Tour of Stitzel-Weller Distillery | May 2015
The May 13 visit by members of the Agribusiness Industry Network to the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience in Shively was at once a tour of a brand new Kentucky Bourbon Trail tourist attraction and a step back in time to one of the state's truly historic distilleries.
The new Bulleit Visitors Center is at the site of the former Stitzel-Weller distillery, a business which shut down in 1992, but that in its heyday produced some of bourbon's most iconic brands. Those included W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and the much sought after Pappy Van Winkle, originally Old Rip Van Winkle.
Tom Bulleit, formerly a practicing attorney in Lexington, decided 20 years ago to enter the bourbon business and resurrect a recipe for high rye bourbon developed by his great-great grandfather.
His work since then has produced the Bulleit brand, now owned by Diageo, and has led him to the renovation and rebirth of the Stitzel-Weller distillery property. Now visitors, including our group, can see (depending on the day's schedule) a working still, the rickhouses (or warehouses) where aging bourbon resides, an old cooperage shop where barrels were repaired and the photos and books chronicling the history of bourbon production and of the two companies whose backstories are now intertwined.
Although the current tenant Bulleit is a relative newcomer to Kentucky's signature industry, the company which opened the distillery on Derby Day 1935 traced its bourbon making roots in the state to 1800 when members of the Weller family began distilling whiskey in Nelson County.
The Wellers relocated to Louisville in the 1840's and continued to produce bourbon in various locations around the city. Meanwhile, Fredrick Stitzel built his own distillery in Louisville in 1872, and in 1879 patented the barrel ricking system that is still used today to store aging barrels of bourbon until the liquor is ready for bottling and sale.
Julian (Pappy) Van Winkle joined the W.L. Weller Company as a salesman in 1893 at age 21, beginning a career that would eventually see him take control of Weller, and of the combined Stitzel-Weller when the two merged in the early 1930's.
When financial difficulties forced the dissolution of Stitzel-Weller in 1992, the company's products were sold to other distillers, with the exception of the Van Winkle brand which was retained by the family. Today Buffalo Trace in Frankfort distills and bottles for limited release the Pappy portfolio of products.
Fast forward to the present, and Bulleit is using the Stitzel-Weller facility as a showcase of its own plans to become a major player in the bourbon business. Last August the brand's parent company Diageo broke ground for a new $100 million Bulleit distillery on 300 acres near Simpsonville in Shelby County.
Bulleit says the firm plans to begin operation there late next year and produce enough bourbon to supply a rapidly expanding worldwide marketing strategy that will be rolled out over the next two years.
An ironic footnote to the linkage now formed between the Stitzel-Weller and Bulleit brands-the recipes for the bourbons couldn't be more different in terms of the mash bill, or the grain components of the products.
The Stitzel-Weller bourbons distinguished themselves as wheated bourbons, with wheat replacing the traditional rye to go with the trademark corn and barley in the mash.
Bulleit, on the other hand, is a high rye blend, with that grain comprising around 28 percent of the mash makeup and no wheat in the recipe whatsoever.
Despite those distinctions, however, the shared commitment to quality of the products then and now might best be summed up by a sign posted in the original distillery's office that reads:
"We make fine bourbon At a profit if we can At a loss if we must But always fine bourbon"
For bourbon lovers everywhere, we can all drink to that.
Gary Huddleston | AIN Chairman