Kentucky: Day 5 – Stitzel-Weller

No American distillery is currently as revered by whiskey geeks as the old Stitzel-Weller plant near Shively – for years the home of Old Fitzgerald Bourbon and the office of "Pappy" Van Winkle himself. Stitzel-Weller was opened on Derby Day in 1935, but had been planned before the end of Prohibition to capitalize on the coming liberation. Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle had worked for W.L. Weller and sons when they created the first "wheated" Bourbon recipe. In 1933, he and a close friend Alex Farmsley bought the Weller company and soon partnered with Arthur Stitzel, merging the companies to form Stitzel-Weller. The following year they began construction on the distillery that would continue to produce a "wheated" recipe.

For Van Winkle, Farmsley, and Stitzel, the practice of distillation was more of an art than a science. Apparently there was a sign in the distillery that read "No Chemists Allowed" in support of this philosophy. The column still used at Stitzel-Weller did not contain rectifying plates surprisingly, but rather just a long, straight column through which the steam would rise and eventually make its way into the doubler. It was entirely made of copper and stood sixty-five feet tall, but without the plates the whiskey came off at much lower proof than a standard column still would normally produce. It's believed this type of distillation was essential to create fine "wheated" Bourbon and today is replicated by Maker's Mark.

While the distillery has been non-operational since the early 1990s (and like the Old Taylor site has pretty much been left untouched), the warehouses are still used today to house whiskey. Diageo, who inherited Stitzel-Weller in the 1980s when owners DLC merged with Guinness/United Distillers, uses the buildings to house their Bulleit Bourbon brand and the office as headquarters for Tom Bulleit.

The history of "Pappy" Van Winkle is on full display in the visitor's center, which isn't open to the public but is available for private tours from Diageo. Two wooden signs hang from the post out in front: one reading Stitzel-Weller and the other displaying Bulleit (which is actually distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg).

Although Pappy Van Winkle is not a Diageo brand, but rather owned by the Van Winkles and produced by Sazerac, there's no attempt to shy away from the fact that he's the reason people care about Stitzel-Weller today and is an important part of the distillery's history.

In fact, Pappy's old office is part of the general tour. Rather than preserve it or refashion it in the manor with which it was once kept, however, the space is now used by Tom Bulleit as his main office. It's almost like the Oval Office where it's both a functioning workspace, but also part of a guided tour due to its historical significance. Where once a portrait of Pappy or Stitzel may have hung over the mantle now hangs a portrait of Tom. I think he's pretty pumped to hold down that space. It seems like he had fun decorating it.

The cooperage room has also been left intact and today functions as part of a museum piece.

There's also a pretty cool old bottle collection of former SW brands.

While Stitzel-Weller still holds a place in the hearts of wheated Bourbon fans everywhere, for now it's just a warehouse space like many other defunct distillery sites in Kentucky. The rickhouses are the valuable part of these ghostly sites as distillation is easier (and cheaper) to contract than to do one's self. There are rumors, of course, that Diageo may revamp the SW site and eventually begin producing Bulleit whiskey itself, but for now these are just whispers in the wind. I have to think that Diageo is missing out on a big opportunity to turn people on to the Bulleit brand by not allowing general tourists to visit the location. Buffalo Trace was an absolute madhouse of Pappy fans longing to get a peek at where the whiskey is made. I'm positive these people would be just as passionate about seeing where it was made as well. And they'd probably buy a bottle of Bulleit while they were there. That's just my two cents!

Major thanks to Diageo for opening up their locked gates and letting us snoop around. It was fascinating for both of us.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 4 – Ghost Distilleries

Driving down the road near Woodford Reserve outside of Versailles, you'll come upon the former Old Taylor Distillery which operated from 1936 to 1982. It's right on the road. You can't miss it. There's a barbed wire fence surrounding the site, but it's easily navigable.

Before Old Taylor Distillery was known as Old Taylor Distillery, it was known as James C. Johnson distillery. No one is sure when the distillery along Glenn's Creek was founded, but it's believed that a distillery of some sort was located here from about 1816 on. It was sold in 1879 to Jacob Taylor, whose brand of whiskey was called, originally enough, J.S. Taylor. Jacob's father was a man known as Edmund H. Taylor and in 1882 he bought his son out of ownership. The name was quickly changed to E. H. Taylor & Co. and he operated it with his sons from that point on until Prohibition.

You've got to be careful if you approach the old Taylor site because there are holes surrounding it that drop down dozens of feet into oblivion. It's a completely abandoned facility, to the point that it feels like you're in a horror movie just waiting to happen. Silent Hill or Resident Evil could easily be filmed on location here. It's a very uneasy feeling.

The giant warehouses still stand solemnly in the distance with broken windows revealing nothing but darkness. The campus itself is huge and it goes on down the road for a mile or so.

Across the street from the main entrance are a few fully accessible office buildings. The windows are broken and the roofs are caving in, but you can easily enter at your own risk.

If you've got the guts you can really explore the facility. But you are in the middle of nowhere without help if you should need it.

Please, feel free to navigate from room to room. If you feel like being butchered by a hockey mask-wearing psychopath, that is.

Ka-kaw! Ka-kaw! Yep. Something bad is about ready to happen.

There is so much debris still relevant to the old operation that it's a wonder no one has come to clean it up and dispose of it all. 

There are all kinds of ledgers, receipts, and records dating as far back as 1968 just sitting there on site. It's totally surreal. 

And then there's this house just sitting back deep in the woods, totally abandoned and waiting for some silly tourist to come wandering in. If there are such things as ghosts then this is most definitely where they live.

Keep driving down the road, however, and you'll turn up at ghost distillery number two: Old Crow. Oscar Pepper built this distillery on Glenn Creek in 1860 and his primary brand was Old Crow. Four years later, however, Pepper died and E. H. Taylor was made executor of the estate. By 1870, Pepper's son, James E. Pepper, was able to take control of the operation with the help of Taylor, until the site was bought by the W. A. Gaines Company in 1878. After Prohibition, the distillery was bought and renovated by AMS and then run by its successor: National Distillers. National folded in 1985 and the site is now used by Beam for warehousing space.

Beam may be using the Old Crow warehouses for maturation, but they're sure not using this one.

The stillhouse is visible, but only from far behind a chain link fence. The whole area is totally creepy, so don't go alone. Especially this close to Halloween.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 4 – Wild Turkey and More Barrels

Morning in Lexington. We were all pretty tired after a long day and a late night, but we braved the 27 degree weather, coffeed up at a nearby Starbucks, and loaded into the car for our drive out to Wild Turkey.

Of all the distilleries we've visited in Kentucky, Wild Turkey is in perhaps the most pristine and picturesque location. The bridge over the Kentucky river reveals the new visitor's center and the rolling green hills spread out along the 700 acre estate. The morning air was cool and crisp as we exited the car and walked into the main office to meet up with Eddie Russell, son of legendary WT master distiller Jimmy Russell.

Jimmy Russell is in his 59th year working in the whiskey business and he's one of, if not the most, respected distillers in the history of Bourbon. It's because of his dedication for tradition and his unwillingness to change, even in the face of corporate takeovers, that Wild Turkey has stayed true to one recipe and one singular vision. While Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill get a lot of love from the insiders –with the Pappys, the Parkers, the Staggs, and the cask strength, limited edition releases– I don't think it will be much longer before Wild Turkey joins that bunch. Now that Eddie has pushed for more single barrel, higher proof edition editions from Campari, we're about to get a much closer look at what the Russells can really do.

The new distillery at Wild Turkey has been in operation since 2010. The old site nearby, where everything currently in bottle was produced, has since been demolished. It's one of the cleanest and most utility-focused facilities we've ever visited. Everything is centered on quality control.

Wild Turkey's fermentation room is a huge open space full of stainless steel tanks. The Russells do not specify what the mash bill for their Bourbon whiskey is, but they do say that it's a "high rye" recipe. They start by cooking the corn, then adding in the rye, and finally the barley to unleash its enzymes. Wild Turkey, along with Four Roses, is one of the few distilleries we know of that is still refusing to purchase GMO corn. They've been sourcing their corn from Bagdad, Kentucky for 45 years and refuse to go elsewhere. Their rye is imported from Germany (after the midwest switched over to soybeans it was tough to find high-quality rye), and their barley is from a farm in South Dakota.

Again, like Four Roses, Wild Turkey cultivates its own yeast at the distillery using the dona tub (rather than dump in dried commercial yeast) and they've been using the same strain since 1950. Jimmy Russell, like Jim Rutledge, is adamant about the role of yeast in the ultimate flavor of the whiskey. Eddie said people had been trying to talk his father out of it for years, saying it didn't matter what type of yeast he used. I find it amusing that there are people out there who want to tell a master distiller with 59 years of experience what does and doesn't matter in whiskey production.

After touring the distillery, we walked with Eddie over to the oldest warehouse on the campus – the Bonded A rickhouse built in 1890. It was time to do some barrel tasting with Eddy.

We entered to a row of barrels that had been pulled in anticipation of our arrival. Eddie got his wooden mallet and began banging the side of the bungs, popping out the corks, and filling our glasses with sweet, single barrel, cask strength Wild Turkey Bourbon. All of the whiskies were fantastic and showed incredible range. Some were smooth and mellow like candy corn, others were peppery and spicy. One was really reduced with big, chewy, tannic wood on the back end. Another was light and aromatic.

Although it's still under construction, Jimmy Russell wanted to show us the new visitor's center that will be opening soon overlooking the hills and river beneath it. At 79 years of age, the man is still going strong, travelling all over the country quite frequently in support of his brand. He had just returned from a big event in Las Vegas, but he was as enthusiastic as ever. It's really quite an honor to listen to him speak and talk about the old days of Bourbon production. I'm hoping we can do a podcast at some point.

The architecture of the new building is really cool. I think the whole experience is really going to change the way consumers feel about Wild Turkey whiskey because the approach is more modern, but without sacrificing any of the great tradition of the brand. The whiskey is much more complex than the standard 101 stuff lends on, but we rarely get the chance to taste the singular versions of it. Personally, I was completely blown away by our visit. I'm very, very excited to start working more closely with both Eddie and Jimmy. Again, far and away the best whiskey we've tasted on this trip was at Wild Turkey.

After leaving Lawrenceburg, we had to back track to a few other appointments. We had a 1 PM meeting with Max Shapira over at the main Heaven Hill offices in Bardstown, then we needed to do some barrel sampling with Jim Rutledge at the Four Roses Cox warehouses. We stumbled on to a run of OBSO barrels that really riled us up. For some reason the sweet cinnamon spices and lighter richness levels were really popping our palates. We took three barrels instantly – two 10 year olds and an older 11 year cask. All really fantastic.

After that is was time to explore. I was shocked by what we found down the road from Woodford Reserve near Versailles. There's an entire blog post that needs to be written about Kentucky's ghost distilleries. Some of these places are just plain haunted looking. We were all shocked at the manor in which they had simply been abandoned and left alone. Maybe I can write this up tomorrow. We've still got one more day and quite a lot to do.

Until then!

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 4 – A Few Notes

There's a lot information I've written down over the last few days that I haven't been able to fit into the general posts, for which I have about 45 minutes each to write. It's not easy to edit both photos and pump out a stream-of-consciousness article when you're in a hurry, so not everything makes the cut.

One story I thought was very interesting from yesterday's visit was Jim Rutledge's account of an evening in back in 1996 when they forgot to add barley to the mashbill. We always talk about corn and rye, or corn and wheat, when we talk about the contents of Bourbon, but the barley plays a very important role. Corn is a starch that can be converted to sugar, and eventually to alcohol, but the proper enzymes need to be introduced. When we chew on starch our saliva helps us with that process. When you're cooking a mash for fermentation, barley helps to provide those enzymes (so can commercial enzyme powder if you're lazy), so it's absolutely vital to the process. For some reason that night, either by absent-mindedness or a mechanical failure, the barley wasn't dropped into the mash and the cook took place with just the corn and rye.

By the time Jim's assistant notified him of the problem, the corn and rye mash had been cooking for long enough to turn into a sticky goo – about the consistency of peanut butter, according to Jim. It was a mess. They had to start pumping cold water into the tank as fast as possible so that the goop wouldn't make its way into the pipes and clog up the entire operation. As enzymes break down the sugar they help to maintain the viscosity of the mash. Without that process the whole batch can turn to sludge. The fermentation time at Four Roses is about 80 hours per tank, which seems crazy to me because most distilleries in Scotland are doing it much faster. Oban's ferment time is also 80 hours and they're notorious because of that. It's one of the reasons they claim their whisky is so light and fruity. Jim feels the same way about Four Roses. "If you're looking for just the straight alcohol there are faster ways of doing it," he said. Obviously he's looking for more than that.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky: Day 3 – Lawrenceburg/Frankfort

Full disclosure here: I am a big Four Roses fan. I love the whiskey. I love the man who makes it: Jim Rutledge. I love everything about the way they do business. They're the only distillery in Kentucky that will bottle single barrels at cask strength for K&L private selections and they have impeccable customer service with their retailers. Needless to say, I was very excited to finally get a chance to see the distillery and take a tour with Jim. We arrived on a cold, cloudy morning and quickly rushed inside to escape the chilly wind.

Jim Rutledge is one of the most knowledgeable and friendly distillers in the business, but that doesn't mean he's without strong opinions. He's very clear about what in his mind constitutes a quality Bourbon whiskey. While he admits that the recent Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is one of the best whiskies he's ever tasted, he doesn't think the outstanding flavor had anything to do with the maturity. You can see from the above diagram that Jim firmly believes Bourbon tastes best in between the six and eight year old age gap. In fact, although the current 2013 FRLESB whiskey is a marriage of 13 and 18 year old casks, he claims he was very close to approving a different marriage using much younger stock. "It's not about the age," he said. "It's got nothing to do with that." I absolutely love that he's passionate about spreading that message. It means a lot more coming from him.

Having worked decades for Seagrams, and eventually through Kirin's takeover of the Four Roses brand, Jim has done and seen it all. He watched Seagrams ruin the Four Roses name, turn it into cheap blended "rotgut," as he calls it, and eventually bankrupt itself in the end (he still keeps a momento of the Seagrams LDI blend on his office mantle as a reminder). The reputation of Four Roses as a Bourbon brand after Prohibition was in very good standing. During that period you could still get a pint of Bourbon every ten days if you had a doctor's prescription and one out of every four "patients" chose Four Roses as their "medicine." When the ban was lifted Four Roses quickly became the nation's top brand. Seagrams made its fortune by purchasing Canadian whiskey during Prohibition and amassing an arsenal, ready to unleash at the right moment. Once the ban on alcohol was lifted, they became an overnight giant in the industry. Four Roses was better known than Seagrams, however, so the Bronfman family set their sites on acquiring the name. Decades later after doing so, the Four Roses reputation was in the toilet and the brand wasn't even being sold in the country where it was made.

For years and years Jim attempted to persuade Seagrams to focus on making Four Roses Bourbon again, rather than blended whisky. Ironically enough, the whiskey being made at the Frankfurt distillery went into Seagrams VO, while the LDI and Maryland distilled spirits went into the Four Roses blended. It wasn't until Jim proposed making a whiskey under a different name, say Bullitt County Bourbon, that Seagrams perked its ears. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that the name was too close to another trademarked brand by a small producer named Tom Bulleit, who was contracting his whiskey from Buffalo Trace. Rather than come up with a new name and use Jim's experience and ingenuity to create a new and exciting whiskey, Seagrams spent the money to buy out Tom Bulleit's brand instead. Eventually, Seagrams own misteps ran the company into the ground and Kirin bid for the available Four Roses brand and distillery. Diageo soon picked up Bulleit and Jim was free to get back to work on rebuilding the Four Roses Bourbon brand in America. In 2007, he walked into K&L and tasted us on his first creations. We've never looked back since.

If there's one person to help talk you through distillation, it's Jim. Here we were yesterday thinking that Willett's column still to pot still process was an anomaly in the Bourbon business, but it's not. It's just that no calls the second part of Bourbon distillation a pot still – they call it a doubler (but really it's just a pot still, as you can see). The beer goes into the beer still (or column still), which was pictured in the previous photo, at about 8% ABV while steam pushes through a series of plates that will eventually strip the alcohol to 65% when it reaches the top. It's then condensed into the "doubler" and increased to around 70%. This is why we need to visit the actual distillery of each brand we sell. You think you understand something, explaining it to customers day-in and day-out, until you find out you really don't totally grasp it. I didn't, at least.

Whereas some producers focus on distillation and others on barrel maturation, yeast seems to be Jim Rutledge's biggest passion. He's as excited about yeast and it's potential to create great tasting Bourbon as anyone I've ever met in the industry. Four Roses is renowned for using five different types of yeast and part of the reason goes back to the old Seagrams days. Seagrams had a research and development department totally dedicated to exploring the effects of different cultures in spirits distillation. This was partially because they would purchase a brand, but close the distillery where the brand had formerly been made (Henry McKenna, for example, which had been made at Fairfield distillery). Rather than operate an entirely different plant, they would use different yeast strains to create different flavors to help separate their newly purchased brands – a practice that was carried over to Four Roses. 

Today there are five different yeast strains fermenting in giant red cedar vats at the distillery. There are also a few stainless steel tanks as well. Jim is a stickler for making sure the mash cook and fermentation process have taken place correctly. If the spirit doesn't taste right coming off the still, they'll discard it and sell it off to a rectifier for vodka. They have a panel to decide whether or not a spirit is worthy of going into barrel. If they vote down a batch of distillation it's $30,000 worth of profit they're losing. Jim says this can happen almost every day. In order to keep things fresh, Four Roses creates a new strain of yeast culture every single week. Compare this to other distilleries that are dumping enzyme formula and bags of dry commercial yeast into their tanks with each cook and you'll really start to understand how seriously JR takes his whiskey.

The Four Roses warehouse buildings are not at the distillery site, so we decided to come back tomorrow to do barrel sampling at the Cox facility. In the meantime, however, we were starved. This place looked amazing from the highway. And it was. Mmmmmm.......pulled pork with cole slaw and baked beans.

Buffalo Trace distillery is like something out of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or a scene from an old mobster movie. We were waiting for trenchcoated men with tommy guns to step out of a side alley at any moment. Much of the distillery, formerly known as George T. Stagg, was built in the late 1800s and is like a functioning museum. Much of the equipment onsite hasn't changed since Prohibition and the huge campus, about 100 acres, seems like a Hollywood studio. It's really a sight (and site) to see.

Every building is made out of red brick and no matter where you look there's steam coming out of some pipe or window. It looks absolutely amazing against the stark grey sky.

Walking through the distillery's innards is like moving through the inside of an old U-boat or some contraption from the Henry Ford museum. Staircases lead up through metal casings as smoke piles out of vents in the floor. I really couldn't get enough of it.

Buffalo Trace's beer still is like a rocket silo. It's absolutely huge! It towers up several stories and really manages to crank out some serious distillate.

Their "doubler" is nothing like a pot still, but rather like an Apollo moonrover. 

They also have this giant thing outside called a "kettle" still that they sometimes use to finish off their Rain vodka. I'd never seen anything like it.

There's also a distillery within a distillery at Buffalo Trace. Harlan Wheatley had this little experimental pot still installed a while back and the room was named the "Colonel Taylor Jr. Distillery" – a place where they can play around with things like rice and oats without having to take time away from their normal production. This is also the still that ran 159 times to create the Clix vodka. Can you imagine having to do that 159 times?

Of course we raided the warehouse to find some tasty Buffalo Trace samples. The shortage of whiskey is no secret at the distillery. There's nothing in the gift shop besides 1.75L bottles of Buffalo Trace, Rain vodka, and the Bourbon Cream. No Weller, no Eagle, no Elmer, no Blantons....nada. They're totally wiped out for the year. We did find some tasty BT selections, however.

And what the heck is this? Peated malt whiskey from Buffalo Trace? Yikes! Can't wait.

That's it for today!

We've got a lot to do tomorrow in a very short amount of time.

-David Driscoll