At its peak, Stitzel-Weller Distillery, located in the Shively suburb of Louisville, KY, was producing some of the best, and most unique, whiskey in America. A merger of the W.L. Weller & Sons’ whiskey salesforce and A. Ph. Stitzel distillery that produced bourbon with the family's wheated mashbill, the company was run by the legendary Pappy Van Winkle and operated under the slogan that adorned its entryway gates:
“WE MAKE FINE BOURBON,
AT A PROFIT IF WE CAN,
AT A LOSS IF WE MUST,
BUT ALWAYS FINE BOURBON.”
After the death of Pappy Van Winkle, shareholders were split on whether to keep the company, eventually selling it to Norton-Simon Inc. in 1972. Stitzel-Weller would change hands several times before ending up with Guinness, the producer of the eponymous beer and predecessor to global spirits giant Diageo. At that point, Guinness/Diageo had no long-term bourbon strategy, and Stitzel-Weller was just a small part of a merger that focused on vodka as the best selling spirit for the foreseeable future. Distilling operations at Stitzel-Weller ceased in 1993, and by 1996, the bottling lines were also shuttered. What was once one of America’s most beloved distilleries had effectively become a warehouse.
A funny thing happened in the 22 years since the last drop of whiskey was produced at Stitzel-Weller. Nostalgia for prohibition-era nightlife and the rise of cocktail culture drove consumers to look for more flavorful ingredients than vodka—they found it in whiskey. An expensive niche brand called Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve would submit a then-unheard-of 20-year-old bourbon to the Beverage Tasting Institute in 1998 and receive a 99/100 score, then the highest that the organization had ever rated a spirit. Media outlets went wild about it, and the entire market for bourbon was bolstered—and kept growing. In 2001, Diageo acquired the wine and spirits portfolio of Seagrams Co., an acquisition that included a relatively unknown “frontier whiskey” called Bulleit.
Diageo would continue storing barrels at Stitzel-Weller, as Bulleit grew steadily in the opening decade of the new millenium. Then, Sex and the City’s apple-tini drinkers would fade into the past, replaced with new cultural icons in Mad Men that threw back pours of whiskey, neat. “Journalists” would keep cranking out top 10 bourbon lists, using and fueling the interest in Pappy Van Winkle as it reached a fever pitch. In just five years, Bulleit bourbon grew from 40,000 cases a year to over 600,000. All of a sudden, the distillery that Pappy once ran held many more possibilities than just the barrels of bourbon that would eventually be bottled as Bulleit.
The Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery opened in 2014, designed to be a home for Bulleit bourbon and rye, both of which is distilled elsewhere. (It is an open secret that the bourbon is made at Four Roses, while the rye carries the popular 95% rye 5% barley mashbill that is common to Midwest Grain Products of Indiana, which also produces the same rye whiskey for products such as Templeton, Redemption, and many others.)
Tours of Stitzel-Weller are informative, but the show is lacking because a core component of most distilleries, whiskey production, does not occur here. It starts with a focus on Old Fitzgerald, Stitzel-Weller’s flagship bourbon that still has its name emblazoned on the smokestack at the center of compound. It is at least twice as tall as anything else at the distillery, so it would be kind of impossible to ignore it. “Another company owns the whiskey brand now, but it’s not like the they can make us paint over our smokestack,” my guide said with a chuckle.
Pappy Van Winkle’s name was mentioned twice during my particular tour—once to acknowledge that he ran the distillery during its golden days, and the second time to note that he helped Maker’s Mark craft their own wheated bourbon. It was suggested that guests try Maker’s Mark if they wanted to taste the nearest neighbor to original Old Fitzgerald, which came as something of a surprise since the brand is owned by rival Beam Suntory. You’ll find very little wheated bourbon inside Stitzel-Weller’s own rickhouses—Bulleit is a high-rye bourbon, and what barrels Diageo still owns from wheated Stitzel-Weller and Bernheim production is rumored to be in the low hundreds.
After a quick trip to the barrel repair shop, the short tour ends back at the old Stitzel-Weller office building, which is filled with historic artifacts from bourbon’s past alongside marketing materials for Bulleit and Diageo’s other bourbon project, Orphan Barrel, which “discovers” lost whiskeys inside their warehouses in the age of computers and barcodes. Sure.
The tour, and facility, is still a work in progress: a craft stillhouse that produces experimental whiskey is slated to be added by the end of the year. But with the exception of two guys moving some Early Times barrels off of a truck, every person at Stitzel-Weller is a tour guide. The facility will never be as active as it once was. Most of the major distilling equipment is currently being removed, to be smelted down and used as part of the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, KY.
Stitzel-Weller has risen from the ashes, but its real spirit can only be found in places like Maker’s Mark, which produces the world’s best selling wheated bourbon, and where you may run into Bill Samuels, Jr., chairman emeritus and son of the distillery’s founder, on any given day. Stitzel-Weller’s spirit lives in places like Buffalo Trace, producer of some of the finest bourbon on the market today, which includes much of the Van Winkle catalogue—all of it, eventually, once the juice gets old enough. A tour of their facilities winds through rooms with giant bubbling mash tuns, and past stills cranking out fresh white dog whiskey that will immediately fog up your glasses. Real distilleries are a beating heart, with every part constantly moving and working in concert.
Bulleit puts out a lovely bourbon and rye, and it’s cool to go to Shively and see what is probably one of the greatest monuments to American whiskey history. But human beings often romanticize the past and fail to see the same beauty in the present. Those searching for old school Stitzel-Weller vibes should take my tour guide's comments to heart: look elsewhere.