 150 liter each barrel. In the barrels pure SW Bourbon. On the barr els top you van read” Stitzel Weller Distillery. SOUR MASH BOURBON WHISKY. Filled1963. I have still à picture, showing à few verry happy Guys, verry druk! I heb stil 1 bottle of that Bourbon and iT taste superioir! Still after 50years!

  37. This is a great primer on the history of Stitzel-Weller — all the more important with the recent attention the distiller has gotten with the release of the Orphan Barrel Project and the news of the new visitor center for Bulleit there.

  38. tony says:

    I just inherited a bottle of SW Cabin Still “unopened” with the built on “tilt” stand….

    I’m tempted to drink or sell. Will this be good to drink?

6 Trackbacks

  1. [...] (along with Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, and W.L. Weller). For more background on S-W, check out this post. After the S-W closed in the early nineties, these brands were all sold off to other distilleries [...]

  2. [...] So this one is a long time coming. The answer to the question of whether or not this is actual Stitzel-Weller bourbon is simple. Yes – this is from the same distillery that started the Van Winkle line. [...]

  3. [...] gives a brief overview and the ramifications of such an announcement, and Sour Mash Manifesto has a more in-depth look at the distillery history. [Whisky [...]

  4. [...] Presidential Select 18 Year Bourbon is one of the last 100% Stitzel-Weller bourbons you can buy. Sitzel-Weller is the distillery that made highly regarded wheat-recipe bourbon until it was closed in 1991, [...]

  5. [...] not much of a writer) check out this time line of the history or this condensed version of SW info from Jason [...]

  6. […] tale is true — some of a challenge in these dangerously murky marketing waters – these barrels were found aging in the mythological temple/warehouse known to Bourbon enthusiasts as …. According to the company, a very select and limited number of these barrels were picked to launch […]