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.